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Seattle Totem Poles: History Not What You Think

Seattle Totem Poles: History Not What You Think
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Elliott Bay Bike Trail Totem Pole by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The Elliott Bay Bike Trail totem pole now stands between the bike and pedestrian paths near Mercer Street (if it continued through the railroad yards). Moved to this spot in 2009, it once stood at Pier 48 after it was carved in 1975. The Elliott Bay Bike Trail totem pole now stands between the bike and pedestrian paths near Mercer Street (if it continued through the railroad yards). Moved to this spot in 2009, it once stood at Pier 48 after it was carved in 1975.

A totem pole stands between the pedestrian and bicycle paths along the Elliott Bay Bike Trail. It faces Elliott Bay within Puget Sound. Besides the park, it overlooks a ship loading dock, the shipping and industrial facilities of Harbor Island, and a device to restore Puget Sound’s marine life. Quite a view. A little bewildering.

Seattle totem poles have a brief, colorful, bewildering history. The story of Seattle totem poles is just one example of how traditions meld and become elements of other cultures. This post discusses that history, then takes a look at the totem pole overlooking Elliott Bay from the bike trail.

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Seattle Net Pens and Harbor Island by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The Elliott Bay Bike Trail totem pole overlooks salmon net pens nearby and Harbor Island in the distance. The Muckleshoot and Suquamish Indian Tribes, along with the Port of Seattle, have successfully operated the pens since 1994 to raise and delay release of Coho salmon in efforts to restore the Puget Sound ecosystem. The Elliott Bay Bike Trail totem pole overlooks salmon net pens nearby and Harbor Island in the distance. The Muckleshoot and Suquamish Indian Tribes, along with the Port of Seattle, have successfully operated the pens since 1994 to raise and delay release of Coho salmon in efforts to restore the Puget Sound ecosystem (Port of Seattle n.d.).

Seattle Totem Poles: Bewildering History

The Indians of Puget Sound had, and still have, an incredibly rich artistic culture. Canoes, combs (yes combs, you would not believe the combs), stone carvings, cedar bark baskets, antler bone bracelets, bone figurines, stone bowls, and cedar boxes are just a small portion of items adorned with images from stories and just beautiful work. Totem poles, however, were generally made farther north in Canada and Alaska (Kangass 2008).

The introduction of totem poles to Seattle public life began with a theft.

Chief-of-all-Women and the First of Seattle Totem Poles

Near the end of the eighteenth century, a Tlingit (Northwest Coast Canadian and Alaskan tribe) noblewoman of the Ganaxádi Raven clan traveled along the Nass River (northern British Columbia river, which flows into the Pacific Ocean). Her name, translated to English, was Chief-of-all-Women. She never made it to her destination, which was to comfort an ill relative. She drowned (Thrush 2007:113).

Her clan hired a carver to create a totem pole celebrating her life and heritage. The resulting 50-foot tall monument drew upon ancient stories of her people and lineage. For nine decades, the totem pole, which held Chief-of-all-Women’s cremated remains, stood next to the clan’s longhouse. At its top stood Raven-at-the-Head-of-the-Nass (Thrush 2007:113).

Those nine decades ended when a group of Seattleites visited Alaska. They saw the pole in the village of On the Cottonwoods. In 1899, while the villagers were fishing, the men (bankers, land developers, and clergymen) sawed through the pole’s base, discarded Chief-of-all-Women’s remains, and stole the memorial monument/tomb. They broke off the Raven’s beak in the process. On October 18, 1899, the City of Seattle erected the still magnificent totem pole in Seattle’s Pioneer Square as the town’s first official piece of public art (Thrush 2007:113-114; 14th illustration plate after page 42; Wilma 2000).

At that time, Seattle was a stopping point to the Yukon Gold Rush, which lasted from 1896 through the end of the 1800s. Prospectors and others stocked up on provisions on the way to Alaska’s Klondike, beginning in 1897. The economic boom connected to the gold rush lasted through 1898, but still existed in 1899, when Chief-of-all-Women’s totem pole was stolen from On the Cottonwoods in Alaska and placed in Seattle’s Pioneer Square (National Park Service [NPS] 2013a {last update}, 2013b {last update}).

Chief-of-all-Women’s pole solidified the connection between Seattle and Alaska culture. During the late 1890s, Native American canoes lined the Seattle waterfront as Indians from all over the Pacific Northwest visited the city, in addition to those who were from there. Tourists flocked to the waterfront to purchase souvenir Native American art and tools, including tiny argillite totem poles (Thrush 2007:114-117).

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Seattle Waterfront by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The Seattle waterfront continues to be a hub of activity, particularly for tourists. The Seattle waterfront continues to be a hub of activity, particularly for tourists.

