The Art of the Totem Pole

A father-and-son duo of master Tsimshian carvers create a totem pole for the American Indian Museum

The Boxleys' totem pole
The Boxleys' totem pole, "The Eagle and the Chief," is currently being completed by the artists on public view in the Potomac Atrium of the American Indian Museum. Photo by Katherine Fogden

“When it shows up, it looks like a log. It’s a very daunting feeling. It rolls in, and you think, ‘Oh my god. What have I decided to do?’” David Boxley, Jr., an artist and member of the Tsimshian tribe, is discussing the moment the 22-and-a-half-foot, 2500-pound old-growth red cedar giant from British Columbia was delivered to his family’s home in Kingston, Washington in early October. Carefully chiseling it, he looks up and says, “but then you start working on it, and you get this far, and you realize it’ll be all right.”

Nearly three months later, and after a 2783-mile journey to the National Museum of the American Indian, the tree has been transformed into a monumental piece of art. Boxley and his father, expert carver and artist David Boxley, Sr., have labored over the pole for countless hours, sketching a traditional design, carving it into the wood with precision and chiseling the curves down to an immaculate smoothness. From now through January 11, they will be completing the finishing touches in front of the public, before their work is unveiled as a permanent addition to the museum’s Potomac Atrium on January 14. An official unveiling ceremony will include a performance by Git-Hoan, a traditional dance group led by Boxley, Sr.

Boxley says that totem poles have traditionally served a number of roles for Pacific Native Tribes such as the Tsimishian. “Sometimes it’s a sign post—it says, this is who lives in this house,” he says. “Or sometimes it tells the stories of great chiefs, or memorializes them.” Contrary to popular belief, the poles are never viewed as religious idols, but are rather communicative devices, telling stories or imparting other information via art.

The work that the Boxleys created for the museum, The Eagle and the Chief, tells a traditional Tsimshian story. “The legend is that there was a young man who was walking on the beach and heard a rustling in the bushes. He went over and saw an eagle caught in a fish net, so he cut the net open and the eagle flew away,” says Boxley. The top figure on the pole, the supernatural eagle, later came to deliver food to the young man’s village in a time of famine. At the bottom is the young man, now a chief, clutching a piece of fish.

The process of creating the pole from a piece of wood is long and arduous; Boxley, Sr. worked nearly nonstop for three months on this piece. “You start with a scaled drawing, then measure out the design and cut into it,” Boxley, Jr. says. “We use a chainsaw to take off excess wood, but none of the carving is done with it, that’s all with traditional tools.” The Boxleys work with remarkable patience and precision, using tiny chisels to cut into the pole like surgeons with scalpels. They slice off ribbons of wood to reveal curves far smoother and more graceful than you would image possible in the trunk of a tree.

Boxley, Sr., has completed a total of 70 totem poles of the course of his career, which decorate spaces as varied as Disneyworld, the Microsoft corporate campus, and his home village. But when he got started, totem poles were nearly a lost art. The potlatch—a traditional gift-giving festival—was banned by the U.S. government in the late 19th century, and without this and other customs, the creation of totem poles languished.

But when Boxley, Sr.’s grandmother died in 1982, he sought a way to honor her, and decided to put on a potlatch and carve his own pole. Over decades, he has taught himself the art form by examining historical poles, often kept in museums, and eventually became one of the most well-respected totem pole artists in the U.S.

“For him, it’s always been linked to helping our culture come back,” says Boxley, Jr. “It really means something, for a culture that got so close to going away, that we are still here, and we still do it. As much as we do art because we like being artists, we do this art because it’s who we are.”

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