What’s Next for Kake’s Snapped Totem Pole

Written for and published with the Capital City Weekly

Photo1_RuthDemmert (1 of 1)In 1926, the village of Kake reluctantly decided under heavy pressure to burn all of the community’s totem poles in the name of “progress.” Decades later, in 1971, Kake elders rose the world’s tallest pole as a reaffirmation of Kake’s cultural roots. In April of this year, a powerful gust of wind snapped the top of the 136-foot-tall pole. Now, the community must decide how to move forward.

Ruth Demmert is a cultural leader and teacher in Kake. In her elementary school classroom, among carved paddles, Tlingit textbooks, and Tlingit worlds sprawled across the whiteboard, we flipped through old newspaper clippings and photo albums stuffed with polaroids. She shares some of the pole’s secrets and explains the significance of this particular totem in helping Kake “recapture its culture.”

Q: How did the pole come to be?

A: They cut Kake’s totem poles down and had a big bonfire and people cried just like losing loved ones all over again. I was not alive at that time, but I have heard the history. There were tears shed but that was their decision to go forward for ‘progress.’

I was really young and I don’t know who all took part in the planning of the pole but I remember my grandparents being together over coffee and my grandfather talking about how it was a shame that all the poles were burned and that we need to replace them because we are losing the culture. We need one put up in place for all those that were lost, that were cut down and burned.

We need to recapture our culture.

So they were talking about a pole being put up to represent all of the clans here in Kake. The killer whale, the shark, the salmon, the frog, the beaver, the eagle, the raven and more.

Q: Who carved the pole?

A: When the tree was found they barged it to Haines and Carl Heinmiller was the master carver. You recognize the name Heinmiller? German! He hired his apprentices and of course, he had the blueprints of what the people wanted on the pole.

And when the pole was finished, probably in 1969, elders from Kake went to see it. I know my grandfathers were up there and their wives and people went to Haines for the busing of the pole. The Kake people blessed it and then they barged it to Japan for the World Fair.

It came to us in 1971. But while in Haines, Carl Heinmiller carved his face on there! But, I don’t think you want to mention that because it will bring back hard feelings, Ha! But he had his face on the pole and people were shocked to see it. A German’s face and he had an eye patch! They did not want him on the pole, it was our pole and he put himself on there so I think they shaved it and carved over his face.

Q: What is the significance of the totem pole to people in Kake today?

A: It brings a lot of tourists to Kake, to us. There are three other really large totem poles that I hear of, I don’t know where they are, but I still consider ours to be the world’s tallest because it is one tree, not two trees put together.

But to me, I always tell the kids that this pole was put up so we can recapture our culture our history, our way of life. I think it is a remembrance for us, it makes us remember the things our families went through, our ancestors went through to get our culture back and this pole was the beginning.

Q: How do you think Kake should move forward now with the broken pole?

A: I think it should be laid to rest just like our ancestors were laid to rest and not just cut down any which way. There needs to be a ceremony for it like laying it down and put back on the earth carefully, with branches like blankets underneath it. There is going to be a lot of tears shed when it does come down.

I really believe there should be one to replace it, I don’t know that it will be just as tall and who knows what crests will go on there, maybe the same crests because they are crests from all our clans here in Kake.

Q: Can you comment more broadly on your time as a cultural leader in Kake, as a teacher?Photo2_KakeTotemPole (1 of 1)

A: It was still shameful you know, when I started teaching in the ’70s, people were still ashamed to speak Tlingit in public.

Now in the classroom here we teach Tlingit culture and language. Even those that come in blonde and blue-eyed, learning Tlingit culture gives them the respect they need for other cultures. So, I am really glad to have a part in their lives too. I teach respect in this classroom. I used to be a tour guide too and I taught a lot of those people to tell their people back home that we are the same as you. We might speak different, look different but our blood is just as red as anybody else’s and we are survivors we are not just in the museums, we are still here.

I’m working on a song for our dancers, I was given the song from someone in Klawock and reworked it a bit. This will be the dance at the ceremony to take down this pole.

“Our way of life and our language is our strength our inner strength.

The love of our ancestors along with their respect for one another, let it be within us.”


The community of Kake has created a committee to discuss the future of the pole and is currently looking to secure funding for a lowering ceremony.

• Bethany Goodrich is a freelance storyteller and the Communications Coordinator for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. For more, visit www.SustainableSoutheast.net

Students in Kake Respond to Proposed Ferry Cuts


For anyone living in Southeast Alaska the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway is obvious. After all, it is the only ‘road’ connecting 15 of our rural communities to the outside world. Island communities in Southeast Alaska are dependent on air and water to transport people, vehicles, and goods, including basic commodities such as food and petroleum products. Barriers to efficient transportation lead to higher fuel and grocery prices, making the cost of living considerably higher.

