Art and healing go hand-in-hand for Wayne Price.
The Tlingit master carver from Haines, Alaska, is in Whitehorse to oversee the creation of a totem pole with carvers from the Northern Cultural Expressions Society (NCES), formerly known as Sundog Carvers.
Unlike all but one of the 28 previous totems Price has done, this is not a traditional Tlingit pole recording the history of a clan or family.
Instead, it is a distinctive Yukon totem, dedicated to helping residential school survivors move forward along the path of recovery.
“What we want to do is recognize what happened as our history, and we want to provide a vessel or a statement of healing that from this point on we’re all joining together to move ahead into the light and heal from those days,” he says.
It will take about three months for the carvers to transform a 30-foot western red cedar log from Wrangell Island into a monument that will take up residence at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in downtown Whitehorse.
While the exact location hasn’t been determined, it won’t be far from the red-and-black dugout “healing canoe” Price and the Sundog group made three summers ago.
“To have the totem and the canoe together at the same time is a very big thing,” Price says.
The idea for his first healing totem came nine years ago when Price received a vision in a sweat lodge while coming to terms with his own life of alcohol and drug abuse.
“And I said, ‘Well, what can I do? I’m just a carver.’ And all the stuff started coming in, the design of the totem, the call to do the totem, and then the call to do the dugout. And now the call to do this one.”
As Price explains it, that vision clarified what would constitute a healing totem or a healing canoe.
“The Creator told me that every wood chip that comes off there represents a life that we’ve lost to residential schools, and residential school survivors, and that every chip represents a life we’ve lost to alcohol and drugs.”
Preliminary carving on the new pole is happening at a Burma Road site, but the project will move to the Kwanlin Dün Centre for the Adäka Cultural Festival, June 22-28.
Working in groups of three or four at a time, the dozen NCES carvers will use their razor-sharp, wishbone-shaped adzes to bring various images to life, including a raven with the moon in its beak that will stand atop the pole.
“We’re going to build a roof over it so it’s open to the public, it’s open to all the residential school survivors that want to make a journey, to come by and see it,” Price says. “We’re going to have benches there so they can bear witness.”
Those who wish can also use felt-tip pens to write names of people they want to commemorate on individual wood chips.
“Monuments like this bring out a lot of feelings. Not all of it’s great feelings. Sometimes it brings out pretty hard feelings, but it strikes deep into our human spark, and that’s good,” the master carver says.
“Even today, with all the modern technology, all the electronics, a lot of things that keep us apart, monuments like this bring us together.”
In keeping with West Coast tradition, the completed totem pole will be carried from its carving place and raised by hand in a ceremony involving hundreds of people handling the ropes.
“When all of us work together with one goal, it’s amazing what we accomplish. We should do it more often,” Price says.
Now 54 years old, proudly sporting a t-shirt reading, “There’s no tool like an old tool” and joking about his nickname, “Sir Chipsalot”, Price readily draws the connection between art and what he terms “wellbriety”.
“That means eating right, sleeping right, and keeping your tools sharp. It’s all connected, and it’s a good way to go, and it’s a lot more fun without the mind-changers,” he says.
“If you can leave the mind-changers [alcohol and drugs] behind and still make artwork, then you’re going to do some pretty good living.”
As for the physical demands of his own art form, Price laughs.
“I’m going to chop till I drop!”