Civics

Published on May 10th, 2013 | by Daniel Rahe

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How the Mighty Have (Almost) Fallen

The eagle at the top of the totem pole, as it appeared in 1948.

The eagle at the top of the totem pole, as it appeared in 1948.

The giant totem pole in Fireman’s Park near Old City Hall is fatally deteriorated, and no longer structurally stable. Any dead tree, no matter how intricately carved or fancifully painted, would rot and topple after 110 years of exposure to Tacoma weather. It should not come as a surprise that this particular 83-foot-tall log is crawling with carpenter ants and mushy to the core.

As a failing structure, the pole poses a threat to public safety in the park, and has been secured in place with cables.

The historic totem pole has been a landmark in Tacoma since 1903, when it was carved by anonymous tribal artists under contract to blustering civic boosters. As the story goes, Seattle had a very tall totem pole. Tacoma, of course, needed to have a taller one. From its towering vantage over Pacific Avenue, this pole became a tremendously popular tourist attraction.

These days, it’s almost easy to overlook it. The paint on the carved figures is very faded, and drivers speeding past on Schuster Parkway and I-705 could be forgiven if they mistook it for a retired power line pole. It looks lonely up there, as if it was left stranded above channels carved by the torrent of asphalt below.

The giant totem pole in Fireman’s Park is a relic, and city officials are struggling to find a way to deal with its decayed state. The wood is likely in no condition to bear any kind of force, whether it be its own weight, seismic activity, or wind. Even the guy cables currently secured to a collar near the pole’s base provide only temporary mitigation.

There are methods of preserving totem poles in place. Specialists in Alaska have carved out the unadorned backsides of some poles and inserted new logs of a smaller diameter into the groove to shore up the weakened original. But this is usually done on much shorter monuments, with less advanced stages of rot. The carvings could still crumble and fall.

A more permanent version of the current guy-cable stabilization could be installed as well. This method has been used on poles in Canada. But the diagonal cables take up significant space and would probably need to be fenced off. The park would shrink, and the public would lose access to the landmark.

The totem pole could also be cut into several structurally sound segments. This would eliminate toppling hazards and keep the carvings accessible to the public. This method has also been used in Canada on at least one unmanageably tall totem pole.

In any event, to be preserved, the pole would probably need to be removed from the ground and treated for rot and vermin. I’d wager that no public official in their right mind would see fit to re-install it in the park after such treatment. The wood will still be very unstable, and would likely need to be kept horizontal indoors.

These practical factors lead us to the obvious question: is this hunk of soggy timber worth the effort and expense?

Workers in 1948 restore the totem pole during a Clean Up Tacoma campaign.

Workers in 1948 restore the totem pole during a Clean Up Tacoma campaign.

The preservationist impulse compels us to rescue fading remnants of history. When a part of our shared past is endangered, we often regard pragmatic approaches as deeply heartless, or evil. We cling to sentiment and give poetry the weight of policy. Sometimes, the emotions that stir and rally us serve to strengthen understanding of heritage as we recall the tragic disappearance of beautiful buildings or public treasures.

Other times, we’re just getting worked up about old stuff.

There’s a difference between an antique and an artifact. Some are worth saving for their effect on numerous lives, and some aren’t. Sure, thousands of people have fond memories of this big old totem pole, but does that mean we should spare no expense to save it?

What values would the City of Tacoma be compromising if it were to simply take the thing down? Would that be a cultural failure and an abdication of our obligation to honor our city’s past?

The first thing we must consider when dealing with any totem pole is the tribal significance of the carvings. Officials are contacting researchers all over the Northwest to uncover what meanings and clan connections, if any, linger in the iconography. Any persons with connection to those symbols will be contacted for consultation. Since it was considered impolite, at best, to sell sacred clan symbology to foreigners such as Tacoma civic boosters, it’s possible that the carvings on our totem pole have no definitive anthropological ties, and are an indistinguishable mash-up of symbolism. It is possible, but not proven.

[Note: Library archives have this to say about the origins of the totem pole’s carvings: “Tacoma’s totem pole in Fireman’s Park was commissioned by W.F. Sheard and Chester Thorne. It was carved by Native Americans from Sitka, Alaska in the Haida tribal style. Then it was presented to the city in 1903, it stood 103 feet tall. This totem pole represents the history of the Eagle Tribe of Alaska. The top most figure of a totem pole would be the special animal god (eagle, seal, salmon or bear or even the sun) from which the tribe claimed descent and a particular protection. The eagle on top of Tacomas pole is “Skanskwin”, the crest of the Nexa’da people. (Tacoma Ledger, 12/14/1924; TNT, Page R. Hosmer, 3/16/1946; TNT, 12/6/1953)]

Even if the carvings on the totem pole have a meaning, that meaning takes on a greasy sheen when we imagine greedy, insensitive, empire-minded civic leaders appropriating Native American tradition for marketing purposes. Totem poles aren’t even part of local tradition (Sound area tribes erected welcome figures, like the one in Tollefson Plaza while totem poles were associated with groups further north), and this one is a relic of a time when Native American culture was usually treated with all the respect of a carnival sideshow. As such, it is a painful reminder of the dead-eyed glee with which Westerners trampled the lives and culture of America’s more original inhabitants. It’s hard to say whether it is better or worse that this pole wasn’t carved by white men.

As our society makes strides toward greater cultural appreciation and diversity, it could seem fitting that this possibly out-of-place totem pole should break and rot with the ignorance that inspired it.

Some folks at City Hall think it should be allowed to fall, as totem poles traditionally are, and left to decompose. The tribes that carve them believe they have a life cycle that includes return to the soil. Perhaps it could live out the rest of its days as a disintegrating feature of one of Tacoma’s several wooded parks, crumbling to the earth it came from slowly enough to remind us of the consequences of our past – close, fading, irretrievable – its beauty wasted on cheap and unworthy purposes.

The relationship the Fireman’s Park totem pole has to indigenous culture is not the only context through which Tacomans perceive it, though. It’s been a part of the downtown landscape for decades, a witness to its boom, decay, and rebirth. Sentimental attachment to it is understandable, especially when so many elements of that history have been lost to the wrecking ball.

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But the loss of historic buildings is only tragic because those buildings could have been preserved. They were destroyed by short-sightedness, lack of maintenance, and poor judgment. The totem pole is different. We’d have to suspend nature and tribal tradition in order to keep it with us – and for what purposes? Is it really anything more than a curiosity?

It is extremely important to note that much of this discussion is conjecture and supposition. There is no final analysis or decision, as of yet, regarding the totem pole’s condition and fate. We’ll have to wait for further comment from Tacoma’s public works officials and preservation officer. But I hope we’ll take some time to temper our preservation reflexes and make room for objective contemplation of value. Sometimes, we can’t save everything that is old. Sometimes, we shouldn’t.

(images courtesy of Tacoma Public Library archive)

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About the Author

Founder of Post Defiance, Dan is a father, surveyor, writer, and runner.



3 Responses to How the Mighty Have (Almost) Fallen

  1. C@TRH says:

    I think a recarving of the top, say, 6 feet of the pole, to replace the current deteriorating pole would be enough to satiate everyone. I would think most would agree public space is more important than the current pole supports. Maybe even bury the remainder of the pole on-site.

  2. Sarah Koestler says:

    I am doing a paper in my planning class at UWT and am doing a design critique on this park. Do you know if there have been any updates to the decision by the city officials on the totem pole?

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