August 09, 2010

Q. Is the tradition of carving totem poles native to Western Washington?

The Burke Museum partners with the Seattle PI's Big Blog to answer commonly asked questions about the natural and cultural history of our region. Read past entries from the Ask the Burke column here.

Q. Is the tradition of carving totem poles native to Western Washington?

A. Although totem poles have become a symbol of all Northwest Coast Native people and their use has spread to neighboring tribes through the years, they weren't always in the Seattle area. Tall multiple-figure poles known as totem poles were first made only by the northern Northwest Coast Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia and are not native to the people of Western Washington. Closer to home, the Coast Salish people in Southern British Columbia and Western Washington carved large human figures representing ancestors and spirit helpers on interior house posts and as grave monuments.

Even though totem poles were not originally carved by people living around the Puget Sound, references to totem poles can be found in many places around Seattle, such as a totem pole in West Seattle that was recently stolen (and returned), the Pike Place Market totem pole, those here at the Burke Museum, and of course, the long-standing totem pole in Pioneer Square.

Tlingit totem pole is unveiled at Pioneer Square, Seattle, Washington, October 18, 1899. Photo courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections Division.

The Pioneer Square pole was originally aquired in 1899 by a group of Seattle businessmen who took a trip to Southeast Alaska and stopped in the Tlingit village of Tongass. They assumed that the village had been abandoned and proceeded to remove a large pole that was taken back to Seattle and erected in Pioneer Square. In fact, the Tongass people were just away at their fishing camps, and when they returned, they were unhappy to find the pole stolen. The thieves had been observed and their actions were reported to Governor Brady in Alaska. The Tongass people asked for the return of the pole or payment for it. After lengthy negotiations, a payment was made, but the pole remained in Seattle. This pole was damaged by fire in Pioneer Square in 1938, and a replica was carved by a group of Tlingit carvers from Ketchikan as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps project. This replica pole still stands in Pioneer Square in Seattle today.

To learn more about the history of totem poles and other carvings, visit the Burke's award-winning website The Enduring Power of Totem Poles.