Learning from the Past
by Mike Webber

n 1999, I was wrapped in a deck winch on my commercial fishing boat. The accident immobilized me; the Coast Guard lifted me off my boat in Prince William Sound and I was medevacked to Anchorage, Alaska. I had damaged my spinal cord—almost severed it—and was paralyzed for quite a while. Months later, movement returned to my legs and it was time to figure out how to walk again. I spent the next three months learning that task and many others in a rehabilitation hospital. All told, I was in hospitals for six months. I had doctors and nurses say, “This happened for a reason; it’s up to you to figure it out.” “Hmm…” I thought.

Carver Mike Webber with his totem hewn from a 850-year-old tree at the Prince William Science Center
Carver Mike Webber with his totem hewn from a 850-year-old tree at the Prince William Science Center.
Change is Inevitable—Always
I sold my big boat and commercial fishing permit, figuring I would never again have the strength to live a “normal” life. The severity of my injury meant I had time and perspective to look ahead: I wanted to apply myself, to feel useful. At the time, our local tribe, the Native Village of Eyak, was just getting formally organized. There had been some ups and downs, and the contentious beginnings meant there was a bit of a leadership vacuum. As a person of integrity, I felt I could contribute some stability. I ran for office, seeking a position on the tribal council. Things had been so challenging that most folks didn’t even want to get involved; the seat I ran for was uncontested.

I was elected to the governing council and soon also joined the committee that helped form the cultural center. These were both relatively new organizations and the efforts were ground-up at the time—creating mission and vision statements, conducting short-term and long-term planning, the works. During the two years I was on the tribal council, I engaged with Native leaders from all over Alaska. I saw them wearing their regalia proudly, and it sparked an interest in Native art forms. For much of my life, my heritage was looked down upon socially, but suddenly before me was an opportunity to be part of a leadership movement, one of change.

Looking Back to Move Forward
With my mobility still significantly challenged, I decided I could learn about my background without exhausting myself physically. I dove into history books and began to read about my cultural heritage. I read every text published by a pair of archaeologist ethnographers who had been funded to study the Eyak people of the Copper River Delta, as well as my Alutiiq ancestors, who were then called the Chugach Eskimo, beginning with an expedition in 1933. Although my time on the tribal council only lasted two years (I didn’t run for re-election by personal choice—the travel schedule was too physically grueling for me at that point in my rehabilitation), I remained devoted to the study of our region’s history for the better part of a decade.

In one of the first few books that I read, there was a statement about inherited qualities that I took to heart. It said something to the effect of, “Many generations of a gift can be skipped; it is up to you to figure out what that gift might be.” I found a piece of red cedar and borrowed four gouges from a friend. I carved a marriage grease bowl and it turned out nicely. I felt like one of my ancestors must have been an artist, and I discovered that I have that gift and spirit in me.

salmon grease bowl
Salmon Grease Bowl
Leaders Mentor in Many Ways
When I carve, I ask for help and guidance from my ancestors to help me carve things right. Sometimes I get overwhelmed carving out simple characters. I think about it and know one of my ancestors must have carved this same character before. It is important to recognize these sensations and honor them. Many times, I feel the presence of my ancestors; there’s a satisfaction in the continuity between the ones who came before me and the skills I am reclaiming now. Connecting the past to the future is important to me, and when carving I often stop and reflect on such things; it’s emotional.

I took many classes on Northwest Coast design and carving classes from master artists in Ketchikan and Sitka. These leaders gave me the foundation I needed to move forward and feel comfortable teaching my own design and carving classes. Now I teach classes to youth in our local public schools, and to adults through our local cultural center. As a master carver in our area, I feel a responsibility to pass down my knowledge to the younger generation. As a leader, it is my responsibility to help educate our younger people, to teach them local designs that represent the heritage of our people of the North Gulf Coast, Tlingit, Eyak, and Alutiiq styles. This in turn will mark them as future leaders who will take on the mantel of keeping our traditional art alive.

I see now that my purpose is one of leadership based on the connection and experiences I have gained through my art.
Raven/Eagle Paddle
Raven/Eagle Paddle 50” long, 5.5” wide, and 1” thick.
My Leadership Path Revealed
I mentioned earlier that it was my task to determine the purpose of my accident: why it happened and where it might lead. I see now that my purpose is one of leadership based on the connection and experiences I have gained through my art. I have set a personal goal to locate the art that was traded away to fur traders and explorers 200 years ago, replicate the pieces, and get them back on our walls for people to see. To have replicas of our lost art in museums, corporate offices, city buildings, and schools is fulfilling to me. It’s a task I’m focused on, and I feel that it could keep me busy for a long time.

So far, I have carved seven totem poles and many grease bowls, masks, spoons, and paddles. I also have two totem pole projects in planning stages that I’m seeking funding to complete. My art can be found in Alaska, the Lower 48, and the Grand Cayman Islands, including several museums.

My leadership journey is evolving. Lessons that have been important to my development as a leader in my community are to approach life as a student; bring curiosity to the table; listen to your intuition; study history; reflect on the lessons you learn both in life and from sources you study. There will be setbacks; find ways to thrive despite them. Step up to the plate when things are hard. Try different approaches until something feels right to you—the best overlap of your interests, your skills (current ones or ones you can develop), and a need in the world.

Looking Forward
Today, I live with many nerve issues because of my accident, and those will continue tomorrow, but in exploring ways to be fulfilled in my post-accident body, I found a gift that was handed down to me. My drive to bring back my culture’s lost art motivates me to greet each new day, and I work with dozens of students every year to share the satisfaction that traditional design and carving can bring. Together, we’re filling the world with more Northwest Coast–style art. I thank my family for their support, and I thank my ancestors for their gifts.
Mike Webber headshot
Mike Webber is a lifelong resident of Cordova. The 62-year-old artist is of Tlingit, Eyak, and Alutiiq heritage. He started commercial fishing at age six and is still invested in fisheries. He has been carving for 23 years, focusing on the Northwest Coast art style and incorporating Eyak and Alutiiq applications. Webber has been teaching these styles to many age groups for 20 years.