"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Yakutat Journals, Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve: In which we are led to Sunshine Boy

I never knew Nathan Bremner.

I’d never met him nor heard his name. I never knew his parents or his friends, though I have reason to believe I’ve spoken with some of those who loved him. By default, that is, simply because I spent a few days in Yakutat.

Portion of carved eagle mural at Yakutat High School

When JJ and I asked the locals what we should see during our time in Yakutat, all mentioned the totem. There was something in the way they said it, something in their voices that caught my attention. I should have followed up on that, asked a few more questions.

The lake where we found Sunshine Boy.

I’ve seen lots of totems. There are a few in my area of Alaska, but they are atypical this far north. Totems are indigenous to the Haida, Tshimshian, and Tlingit peoples of Southeastern Alaska, neighboring British Columbia, and the Pacific Northwest.

Along the trail to the totem.

Totems are not idols to be worshipped, but are monuments of various types. Many are memorial markers.

Occasionally a shame totem is carved, such as the one erected in the fishing town of Cordova, Alaska. It, according to Wikipedia, “includes the inverted and distorted face of Exxon ex-CEO Lee Raymond, representing the unpaid debt that courts determined Exxon owes for having caused the oil spill” in Prince William Sound in 1989.

On our last day in Yakutat, JJ and I drove out to the small lake where the trail to the totem began. The trail itself was wide and well-constructed through the huge forest.

We walked quite a distance and began to wonder if we’d missed the totem. Finally, there was a break in the thick forest and we saw the lake again.

A short distance farther and we spotted the totem in a clearing.

A boardwalk over a small creek led us to the clearing.

The sun was directly behind the totem, which faced the lake.

Fastened to the base of the totem was this plaque. [Click on the photo below once or twice. That should enlarge it enough to make it readable.]

Not until I reached home and Googled Nathan’s name did I learn more about the young man.

Nathan was a Down Syndrome child whose nickname was Sunshine Boy. His family said he always knew when someone needed a hug.

He was also the eagle mascot for the Yakutat High School basketball team.

Display at Yakutat High School

During the 2004-2005 season, the team let Nathan play, setting up shots for him.

Nathan was diagnosed with leukemia. Before each game in the 2005-2006 season, the team dedicated their season to him, holding a 30-second moment of silence in his honor.

The Yakutat High School basketball team won the state championship that year for the first time ever. Nathan died on July 4, 2006, at the age of sixteen.

The plaque tells the story of how the totem came to be carved at Yakutat High School, with lead carver David Boxley of the Tshimshian people.

Once I learned the provenance of this totem, I understood the looks and tones of voice used by the Yakutat locals when they told us to visit the totem. It stands in a sunny clearing surrounded by wildflowers, beside a peaceful and picturesque lake, an appropriate place for the Sunshine Boy.

Note the eagle feather inserted behind the plaque.


  1. The 4 yrs. we spent living and working with the Haida and Tlingit people of Craig, AK. was a wonderful learning experience for Rick and I. We formed friendships that I still carry on sixteen years later. Thank you for this heart-warming piece.

  2. P.S....I love your reflection in the photo of the eagle, it personalizes it.

  3. I just wanted to say thank you for this wonderful entry dedicated to the totem and to my brother, Nathan. The link was sent to me by a friend who came across this while google "Yakutat Eagles." I really appreciate the time you took to blog about my sunshine boy and the beautiful, beautiful photos. Gunalchéesh!

  4. Wonderful, love that you took the time to spread his sunshine, he has such a beautiful soul and it touched all of our life's ....