Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska — The Alaska National Guard’s honor pole, which is a monument dedicated to the profound contributions of Alaska Natives to the safety and heritage of the state in the past and present, proudly sits in front of the Alaska National Guard armory here and is seen by everyone who enters the building. This 11.5-foot pole, built by George Bennett Sr., a Vietnam war veteran and rural veteran liaison with Alaska’s Veterans Affairs, and his son, James Bennett, was refurbished April 16-17 after 12 years of standing tall in front of the building.
Although this structure bears many similarities to the totem poles of the Tlingit culture, it is considered an “honor pole.”
“As an honor pole, it is no longer synonymous with one people,” explained James.
The honor pole was originally carved out of red and yellow cedar in 2007 in Sitka by the Bennetts. After some help from friends and family with painting it, the pole was sent to Anchorage by 2008, where it arrived at the Construction and Facilities Management Office building. While the pole was there, retired Brig. Gen. Mike Bridges took it upon himself to take care of the honor pole until it reached its final destination in front of the armory.
In 2015, the father-son duo traveled up to Anchorage to cleanse the honor pole during a ceremony. At this time, James also showed his appreciation to Bridges for caring for the honor pole by adopting him into their culture during the ceremony.
“With our culture, we treat it [the pole] as it’s a person, a living thing, so I highly respected that,” said James.
Bridges also bonded with George over their shared military experiences in the 25th Infantry Division. When he first met him, George was wearing a 25th ID hat from his time in service, and Bridges had his 25th ID deployment patch on.
“That struck up kind of a brotherhood conversation, and then I learned he worked for the VA as well,” said Bridges. “That was significant, because I was spending more time working with Verdie Bowen [the director of the Office of Veterans Affairs] and veterans at the time.”
Bridges assisted the Bennetts with the restoration of the honor pole April 17.
To restore the honor pole, it was taken down, sanded, and putty was put in the cracks to keep the wood from expanding or growing mold.
“In our culture, we actually don’t restore totem poles, because when they fall, they are returning to the land,” said James. “We just build them back up again. This isn’t a totem pole, it’s an honor pole, which is why we can restore it.”
Bennett said that the due to the symbolism of this particular pole, restoring it is appropriate.
The different parts of the honor pole incorporate symbols of pan-Alaskan Indigenous regional cultures; the bowhead whale is for the north, the caribou is for the interior, the raven is for the southeast, the masks are for the southwest, and the box at the base that has “ATG” carved into it for the Alaska Territorial Guard is the “spirit box” that holds the names of National Guard veterans.
“The ATG box at the bottom, the foundation of it all, contains the military spirit of those volunteers,” said George.
“We look at it as restoring history,” James added. “That’s really what that pole is all these years later; it’s history, telling a story in a language that is very unique to this land.”