Hundreds gathered in Hoonah on Saturday to witness a color guard of a veterans lead a totem carried by active-duty servicemembers and veterans to its new home.
The totem, named “For Holding up the Warriors,” has been years in coming and was a wonderful opportunity to bring the community together, said Amelia Wilson, executive director of Huna Heritage Foundation.
“That’s the thing that’s so important,” Wilson said during an interview. “To come together in a time of celebration, to unite everyone and lift up our veterans, that’s really good.”
Brig. Gen. Wayne Don, director of the joint staff for the Alaska National Guard, was the keynote speaker, speaking of service as an Alaska Native and as a soldier. Don is currently the highest-ranked Alaska Native servicemember in the Alaska National Guard, hailing from Mekoryuk.
“All of you are my comrades, my brothers and sisters,” Don said, speaking to the veterans after dedicating his speech to those who returned from the service and those who didn’t. “We share an experience that is foreign to most of the country.”
Don also spoke about his grandfather’s service in the Alaska Territorial Guard, the all-volunteer force of Alaska Natives stood up in 1942 as a reserve component to the Army. The ATG was a one-of-kind organization composed of Alaska Native men and women who hadn’t been drafted for the war.
“I knew nothing about the Territorial Guard because no one ever talked about it,” Don said. “It was that generation of men and women who didn’t talk about what they did.”
The totem was carved by Gordon Greenwald over some time, and funded by the City of Hoonah and the Huna Heritage Foundation.
“Neither one of us were veterans of the military. But both of us had family and friends who served this great country,” Greenwald said. “It was an honor for us to say thank you.”
The totem prominently features the “battlefield cross,” incorporating Gulf War-style boots, a Vietnam-era M-16 service rifle, and a World War II-style helmet to recognize veterans of all eras, Greenwald said.
“Who can we honor more than those who paid the ultimate price?” Greenwald said. “I deliberately left off the dog tags that would hang there. This isn’t about honoring one person but all of them.”
Five branches — the Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Army and Air Force — and the Alaska Territorial Guard are also recognized on the totem. Above the battlefield cross is a traditional Tlingit warrior in their war regalia. Crowning the totem are an eagle and a raven, canted out from each other.
“The raven and the eagle are turned back to back,” Greenwald said. “It’s not the cold shoulder. All you veterans know — ‘I’ve got your back, buddy.’”
The final design was the result of intense thought about how best to recognize those who served, said Yandus, the totem pole’s other carver.
“We put a lot of thought into this every day, talking about what you went through. We’ll never experience it,” said Yandus during an interview. “I have a son who served in the 82nd Airborne [Division]. I did this for him.”
This ceremony marks another totem pole raised in the Southeast for veterans, a tradition he’s taken part in for years, said George Bennett Sr., a Vietnam War veteran and co-host of the ceremony. The ceremony was held in a largely traditional Alaska Native fashion, though some parts were truncated slightly, Bennett said.
“We couldn’t let this part die out amongst our cultural way of life,” Bennett said during the ceremony.
The land, donated by Korean War veteran and Hoonah resident Stanley Thompson, will become a veteran’s park. A concept design, sponsored by Royal Caribbean Cruises, was recently furnished, said Wilson. Now, the Hoonah Veterans Committee along with partnering agencies will begin fundraising to make it a reality.
“Our veterans have served in every branch of the military and in every conflict since WWI,” Wilson said. “In our Native communities through the region, if you have not served, someone in your family has.”
Native Americans and Alaska Natives serve on active duty at a higher rate than average Americans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, with especially high representation in the Navy and Marine Corps.
Sealaska Corporation funded the concrete foundation and steel beam the totem was secured to, Wilson said, while the Hoonah Indian Association worked with Dawson Construction to raise the totem on the ceremony. Icy Strait Point also donated the use of three catamarans to transport guests from and back to Juneau free of charge, in addition to providing umbrellas for use on the dreary Saturday.
“This is my first totem raising,” said Coast Guard Lt. Maren Balke, who attended with several other Coast Guardsmen from Sector Juneau, in an interview. “I think we’re all honored we get this opportunity.”
Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.