The Sitka Tribe of Alaska unveiled a bronze totem pole last weekend(6-25-22) by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary. Like most of Singletary’s work, the totem draws on his Tlingit heritage. But this one hits closer to home.
It’s a sunny summer day in downtown Sitka, and a crowd is assembling outside Harrigan Centennial Hall. Behind the podium, shrouded in blankets, is what they’ve all come to see: The unveiling of Tlingit artist Preston Singletary’s Little Bear Mother Story Pole (Xóotsk’i Tláa Kootéeyaa) story totem. The festivities begin with an entrance dance, and opening remarks by Tlingit cultural teacher Chuck Miller.
“Honorable people, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here today. It is good to see each and every one of you. My Tlingit name is Daanax̱.ils’eiḵ, and for tax purposes it is Chuck Miller. I’m of the Raven silver salmon moiety, Coho Clan,” said Miller, addressing the now laughing crowd. “We’re here to celebrate a beautiful kooteeyaa that Mr. Preston Singletary has carved and put together in memory of his his great grandmother, a loved one.”
Like most of Singletary’s work, the totem draws on his Tlingit heritage. But this one hits closer to home.
“It’s based on a story, my great grandmother comes from Sitka. And so, this was at the turn of the century. She had a pet grizzly bear as a child,” said Singletary in an interview with KCAW prior to the unveiling. “The story that we heard was that someone was out hunting, and they encountered a bear, they shot it, and they found these cubs rooting around, and so they picked them and brought them back to the village, and my great-grandmother raised it as a pet.”
For those familiar with Singletary’s impressive glass works, a bronze may seem like a departure. But for the artist, the significance lies less in the medium and more in its cultural significance.
“The materials that we use for the cultural arts is becoming increasingly rare, like the big trees for totem poles or dugout canoes, and so forth,” Singletary said. “And so, you’ll start to see, new materials being adopted, to keep the stories and the symbols alive. And the fact that this piece is in bronze, it can last for you know, an eternity actually”
The nine-foot bronze structure was a gift from the artist to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. A Kaagwaantan, Singletary says he’s honored to be giving back to the community, and hopes people will see it as a symbol of cultural resilience.
“What I hope that people will get out of it is that the culture is is alive, and it’s evolving, and it’s changing the medium,” said Singletary. “I was hoping that it would be viewed as as sort of returning my great grandmother’s spirit to her ancestral homelands. And so this is kind of like, an opportunity to re-introduce myself and my family to the community in Sitka.”
Preston Singletary’s Little Bear Mother Story Pole (Xóotsk’i Tláa Kootéeyaa) , will stand permanently outside of Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall.