Carving out their stories

TULALIP – There are four men and one cedar tree they say is nearly 1,000 years old.

Together, they spend their days in a warehouse-style woodshop near I-5 on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

Each man holds a handmade adz, leans in over the giant cedar, and taps.

Tap, tap, tap.

With each tap, a bit of cedar peels away, and a piece of the tree’s story is revealed.

When the carvers are finished, there will be two story poles and two welcome figures. They’ll be placed at the tribes’ luxury hotel, scheduled to open next year.

The cedar grew in a forest near Darrington until storm winds toppled it.

When it fell, Tulalip Tribes Master Carver Joe Gobin knew it was time.

It’s what he’s been waiting for.

“I’ve learned so much, and I’ve been trying to keep this art going,” Gobin said. “It’s been my dream to do what we’re doing here.”

Gobin hired a local firm to haul the 25,000-pound tree out of the woods and into the yard outside his shop.

He chopped the top part off, then sliced the trunk in half, from top to bottom.

He studied story poles created by the tribal master carvers of the past and sketched a design into the wood.

And for the past month, he’s been tapping.

A gambling man, holding a bone in each hand, emerged at the top of the pole. Just below him, there is a grizzly bear, grasping a kick-stick. Below the grizzly, there are six men, three on each side of the trunk, and each man crouched over a drum.

It is the first sla-hal game, when the animals faced off against the humans to decide who would rule the land.

The two groups decided on the rules of the ancient gambling game and set out to play for the highest stakes ever.

There were drums and songs and dances that have been repeated through the years, as tribes moved from competing for blankets and other goods to cash stakes that today can skyrocket to tens of thousands of dollars.

“Gambling is part of our culture,” Gobin said. “We wouldn’t have casinos if we didn’t have these sla-hal games first.”

The first pole could be done within a month, Gobin said. The second, designed by James Madison, will be done not long after that.

Then, Gobin and Madison, joined by carvers Kelly Moses and Frank “Steve” Madison, will begin on the welcome figures.

“I’ve always carved,” Steve Madison said. “It’s just something that I do. If I don’t, it doesn’t feel right.”

It’s been many years since tribal members have carved poles on such a large scale, he said.

“It’s part of our culture that was lost for a while,” he said. “This is a revival, a new beginning.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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