The Alaska Marine Highway system is more than just a convenience. For many residents, ferry service is essential and budget cuts present a formidable challenge to rural communities and the region.

In response to the state’s proposed multi-million dollar budget cut to the Alaska Marine Highway, a group of students are putting their concerns on paper.


Kake, Alaska

Located on Kupreanof Island, Kake is a vibrant and isolated rural community with 600 residents. Shopping in Kake is limited. A single grocery store supplies residents with day to day essentials.

Adam Davis is a lifelong resident of Kake and the Community and Economic Development Specialist for the Organized Village of Kake.

“The store bought selection of food in Kake is limited, the quality is not the best and, it is definitely expensive. There is no place to buy organic food here and getting goods and services, heavy equipment, appliances, and supplies can be a logistical nightmare that takes up two weeks on the barge from Juneau.”

Kake is an eight hour ride on the Taku ferry from Juneau and many residents have come to depend on consistent and affordable ferry service.

“The ferry service needs to continue to be funded and scheduling needs to be reworked so that it can service the coastal communities that it was designed to serve. By cutting off our communities from accessing stores in Juneau, we indirectly increase our state deficit because we are decreasing in-state business and forcing rural residents to spend their dollars out of state by sourcing more from the lower 48. Taking away our connection to the region also takes away our economic opportunities and further isolates our rural communities.”

Evelyn Willburn is the principal for students K-8 and assistant principal of 9-12. Adam Davis and Willburn worked together to encourage students to write letters of support. Willburn felt compelled to involve students because of how essential the ferry is to the school system, the students, and their families.

“The ferry is important to our students and families in many different ways. They use it for sports travel, for medical appointments, they use it to visit family members, to buy groceries- in lots and lots of other ways the ferry is important.”

Last week, Kake’s High School basketball team joined teams from across Southeast at a tournament in Sitka. Athletes and their families used the ferry system to go to and from the tournament. Residents and the school system also depend on the ferry system for exploring new opportunities to engage and connect our communities across the region.

“We are starting to explore the possibility of having our students take swimming lessons in Petersburg for summer school but, we would very much need services from the ferry in order to do that.”

So, what did the students have to say?

Here is a sample of letters collected by Kake kindergarten, elementary, and middle school students. The original letters have been sent to legislators to encourage state officials to keep rural Southeast Alaskan communities in mind when they consider cutting funding for the Alaska Marine Highway.


Please Click the Below Thumbnails to Enlarge



Registration Opens for the Southeast Alaska Fish and Farm to Schools Conference




5 February 2015


Registration Begins for the Southeast Alaska Farm and Fish to Schools Conference

Connecting Alaska’s Schools with Local Food Entrepreneurs

Registration has begun for the Southeast Farm and Fish to Schools Conference. This event will be the first regional opportunity focused on building connections between Alaska’s school systems and local food entrepreneurs. Anyone interested in bringing more local foods into our school system is invited to collaborate and connect with regional experts to strengthen fish and farm to school programming across the state.

Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organization, is coordinating the conference in conjunction with the newly formed Sustainable Southeast Partnership, a diverse network of organizations working together on community sustainability in Southeast Alaska.

Alana Peterson, program director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Haa Aani, LLC comments:

 “Often we find that the barriers to achieving access to local, healthy foods can be overcome if we work together as a region to make this initiative a priority. By bringing all the key players together for a conference we are hoping to achieve just that.”

Fish and farm to school programming offers significant economic, environmental cultural and nutritional opportunities to our rural communities and region.

 “Schools in southeast received more than $500,000 last year to buy Alaskan produced foods through the Nutritional Alaska Foods to Schools grant program.” Shelly Wright, Executive Director of Southeast Conference comments. “However, schools are often limited by what they can procure. There are untapped opportunities for, farmers, fishermen and small business in our region.  We are eager to break down barriers and grow the opportunities for everyone.”


About the Southeast Alaska Fish to Schools Conference

Conference Dates: April 2-3, 2015

Conference Location: Centennial Hall, Juneau Alaska

Online registration and more detailed conference information available at www.seconference.org

Register before Feb. 28 to be eligible for a travel stipend

Contact Lia Heifetz for more information about the conference and accessing a travel stipend growsoutheast@gmail.com


Who Should Attend

  • Existing or aspiring businesses and entrepreneurs interested in growing or harvesting local foods
  • Fishermen who want to explore school markets
  • School administrators and community members interested in procuring more local foods for schools
  • People interested in starting a school growing program (greenhouse or garden)
  • Educators looking to exchange insights and obtain resources for developing food systems curricula for the classroom


Conference Highlights

  • Local entrepreneur development track with experts in developing business structure, planning, financing and marketing for a local foods enterprise
  • Information and resources for educators to increase awareness for students around food origins, health and traditional use
  • Resources for projects to sustain local foods in schools
  • Success stories from around the region and state
  • Opportunities for networking and collaboration


For Online registration and more detailed information please visit: http://www.seconference.org/southeast-farm-and-fish-schools-conference



Welcome October by Celebrating Energy Awareness Month!