Chief-of-all-Women’s totem pole came to a violent end four decades later. On October 22, 1938, shortly after 10 pm, an unidentified man placed gasoline-soaked rags at its base and burned it. Ironically, the City of Seattle hired carvers, some of whom descended from residents of On the Cottonwood, the village from which it was stolen, to create a replacement pole (Thrush 2007:158-159).

If you want to learn more about the Chief-of-all-Women’s totem pole, including what it’s totems mean, click here to reach the article I wrote about it in the Urban Times.

Seattle Totem Poles: Their Presence Now

As mentioned earlier, the combination of the Klondike Gold Rush and presence of Indians on the waterfront brought a mixed trade of tourism art and tool souvenirs. To this day, fine art shops, folk art stores, and curiosity shops line the waterfront and the Pike Place Market area. They sell local art, region Pacific Northwest art, and art from elsewhere.

Among the items you see around town are totem poles.

During the 1930s, Nuu-cha-nulth (formerly known as Nootka – of British Columbia) members Simon Peter, his family, and Jimmy John came to Seattle in search of opportunity (not necessarily together). They carved Seattle totem poles and lots of them. Some were sold to Ye Old Curiosity Shop, which still stands on the waterfront. Another curiosity shop hired Jimmy John to carve totem poles and other images for Haida House (completely different tribe altogether). By 1937, Haida house was finished and sold many other artifacts. It later became the Totem House Fish and Chips shop (Thrush 2007:159-160), and is now the Red Mill Totem House Burgers shop. It stands across the street from the Ballard Locks at 32nd Avenue and 54th Street. As a little aside, it has a lot of vegetarian options.

Hired by Red Mill owners John and Babe Shepherd, Makah carver Greg Colfax restored the Haida House's totem pole and other carvings. The building was re-opened in October 2011, over 70 years after Jimmy John originally carved the features. Inside the restaurant is an photo of Haida House with the original carvings. There were more totems back then (Nielson c.a. 2011; Richard 2011).

Hired by Red Mill owners John and Babe Shepherd, Makah carver Greg Colfax restored the Haida House’s totem pole and other carvings. The building was re-opened in October 2011, over 70 years after Jimmy John originally carved the features. Inside the restaurant is an photo of Haida House with the original carvings. There were more totems back then (Nielson c.a. 2011; Richard 2011).

Seattle totem poles continued to be carved. In 1975, Alaska Indian Arts, Inc. created a totem pole to be placed at Pier 48 (Port of Seattle 2009). Just last year, on February 26, 2012, a totem pole was erected near the Space Needle, in honor of John T. Williams. Williams was a First Nations woodcarver, who was shot to death by police in August 2010. February 26, 2012 would have been his 52nd birthday (Martinez 2012).

Seattle Totem Poles: Elliott Bay Bike Trail

The totem pole, carved in 1975, that stood at Pier 48, was moved in 2009 to its present location along the Elliott Bay Bike Trail. The principal Alaska Indian Arts carvers who worked on the pole were John Hagen, Ed Kasko, and Cliff Thomas. After the red cedar was carved, traditional mineral paints decorated the totems (Port of Seattle 2009). A brief video showing the pole’s restoration and installation along the Elliott Bay Bike Trail near the Rose Garden is linked under Links at the base of this article. Below are close-up photographs of the pole.

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Elliott Bay Bike Trail Totem Pole with Clouds by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The pole stands near Mercer Street, but on a more typical cloudy day. The following close-up shots will be from top to bottom. The pole stands near Mercer Street, but on a more typical cloudy day. The following close-up shots will be from top to bottom.

Seattle Totem Pole: Elliot Bay: Top of Pole: Eagle Then Brown Bear

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Elliott Bay Bike Trail: Eagle and Brown Bear by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.On top of this pole, an eagle sits on top of a brown bear. The eagle represents a main clan of the Tlingit tribe. The brown bear, which symbolizes Alaska's great size, holds a tinnah (money piece). This tinnah portrays the great wealth of Alaska (Port of Seattle 2009). On top of this pole, an eagle sits on top of a brown bear. The eagle represents a main clan of the Tlingit tribe. The brown bear, which symbolizes Alaska’s great size, holds a tinnah (money piece). This tinnah portrays the great wealth of Alaska (Port of Seattle 2009).

Seattle Totem Poles: Elliot Bay Bike Trail: Killer Whale and Hawk

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Elliott Bay Totem Pole: Killer Whale and Hawk by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The third totem from the top on the pole along the Elliott Bay bike path is a killer whale.  The killer whale depicts tenacity and great strength. A hawk sits directly below the whale. The hawk portrays sharp eyesight and perception for the future (Port of Seattle 2009). The third totem from the top on the pole along the Elliott Bay bike path is a killer whale. The killer whale depicts tenacity and great strength. A hawk sits directly below the whale. The hawk portrays sharp eyesight and perception for the future (Port of Seattle 2009).

