Tlingit shame pole unveiled

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For the first time in modern history, a shame totem pole has been erected in Alaska. This totem pole is to commemorate the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The toughest part about creating a totem pole
designed to mock Exxon Mobil on the anniversary of the largest oil spill in
U.S. history wasn’t carving the details of dying animals.

No, the toughest part was etching the words “We will make you whole again”
from the trunk of yellow cedar, said Alaska Native carver Mike Webber of
Cordova.

Webber and others believe Exxon broke that promise, made to Cordova
residents by a top company official after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, by
refusing to pay affected Alaskans billions of dollars in punitive damages.

“It made me so angry it took me a week to carve those words out,” he said.

An Anchorage federal jury awarded thousands of plaintiffs $5 billion in
punitive damages in 1994, but Exxon appealed and the case has been mired in
court ever since.

In December, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
reduced those damages to $2.5 billion. Exxon is challenging that too.

Webber, who turned to carving after breaking his neck on his fishing boat
in 1999, said the 11 million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound
devastated his family economically and ruined lucrative herring and salmon
fisheries.

He didn’t balk when the Eyak Native village president in Cordova
commissioned him to carve a 7-foot-tall ridicule pole last month.

Webber’s Tlingit ancestors carved such poles to embarrass rich people who
owed society, but such poles are rare today, he said.

The Exxon pole won’t get money out of the company, but it will remind
people what happened, said Webber, 46. The pole’s images of the spill are
rife with apocalyptic symbolism and the epic court battle it spawned. It
was unveiled at a public ceremony in Cordova on the spill’s 18th
anniversary Saturday.

Topping the totem is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee
Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose.

“So kids can figure out he’s a liar,” said Webber Friday afternoon by
phone, as he brushed a sealing coat over the recently painted pole.

An oil slick spilling from Raymond’s mouth bears the infamous words uttered
by Don Cornett, formerly Exxon’s top official in Alaska, Webber said.

In figures painted on the pole, sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead
on the oil. A herring near the slick has lesions. 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.

An e-mail statement from current Exxon spokesman Mark Boudreaux sent Friday
said the company was sorry Cordova residents “have decided to take this
unfortunate action.”

Exxon knows many Alaskans are still angry over the tragic accident, the
e-mail said.

In the past, the company has contended it owes no more than $25 million,
having already laid out more than $3 billion for compensatory payments, the
cleanup, and settlement of state and federal claims.

It added that no government scientist has released a peer-reviewed study
linking the spill to the herring decline, and depressed salmon prices
aren’t Exxon’s fault.

“As difficult as this is to accept, we believe these issues are the result
of free markets and other factors at work, not as a result of the Valdez
oil spill,” the e-mail said.

Cordova author Riki Ott, who has written about the spill and gave Webber
ideas for the ridicule pole, said a study by government-sponsored
scientists linking the herring crash to the spill is undergoing a
peer-review process.

Several peer-reviewed studies show oil causes problems for herring at early
life stages, she said.

Bob Henrichs, Eyak tribal government president, paid $5,000 of his own
money for the carving. He doesn’t know the last time a ridicule pole went
up in Alaska, he said.

The pole will likely stand in the tribal government’s cultural center in
Cordova. It’s provoked a lot of anger among residents who visited Webber’s
shop, he said Friday.

“A lot of people put it out of their mind and they see this and it brings
up all the old emotions,” he said. “They’re not crying, but they’re not
very happy.”

The spill’s psychological effects linger, Webber said. Families that lived
off the sea were forced into other work, breaking bonds that kept them
close. Native subsistence foods like seals and butter clams haven’t
returned to beaches still layered with underground oil.

Among the host of images on the pole is a Native crying 18 tears, one for
each year since the spill. The ribs are showing and the heart has a hole.

“They put a hole in our heart and they’ve taken part of our soul as well,”
he said.