TULALIP — Eager to get their hands on an adze and hack away at wood grain, students at Archbishop Murphy High School lined up next to a 4,000-pound hunk of old-growth redwood sitting a few yards from their empty football field.
They hollered and clapped for their peers as chunks of trunk splintered off the log, landing in pooling rain puddles. It was Friday morning — the first day of a year-long, school-wide endeavor to carve a Coast Salish style healing pole for the campus.
“It’s healing in the sense that we’re coming out of COVID and asking, ‘How do we build community and bring everybody back together when our experience was so disjointed for the last few years?’” Principal Alicia Mitchell said. “So we wanted to create something together while teaching kids about Coast Salish art and Native American traditions.”
Mitchell took over as principal in 2019, just six months before COVID shut down schools worldwide. Students — who may have been studying for critical AP tests or hoping to secure an athletic scholarship for university — were forced away and apart. As students have slowly come back to campus, Mitchell wanted to counter the lingering effects of social distancing with some kind of hands-on group project.
Staff toyed with different ideas, then called up James Madison, a Tulalip and Tlingit tribal member. Madison has two sons at the school and volunteers to coach the football team, but he’s also a full-time artist and master woodcarver. His work is displayed in galleries and businesses across the region, and he currently has an exhibit at Steinbrueck Native Gallery in Seattle.
Originally, staff thought the students could work together by carving paddles, but the idea blossomed into the two-ton, 12-foot healing pole.
“I thought it’d be cool to have a healing pole for these seniors and juniors coming up and to bring the culture to the campus — to bring my culture here,” Madison said. “It’s our territory, we’re on Native lands.”
Madison began carving at age 5 when his grandpa brought him along to help carve totem poles. He said tribal legends like Chief William Shelton — who carved the story pole outside of Totem Family Dine in Everett, for example — did the same.
Now, Madison will be sharing that knowledge with students two to three times per week for the rest of the school year. He’s planning for the final product to be a prowling wildcat — the school’s mascot.
Senior Kai Lewis dipped out of strength and conditioning to check in on the day’s progress. COVID hit during the spring semester of Lewis’ freshman year, so his high school experience has largely been a series of Zoom calls, asynchronous classes and hybrid models.
“I feel like — not quite ‘cheated’ exactly — but it feels like I didn’t get the full Archbishop Murphy experience traditionally,” Lewis said. “I was coming in right as COVID was and am leaving right as COVID is ending. … So I’m glad we have the opportunity to do something like this.”
The goal is to have every student and community member get their hands on creating the healing pole, Mitchell explained. Whether it’s a few swings with the adze or a notch with a chisel, Mitchell wants students and future alumni to know they made a physical impact on the school’s community.
One-on-one, Madison called students up, showing them how to shave away wood.
Hit it “kind of like a drum,” Madison instructed, “like we’re trying to make some music — get the rhythm going.” Sophomore Lauren Esping came out from her graphic arts class. Setting her camera down, she picked up the metal-tipped adze.
“That’s tiring! This is hard work,” Esping said after a few swings.
“Yeah, but it’s addicting, too,” Madison smiled.
Classes came and went throughout the morning. If a student has a break in their schedule or some free time at lunch, they’re welcome to wander out to Madison and get a few swings in throughout the day. Mitchell is aiming to finish the project next spring, then reveal it before the class of 2024 graduates.
Once finished, Mitchell hopes the pole will stand as a physical representation of the power of community and people’s perseverance. Most likely, the healing pole will be displayed in the courtyard, but the school has yet to make a final decision.
Despite the pandemic, Lewis has a positive outlook on his time at Archbishop Murphy. He plans to play football at Pacific Lutheran University in the fall, and he is grateful for this final opportunity to leave a mark before he goes.
“It’s not so much that ‘I’ worked on this, but that all of us as a community worked at it together,” Lewis said. “It’s really cool to be a part of this Archbishop Murphy family, and I want to be part of this family for life. I hope everyone here chooses to participate.”