Alaskans pay some of the highest energy costs in the country, and most of us understand that saving energy means saving money. I’ve spent most of my efforts in Hoonah and Kake, focusing on improvements for heating and electricity for commercial buildings. Reduced dependency on liquid fuels for heating, electricity and transportation keep money in our local economies. Together, we’re looking at energy efficiency improvements and clean, local renewable energy generation options.

Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) has been collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service, the City of Hoonah, Huna Totem Corp. and Sealaska to identify ways to reduce its dependency on fuel, specifically heating oil. After some outreach to local experts, HIA decided to pursue a feasibility study for a district-heating loop fueled with local or regional wood sources. Simultaneously, there seems to be interest in developing a community clean energy strategy to determine and align short term, medium term and long term plans. I look forward to continuing to assist Hoonah in building capacity through this process and in identifying more clean, local energy sources.

Keex Kwaan Lodge, Kake, AK Photo by NORTECH

Keex Kwaan Lodge, Kake, AK Photo by NORTECH

OVK Office

OVK Office, Kake, AK Photo by NORTECH

Further south of Hoonah on Kupreanof Island, the Organized Village of Kake (OVK) has been very busy with multiple energy projects, including a power system upgrade, energy efficiency improvements, and biomass, solar, and hydropower possibilities. Kake’s regional catalyst, Adam, has identified the OVK Office and Keex Kwaan Lodge as two buildings ripe for energy efficiency audits and improvements. We were able to get energy audits done through NORTECH Engineering, which has an office in Juneau. The draft reports showed these buildings do indeed have energy saving opportunities. Energy Audits create a clear path to increasing efficiency by identifying specific inefficiencies that are wasting energy (and money). These Level 2 Investment Grade Audits will now make it easier for OVK to make the investments or look for funding opportunities. The audits even included low and no cost recommendations, which can be implemented right away. KeexKwaanLodgeOVK OfficeKeexKwaanLodge

September Monthly Report from the Program Coordinator

September was a busy and exciting month for me. During the first week I was able to Join Bethany in Kake to work with Adam and Ken Gardner, an Engineer that we brought up from Utah to investigate hydroelectric feasibility in Gunnuk Creek. Adam and I met Ken this spring down in Utah at an SEI training for micro-hydro development. Ken was our instructor in that class. Ken continued to play the role of mentor during the trip in Kake and helped Adam and I develop our capacity for future energy work in the SSP while giving us confidence that the projects we have been developing in Kake are feasible. We look forward to see what kind of media Bethany pulls together from this trip.

On September 9th I worked with the Leadership Team on interviewing candidates for the SSP Director position. We conducted 4 interviews, all of which were impressive. Throughout the rest of the month I worked with the Leadership team on selecting a finalist for the job and we are going to announce the new Director this week.

In the middle of the month I worked with Lia and Carrie and few folks from Thorne Bay to provide a presentation on the SSP and its Food Sustainability program at the Southeast Conference annual meeting. I provided an overview of what the SSP is all about and Lia and Carrie did a great job sharing the regional and community projects they have been working on. The Thorne Bay folks, led by a 16 year old young woman, also did a great job at the Conference. You can view the presentation I gave to the group here. You can view the video that Bethany put together and was shared at the event here.

Right after the SE Conference annual meeting, I went to Juneau to participate in the Path 2 Prosperity bootcamp. Alana did a fantastic job organizing and facilitating the bootcamp this year. I served primarily as the taxi service for the finalists to get to where they needed to be but I also tried to be useful in consultations on how to increase their natural resource sustainability scores. I learned a lot about TBL business development myself, especially from our friend Mike Skinner. There are some really fun and interesting business ideas in the competition this year, including one from one of our community catalysts (Carrie Sykes). The highlight for me was the filming of the contestants “elevator pitches”. Those should be available on the Haa Aani’ website in the next month or so and I or Alana will post a link at that time so you can enjoy them too.

In between the events listed above, I developed the SSP budget for 2014 – 2015 and provided general support to regional and community catalysts on their projects. One of these projects, the Hoonah Native Forest Lands project, is a collaboration on a large grant proposal from Sealaska, the Hoonah Indian Association and The Nature Conservancy that would support 3 years of work on a comprehensive community forest plan and suite of projects for 150,000 acres of land around Hoonah. As I shift out of the role of coordinator and work more as a regional catalyst for natural resource stewarship this project will be one of the big ones on my list. The pre-proposal was accepted a couple months ago and you can read that here. The full grant proposal is due on October 4 and we should find out if we are awarded by December. Keep your fingers crossed!

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