What's with all of the totem poles in Washington?

Replica of a Tsimshian pole in front of the Burke Museum. Photo by Charla Bear

Story and photos by Charla Bear

Tourists stop to get their picture taken in front of the 56-foot totem pole in Pioneer Square.With all the totem poles in Washington State, it might surprise you to know the cedar monument isn’t from this region.

Though some local tribes now carve them, they didn’t originally.

In fact, the first one here was pilfered from another state.

At this point, Raven, Frog, Whale and the other totems on the cedar pole in Pioneer Square have been here for more than a century. Yet people are still enamored by them.

“We’ve been to the Southwest several times and we have Indian reservations in Maine, but I’ve never seen a totem pole there,” says George Maria. “I think this is pretty impressive.”

It’s Maria’s first time to Seattle. He’s just learning that Seattle’s first totem pole was stolen from a Tlingit tribal chief’s house on Tongass Island in Southeast Alaska.


The heist

In 1899, a group of businessmen, sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Seattle Post-Inteliigencer, took the biggest pole they could find from what they thought was an abandoned village, or so they claimed.

Here’s how the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture explains what happened next to the Raven Clan’s monument (English surname Kinninook)

They sawed down Kinninook's pole and towed it to Seattle, where it was put up in Pioneer Square, becoming the "Seattle Totem Pole". When witnesses to the theft complained, a grand jury indictment was brought against the collectors. But the case was dismissed after the investigating federal judge had been entertained at Seattle's premier businessmen's club. To silence the public protest, the collectors raised $500 that they sent to Alaska, but this payment never reached the Tongass Tlingits.

The tribe never got the totem pole back, either. It stayed put.


Promotional priorities

Replicas of a Tsimshian pole (left) and a Haida pole (right) in front of the Burke Museum. Carved by Bill Holm, Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the museum, after the originals were destroyed in a fire.Dr. Robin Wright, curator of Native American art at the Burke Museum, says it was apparently too valuable to return.

“It has to do with the tourist industry and Chamber of Commerce promotional activity,” she says. “I don’t know how you explain it other than it’s marketing”

You see, Seattle wanted to brand itself as the “Gateway to Alaska” to cash in on the gold rush and tourism. Wright says totem poles were a perfect symbol to make that connection.

So, when the city hosted the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, they were everywhere:


Totem pole fever

Carved by Wayne F Hewson, Tsimshian, 2002 and given to the Burke Museum in 2004.The actual true setting of totem poles was along the coast in Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian villages in Alaska and British Columbia. Not Seattle, or anywhere in Washington. That didn’t stop totem pole fever from sweeping the state.

In 1903, Tacoma hired Alaska Native artists to create a totem pole to dwarf Seattle’s.

Local tribes without a history of carving them started making versions called “story poles.”

“It became something that was expected of artists,” Wright says. “If you were an Indian artist, surely must make totem poles.”

Today, you see the traditional Alaskan poles all over when you drive around. Even in front of local tribal casinos.

“Because, what’s more eye-catching than a big ole totem pole,” she says. 


The meaning of totem poles

Israel Shotridge, a Tlingit carver who lives on Vashon Island, touches up a couple of 15' figures he's carving for the Quileute Tribe's cementary in Northwest Washington.

Now that totem poles are ubiquitous, Wright says they’ve become a symbol of “Indian-ness.” That concerns Israel Shotridge, a Tlingit carver from Ketchikan, Alaska.

“It misrepresents the people,” he says.

He says Native cultures should be seen as distinct, not a single stereotype of dream catchers, teepees and totem poles. To him, carving is a chance to represent his unique heritage.

“I’m the unofficial caretaker of my tribal totem poles,” he says. “It’s more than just carving.”

That’s why some of the totem poles in Seattle don’t resonate with him. A number of the ones downtown, including two in Occidental Park, were actually carved by white artists.  

Whoever carves the poles, Shotridge says it’s important to honor the culture being represented. That’s not what happened when the first totem pole was stolen and brought here in 1899.

“What they should’ve done is shipped it back to Alaska and said, we’re sorry,” he says.

He says there is an upshot, though. The attraction is one of the state’s most visible reminders that Native Americans are still here.


Totem pole facts:

  • Seattle's first totem pole, a replica of the one that was stolen and brought to Pioneer Square in 1899. The term "totem poles" is not from this area either. It’s from the Great Lakes region. The word “totem” comes from the Algonquian word, “dodem,” which means “clan.” These tribes had totemic emblems of their clans. Dr Wright, of the Burke Museum, says, “technically, the images on NW coast totem poles are not totems in the same way the Algonguin used them, but they are heraldic emblems of noble families.”
  • The idea that the “low man” on the totem pole is a place of little status is a myth. First of all, often it was the wife’s family crests at the bottom of the totem pole, so the saying should probably refer to women. Secondly, “they were the most important because they were the foundation,” says Wright. Also, carvers knew viewers could see figures on the lower portion most clearly, so they had high standards for them.
  • In 2009, Seattle had another stolen totem pole case on its hands.  This time, a local retiree was behind the theft.  According to the Seattle Times, he conned a crane company into thinking he was a city arts commissioner and hired it to remove a totem pole in West Seattle for “restoration.” The alleged work was to be done at his home in Black Diamond. During the move, the truck carrying the 500-pound pole got stuck in the mud. A towing company managed to free the truck with the help of the police. Days later, a West Seattle Rotarian noticed the pole was missing and called the authorities. The thief, 69-year-old Charles Edward Jenks, was arrested and confessed to the crime. When police went to recover the stolen item, they found a second totem pole Jenks had taken from a Fred Meyer store in Renton. He paid more than $20,000 for fines and restoration charges. Both poles were returned to their owners.