Longtime Cordova fisher Mike Webber, along with thousands of Alaskans, was devastated by the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. After a severe injury to his neck, in 1999, Webber started making totems poles. He reached into the Tlingit heritage from his grandmother's family, to create two frontal totems like those in front of houses at his grandmother's home in Katalla. Then, he made a subsistence totem in support of the Eyak people.
The "shame pole" idea is an Alaska and British Columbia coastal Native tradition. These poles are erected to publicly shame somebody or some group for not repaying a debt. The most famous shame pole, the Three Frogs Pole, was made by the Tlingit Chief and renowned warrior, Shakes I, to "shame the Kiks.ádi clan into repaying a debt incurred by three of their slaves who impregnated some young women in [Chief Shakes'] clan."
Mike Webber's shame pole may end up being more famous than that of Chief Shakes. Finished last March, it had been commissioned by Cordova community and Alaska Native activist Bob Henrichs. Peter Rothberg, writing last year about the pole for The Nation, described the pole in detail:
"The pole tells the grim story of the spill: sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead on oil. A sick herring with lesions is featured. There's a boat for sale with a family crew on board, commemorating fishermen who went belly up, and a bottle of booze to remind people that Joe Hazelwood, who was captain of the Exxon Valdez, had been drinking before turning the helm of the ship over. Topping the pole is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose."
Webber, with some hefty assistance from the Chugach Alaska Corporation, will be taking his pole to Washington, DC. He and his family will be there with dozens of other plaintiffs for the Exxon Valdez class action lawsuit, beginning February 27.
Having twice been involved myself in creating art about the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, I know how ambivalent or even resistant about art involving the spill people who suffered its effects can be. Shadows, the second musical work I wrote about the spill featured poetry by Ann Chandonnet and sounds from the spill cleanup. At an Anchorage presentation of the work, people effected by the spill walked out, unable to confront their emotions.
The first work, Sphinx Island Elegy, written for orchestra, was actually introduced at its premiere by Don Cornett, who was then President of Exxon Alaska. It was a creepy feeling having Cornett introduce my art. After that performance, in early October, 1989, as the spring and summer cleanup was wrapping up, people who had been involved came up to me, saying that hearing the music was the first time they had been able to actually confront repressed emotions since the cleanup started.
Cornett is alluded to in Webber's pole, based on Cornett's totally unfulfilled promise to those hurt by Exxon's negligence. At one of the dog-and-pony shows Exxon concocted in the days after the spill at the overflowing Cordova High School gymnasium, Cornett said then, "If you can show that you have a loss as a result of this spill, we will compensate it. . . . We will consider whatever it takes to make you whole."
I spoke with Mike Webber this evening. I hope to keep in contact with Mike and his dynamic, functional art's progress. I'm hoping it will make a national impression, and create a real sense of shame.