A master carver creates a totem pole to honor his sister-in-law

Before she died, Cindy James suggested Northwest Hospital should replace its old totem pole. So David Boxley crafted one to tell the inspiring stories of James, other cancer patients and their caretakers.

MOST PEOPLE KNOW that totem poles, the signature artwork of Northwest coastal tribes, use imagery to tell stories. But few among us can grasp the story’s meaning, feel the deep inspiration of the carver — or even know where to start reading the tale.

Case in point: Tsimshian carver David Boxley’s latest vertical masterpiece, a majestic, 27-foot totem raised this spring at the entrance to Northwest Hospital in the Northgate area to honor the life of his recently departed sister-in-law, Cindy Sue James — and the loving care afforded to her there by hospital staff during her final days.

It’s logical to assume that the figure at the pole’s apex — in this case, a broad-winged eagle, representing the eagle clan of the Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska — is the primary inspiration behind the painstaking work to convert an old-growth log to a work of art. It’s true to an extent; James died from uterine cancer, and the pole is a tribute to her bravery.

But Northwest coastal tribal tradition is more nuanced.

Carver David Boxley’s latest totem pole was inspired by his sister-in-law Cindy James, who died after her battle with uterine cancer. (Mike Siegel & Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

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Before speaking at the ceremonial dedication of the pole, dubbed “Eagle’s Spirit,” in early May, Debora Juarez, a Puyallup native, current Seattle City Council member and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, contacted Puget Sound tribal leaders to collect their impressions of Boxley’s design. One of them, Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby, told her that understanding the pole’s iconography required turning nonnative cultural norms…

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