A great honor in cedar

Michio’s totem

Strolling along a rocky beach in the Halibut Point area of Sitka, Michelle and I walked toward the setting sun, the warm glow breaking some of the winter chill in the air.  As we moved along, the sound of smoothed slate rocks and clam shells beneath our feet, we came upon an unexpected sight: a tall totem pole, looking out at the western sky.  Not that totems are unexpected in Sitka, but they are typically concentrated at the Sitka National Historic Park, also known as Totem Park, on the Indian River near downtown Sitka.  Michelle had read about a totem that was carved in honor of Japanese nature photographer Michio Hoshino, who was slain by a brown bear on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in 1996.  She had shown me an article featuring a photo of the totem artist creating the totem, and I recognized the long black hair of the bottom character in this totem pole as the rendition of Michio Hoshino.  What the character held in his hands confirmed it for me: a depiction of the overlapping layers of an aperture on a lens.

The totem was carved by Tlingit totem artist Tommy Joseph of Sitka, Alaska.  In an interview with KCAW radio, Joseph notes the unusual combination of animals on the totem: a raven, a caribou, a humpback whale, and a bear.  The first three animals represent common subjects of Michio’s work, which went back and forth between Alaska’s arctic and Interior regions and the islands of the Southeast.  But the bear on the top of the totem is not any bear, but a Glacier Bear, also known as the Blue Bear.  Joseph notes that while Michio strived to capture an image of a Blue Bear, he was never successful; thus, the bear remains out of reach after life as well.

The totem is a crucial element of the culture of the Native people of Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  The carving of a totem is meant to tell a family’s history, identify key moments in a clan’s existence, even to mark important occasions.  They are rarely created to honor a single individual.  I would guess that this particular totem is likely the only one in existence dedicated to a photographer and his body of work.  But people were inspired not only by Michio’s starkly artistic renderings of Alaska’s great wildness, but by Michio himself.  He was renowned for being warm and generous, and having a deep connection with nature, being able to stay in the same location for hours if not days, waiting for the right conditions to capture the photo he envisioned.  He once spent an entire month by himself on a glacier in Denali National Park & Preserve to capture an image of an auror over Denali itself.  He was not successful.

It was his drive to capture signature images of the wild that led to his relationship with Juneau writer and photographer, and sometimes wilderness guide, Lynn Schooler.  I never had the pleasure or honor of ever meeting Michio Hoshino – I moved to Alaska three years after his death.  But I feel that I got to know him a little through Schooler’s The Blue Bear, now also a theatrical adaptation produced by Perseverance Theatre of Juneau.  Through the story of The Blue Bear, you learn about Michio the person and the photographer, and gain a little understanding of his drive as a photographer through his desire to photograph the elusive Glacier Bear.

It is fitting that the totem honoring Michio and his work resides where it does.  The totem sits within a stone’s throw of what locals call “Magic Island” on the outer part of Halibut Point.  It gazes upon the ocean that provides a home to the humpback whales Michio photographed.  It watches the sun move across the sky, bathing the land with the golden light that Michio relied upon as a photographer.  It receives the last warm grace of sunlight as the sun sets behind Mt. Edgecombe.  The sounds of cawing ravens, lapping surf, and squawking gulls keep it company when the beach is empty of the many Sitka residents who go out to enjoy the Halibut Point Recreation Area.  I can only hope that, as the years advance, those who visit Halibut Point will notice the totem and wonder who the man on the bottom of the totem is.

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