Seattle Totem Poles: Elliott Bay: Grizzly Bear and Strong Boy

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Elliott Bay Totem Pole: Grizzly Bear and Strong Boy by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.At the base of the totem pole overlooking Elliott Bay are a grizzly bear and Strong Boy. Strong Boy holds up the entire pole. Strong Boy exercised in secret. When a sea lion ate his uncle, all the other nephews fled. Strong Boy tore open the sea lion, releasing his uncle alive (gross but affective, eh?). Strong Boy supports the grizzly bear above him.  The grizzly, which symbolizes bravery, holds a mosquito as a warning that all is not easy (Port of Seattle 2009). At the base of the totem pole overlooking Elliott Bay are a grizzly bear and Strong Boy. Strong Boy holds up the entire pole. Strong Boy exercised in secret. When a sea lion ate his uncle, all the other nephews fled. Strong Boy tore open the sea lion, releasing his uncle alive (gross but affective, eh?). Strong Boy supports the grizzly bear above him. The grizzly, which symbolizes bravery, holds a mosquito as a warning that all is not easy (Port of Seattle 2009).

Links

  • Alaska Indian Arts, Inc.
  • Legend: Raven at the Head of the Nass
  • Other Symbols for Totem Poles in Southeast Alaska
  • Video of Elliott Bay totem pole restoration and installation
  • Chief-of-all-Women totem pole article, The Adventures of Seattle’s First Totem Pole, in the Urban Times.

    Related Post

  • A Salish Welcome: Salmon Bay, Seattle
  • Elliott Bay Bike Trail: a Bit of Natural History
  • References

    Kangass, Matthew
    2008 Rebirth of Puget Sound Native Art: SAM’s Big Show. ArtGuide Northwest (unknown post date). Tipton Publishing Co. Electronic document, http://www.artguidenw.com/Salish.htm, accessed May 3, 2013.

    Martinez, Amy
    2012 New Totem Pole is Raised in Honor of Slain Carver John T. Williams. Seattle Times (originally published February 26, 2012; modified February 27, 2012). Electronic document, http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2017606106_woodcarver27.html, accessed May 3, 2013.

    National Park Service (NPS)
    2013a History & Culture: A Short History of Seattle. Klondike Gold Rush – Seattle Unit National Historical Park. National Park Service (last updated April 27, 2013). Electronic document, http://www.nps.gov/klse/historyculture/index.htm, accessed May 3, 2013.

    2013b History & Culture: The Last Great Adventure. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. National Park Service (last updated April 17, 2013). Electronic document, http://www.nps.gov/klgo/historyculture/index.htm, accessed May 3, 2013.

    Nielson, Larry
    c.a. 2011 Totem House Restaurant. Larry Nielson Photography (unknown post date, but after October 2011). Electronic document, http://www.cityofart.net/totem_house.htm, accessed May 3, 2013.

    Port of Seattle
    2009 Interpretative sign by totem pole. Port of Seattle, Washington.

    n.d. Interpretative sign for salmon net pens. Port of Seattle, Washington.

    Richard, Terry
    2012 Totem Pole at Red Mill Totem House in Seattle Looks Better Than Ever Near Ballard Locks. OregonLive (published September 25, 2012; updated March 14, 2013). Electronic document, http://blog.oregonlive.com/terryrichard/2012/09/totem_pole_at_red_mill_totem_h.html, accessed May 3, 2013.

    Thrush, Coll
    2007 Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

    Wilma, David
    2000 Stolen Totem Pole Unveiled in Seattle’s Pioneer Square on October 18, 1899. HistoryLink.com (posted January 1, 2000). Electronic document, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=2076, accessed May 3, 2013.

    Creative Commons License
    Seattle Totem Poles: Bewildering History by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


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    8 Comments

    1. Hi Shari! I’m very happy to have found your blog and love the photos and associated stories! A friend of mine, Amirul Affifudin did his masters degree with me here in Adelaide researching some totem poles around Australia, I don’t remember where they all came from, but I know the one here in Adelaide was a gift from Canada. Do you mind if I share this with him – I’m sure he’d find it interesting! Hope things are going well with you and sending you lots of groovy thoughts : ).

      • Hi Kylie! Very cool about your friend’s totem pole research. Sure! You can share the story. I’d be honored! I hope all is well with you as well, and groovy thoughts right back at ya!

    2. This was very interesting, thanks for including photos too. It is sad to read about the Chief of all Women totem though.

      • I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re right though; the Chief of all Women story is sad on all counts.

    3. Really interesting! I’m new to Seattle, so this helps to understand the history of the area.

      • Welcome to Seattle! Coll Thrush’s Histories From the Crossing-Over Place is a great source for Seattle’s history. For Seattle’s culture, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a show called Almost Live (sort of a local Saturday Night Live) which is a fun intro to the area (note: Ballard is a hipster place now, but was an older Norwegian community then). Here’s a link to Almost Live’s Guide to Living in Seattle:

        .

    4. FABULOUS post and photos, thanks!

    Howdy! Share your thoughts!

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