Tall tale to speak afresh

With handmade tools, inmate works to restore totem pole that graced Gold Bar City Hall


Herald Writer

MONROE — With a strong grip and an even hand, Kim Brown carves a thin slice of wood from the base of the fir log. One by one, the curls of bark fall to the ground.

Laying his crude, handmade carving tool aside, Brown stops to run his fingers along his work, smoothing it as tenderly as a mother would her newborn baby’s hair.

Brown is adding his touch and talent to a weathered old totem pole. An inmate in the minimum-security unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Brown agreed to recraft a totem pole that belongs to the city of Gold Bar.

In the maintenance shop at the back of the unit, the 22-foot cracking and faded totem pole lies across a large wooden worktable. Its cross bar has been detached and is propped up nearby.

The totem pole, which weighs nearly 500 pounds, was taken down from its post in front of Gold Bar City Hall when remodeling work began there earlier this year.

City Council member Debbie Hunt said the city was perplexed about what to do with it.

"We knew it desperately needed repair," she said. "It is so weathered that some people thought it couldn’t be saved."

Since the totem was originally carved by a Monroe inmate, Hunt decided to to see if any prisoners with totem-carving abilities would be willing to do the repair work.

They found Brown.

A 38-year-old French Canadian and Lakota Sioux, Brown has carved many totems himself. Originally from Seattle, he lived on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

"Every totem pole tells a story," he said. "It is the carver’s unspoken message to whoever sees it.

"I didn’t want this story to die," he said of the Gold Bar totem.

The pole was transported on a flatbed truck to the prison’s mechanical shop. Brown is filling places where the wood has rotted away, resurfacing parts and adding pieces that have fallen off, all using dowels and not a single nail. He plans to treat the wood so that it will weather safely, and then he’ll repaint it.

The work is expected to take up to four weeks.

"It looks pretty bad right now," said Brown, a metal worker by trade. "But the core is solid. I did sounding tests on it, and all I found was that in places the surface is bad."

The pole is about 10 years old, Brown thinks. He has worked on poles that are more than 150 years old.

"When they get that old, sometimes they are so deteriorated that they can’t be saved," he said. "In that case, they are laid down on the ground, so that they can be allowed to go back to the earth where they came from."

From the carving, Brown said he can tell that the Gold Bar totem is an intertribal pole.

"It represents all the tribes along the (Pacific) coast," he said. "It signifies a union of all tribes, all nations."

The totem includes the likenesses of an eagle, bear, raven, owl and killer whale. On the cross bar, there are seven dots, each representing a direction, north, south, east, west, up, down and center.

"The center is the creator," he said.

A quiet-giant kind of man with black hair flowing down his back, is proud of his American Indian roots and has made sure that his children know the traditions of their people.

His work on the totem is being done with a file, plane and gouge he made from standard tools. Special carving tools are not available behind prison walls.

Because of tradition, he would not normally restore someone else’s work unless the artist asked him to do so. By having him do the work in prison, the city is saving hundreds of dollars that ordinarily would be charged.

"Usually an elder will ask for the work to be done, or it will take getting an elder’s permission before the work can be done," he said. "In this case, I said yes because I know this totem pole has sentimental value to the community.

"Kids in the area have had their pictures taken in front of it. I want it to be there so they can continue to see it."

And, he said, when it is restored and back in the ground, someday he will take his children there for a photograph with the totem that Dad restored.

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