Whittling away: Lummi Nations carver demonstrates tribal traditions, techniques

Published on Wed, Feb 13, 2013 by Brandy Kiger

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Whittle by whittle, the chips of wood fall away as Charles Miller’s handcrafted blade scrapes across the yellow plane of the 
diamond willow root. He holds the handmade tool deftly, even though he’s using his off hand, and each cut is exact.

When finished, the gnarled and twisted root that he found in Alaska will have become a walking stick carved with the likeness of an eagle. “I can’t draw, but when I look at a piece of wood, I can see what it should be, so I carve away whatever I don’t see until it’s revealed,” he said. “I think this will be an eagle, but I’m going to do something different, I’m going to carve talons out of it as well. I’ve never seen that before.”

A member of the Lummi Nation, Miller has put his hand to work carving totems and walking sticks, among other items over the past years, and even carved the totem pole that was sent to New York as a memorial in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “I wasn’t supposed to be the one,” he said. “But it was an honor to carve it.”

Miller, who lives in an elder home on Lummi, said that he used to spend 12 hours a day, seven days a week bringing intricate carvings to life from wood that was “gifted” to him.

“I was a stone mason for many years before I was a wood carver,” the 71-year-old said. “I learned how to handle stone and listen to it. But it was too hard on the hands. Wood has a lot more give.”

An injury a few years back sidelined his art, after he sliced the tendons in the wrist of his dominant hand. “I fell asleep and dropped my knife … Most of my knives are sharp enough to shave with, so I didn’t even feel it. It took me two years to teach myself how to carve again,” he said. “Now I only carve a couple hours a day.” 

Though the injury may have slowed his work, it hasn’t made it any less beautiful. He recently finished carving a totem pole, the first one since his injury, that he intends to gift to his son. 
The totem was on display during his presentation at the Lummi Gateway Center. “The top half is Wolf,” he said as he worked his way across the totem explaining each part of the carving. “And the bottom is Raven. In our culture, Wolf is the teacher and Raven is the trickster. So, with my son, I’m the Wolf and he’s the Raven.”

He plans to paint the totem with traditional Lummi colors of red, black and white. “Collectors think that totems are more valuable if they aren’t painted, because they are more natural. But the colors are used to emphasize the parts of the story the carving tells. So I think I’ll paint it.”

When asked if all carvers start out as whittlers, Miller replied with a chuckle. “I think we’re all still just whittlers,” he said. “Our whittles just get bigger.”

Though he is considered a master carver, it’s a term he is hesitant to embrace. “I don’t know if I want to be considered a 
master carver,” he said. “When you’re a master, you’ve got nothing else to learn. So I’ll just keep whittling because I don’t ever want to stop learning.”

Miller will be demonstrating his carving technique for the public every Saturday during February at the Lummi Gateway Center at 4920 Rural Avenue, Ferndale from 1 to 3 p.m. The event is free, and attendees are encouraged to ask questions.

On March 2, Lummi elder Clarissa Finkbonner Young will tell stories and teach about “the old ways.”