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Keep the totem poles, but change the story

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I am 20 years old, have lived in Seattle all my life, and until two or so weeks ago, I thought totem poles were an art form indigenous to western Washington. In case you find yourself scratching your head, having believed the same thing, well, news flash: they are not.

At Victor Steinbrueck Park, located at the north end of Pike Place Market, City Council members are debating the value of keeping the totem poles. The park, which is slated to undergo major renovations come 2019, is currently home to two totem poles. Both were commissioned in 1984 by celebrated Seattle architect and preservationist Victor Steinbrueck, and designed and carved by Marvin Oliver of the Southwestern Coast Salish Quinault tribe and current UW faculty member.

Discussion has begun, headed by executive director of the Chief Seattle Club Colleen Echohawk and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez, on whether to remove these poles permanently during the park’s renovation.

The first totem pole graced western Washington on Oct. 18, 1899 with the planting of a 60-foot totem pole in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The ornate pole had been stolen from a Tlingit village in Southern Alaska a few weeks prior (while some of those involved in the theft claimed the village was abandoned, it has since been revealed that the village members were simply away fishing at the time of the theft). So began Seattle’s complicated relationship with the totem pole.

These carved cedar structures that depict cultural figures are native to the indigenous Northwest Coast people of northern British Columbia and southern Alaska, namely the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian tribes. Following the planting of that initial pole in 1899, however, the totem pole soon grew to be an icon of Seattle (which sits on land formerly controlled by the Duwamish tribe of the Coast Salish people).

Curator of Northwest Native American Art at the Burke Museum and assistant professor in art history and American Indian studies at the UW, Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, explained that use of totem poles in Seattle (which especially took off in 1909 during the city’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition) as a “marketing technique.”

“The business community in Seattle was positioning Seattle as the gateway to Alaska during the gold rush times ... and they were using symbols from southeast Alaska and British Columbia to let people know that Seattle was close to that region,” Bunn-Marcuse said.

Bunn-Marcuse also felt it critical to note that the totem poles of the northern Northwest Coast were the easiest of Northwest indigenous art forms to be accepted by a Western audience. She explained that, because of its large scale and application of European-recognized techniques such as carving and painting, “Northern Northwest Coast art came to represent what people thought what people thought Northwest Coast art was.”

While traditional Coast Salish art is equally breathtaking (simply look at a Coast Salish traditional “welcome figure”), it failed to receive the same platform within the white community.

While the efforts of removing these totem poles, and perhaps others throughout the city, seem an obvious solution to the problem of misrepresentation, it must be recognized that these pieces, though not in a style endemic to the region, remain indigenous art created by indigenous artists.

“I’m not sure that taking down any indigenous artwork is helpful to the project of making the public more aware of the strength of indigenous artists in our community,” Bunn-Marcuse commented.  

While it is clear that Seattle must better represent the Coast Salish people (it seems the least the city could do, having been established on land stolen from them and all), perhaps this can be done without jeopardizing the art already in existence. As the city expands and regenerates, countless opportunities arise allowing the installation of more public art.

Not only do these pre-existing totem poles serve as important means of highlighting indigenous art, they have the potential to serve educational value while also holding Seattle accountable for its former errors. Through the implementation of plaques properly explaining their history, Seattle’s totem poles can become part of the dialogue on the city’s role in colonialism and appropriation while also questioning the constraints imposed by Western values upon art.

With regards to the totem poles in Victor Steinbrueck Park, perhaps the best solution would be for the city to commission Coast Salish artists, ideally Oliver, the original artist, to add art done in Coast Salish style to the park in conjunction with the pre-existing poles.

It is time for Seattle to open up to more forms of indigenous art. The era of the Seattle totem pole was a reality which ought not be forgotten, but now as we sit at the precipice of a new reality rooted in representation, recognition, and appreciation, it is time to give space to the true indigenous art of the region.

I grew up thinking totem poles were indigenous to western Washington. I also grew up with the belief that my hometown was a lovely liberal haven incapable of doing wrong. I know now that respecting indigenous art and voices was never something this city has been very good at. But by rewriting the story of the city’s beautiful totem poles and establishing a strong presence of Coast Salish art, Seattle holds the potential to not only forge a new path of respect, but also establish a dialogue about its flaws.

Reach columnist Sophie Aanerud at Twitter: @thesraanerud 

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