ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Stories from the Bible have been translated into dozens of languages from around the world and printed on everything from quilt squares to microfilm, but a retired United Methodist pastor in Alaska has brought the Christmas story to life in a 12-foot cedar totem pole.
The Rev. David Fison said the inspiration for the Tsimshian Indian-style totem came during Advent in 1961, while he was serving as a pastor in Ketchikan, Alaska and later as an interim pastor for the Tsimshian in Metlakatla.
“The thought came to me during Advent that a totem pole must tell the Christmas story,” Fison said.
“When I came to do the pole, I did the research in (the Tsimshian) culture for it,” Fison said. “The images we have of the Christmas story wouldn’t fit into their culture, so I found the nearest equivalents of the things in the story.”
During the next 26 years, Fison’s vision evolved as he researched native culture at the University of Alaska and began translating the Christmas story into an oil painting of a totem pole using native symbols. A 28-inch, scale-model wood carving followed.
Carving the final 12-foot pole of yellow cedar took about two years of spare time, Fison said.
The completed pole stands anchored to the spiral staircase in the center of the geodesic dome house he and his wife, Aleen, built for themselves in Anchorage.
Early Christian missionaries to the Pacific Northwest viewed totem poles as pagan idols and encouraged new converts to abandon their symbolism, Fison said.
“The old way was, ‘you have to give up your traditional ways and be like us.’”
But “totem poles were never idols,” Fison said. Indians of the Pacific Northwest have a rich tradition of oral histories. “In the absence of a written language, the Indians of the Northwest had preserved their stories and events carved from cedar logs. They were the nearest thing people had to books.
“The characters on a totem pole provide an outline so that, after hearing the story, listeners can read the pole for themselves,” Fison said.
The angel Gabriel is portrayed as Raven, emissary of the Great Chief of the Heavens, the Tsimshian term for God, Fison explained. Raven, sitting atop the pole, carries the Star of Bethlehem in its beak.
Bear symbolizes the place of Jesus’ birth. “They had no domestic animals,” Fison said. “Jesus is born where the forest animals feed.”
Fison said he received the blessing of the late Tsimshian chief Walter Wesley after sharing the work with him.
Fison is currently at work on an Easter pole. The resurrection story is slowly emerging from a 17-foot cedar log in his garage.
“I worked for two months every day, drawing and redrawing,” he said.
Fison finished the model for the Easter pole in 1999 and expects the large pole to take about another year.
“I announced it. So now, I’ve either got to finish it or leave town,” he said.
Fison credits “the spiritual side of life” for his inspiration.
“I’ve found there are spiritual resources to help you do any worthy thing,” he said. “I think God’s that way. If we have something worthy we want to do, the resources will be provided.
“I tell young people, ‘There’s a book only you can write. Nobody else knows the story.’
“For everything worthwhile, somebody somewhere had a dream and somebody did it.”