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The Totem Pole, Pioneer Square - Seattle, WA
Posted by: Groundspeak Premium Member NorStar
N 47° 36.122 W 122° 20.030
10T E 550073 N 5272284
Quick Description: According to the American Guide for Alaska, this totem pole in the park portion of Pioneer Square was brought from Alaska in 1897, the work of a Tongas Indian, and was repaired after vandals had set it on fire in 1938 - but there's more to the story.
Location: Washington, United States
Date Posted: 10/14/2010 8:36:25 AM
Waymark Code: WM9Y2R
Published By: Groundspeak Charter Member BruceS
Views: 30

Long Description:
Seattle was a very important port for the then territory of Alaska. In fact, much of the American Guide Series book for Alaska is devoted to Seattle. The book states on pages 111-112 (skipping some text):

...The steep streets of Seattle seem not far distant from Alaska. Nearly every clothing store on First Avenue claims to be the Alaska outfitter. Chunks of glittering galena, questionable nuggets, and bottles of black sand, flecked with yellow, reinforce WE BUY GOLD signs..." The text lists many things that have originated or are about Alaska, including trading companies, books in the library, and the totem pole at Pioneer Square.

There is a separate entry for the totem pole, as follows:

THE TOTEM POLE, Pioneer Square, 1st Ave. at Yesler Way. Brought from Alaska in 1897, this fine example of totem carving was set up in Pioneer Square to commemorate Seattle's part in the development of Alaska. It was damaged by fire in 1938, but careful repairing has left no sign of the injury suffered then. The pole is the work of a Tongas Indian, and the features, reading from the top down, are Raven, Shaman, Frog, Bear, Eagle, Whale, Eagle. These are the family crests of a chief and his wife whose house it stood. What a given pole means, in any further detail, can be told only by the man who carved it or ordered it carved. These Indian pictorial are richly allusive, and as intertwined as Arabian Nights. The maker of a pole often needs several days to "read" or explain it fully to a stranger.

--- A Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier, p. 114-115.

Some things have been left out of the guide, one a probable intentional glossing over of the facts, and the other probably not getting the right information. The National Park Service (NPS) Web Site has a web page devoted to Pioneer Square that provides some more information about the totem pole.

There seems to be some discrepancy whether the totem pole in view is the original pole, repaired, or a pole that was made to replace the original one. The NPS site states:

In 1938, the pieces that remained after vandals set the Totem Pole on fire were sent back to Alaska, where Tlingit craftsmen graciously carved a reproduction. The new pole was soon dedicated, with tribal blessings, at a Potlatch celebration and has since remained unharmed on Pioneer Square. It now stands as symbol of the complicated relationship between American Indians and European Americans."

Thus, NPS claims that this is a reproduction, not the original pole.

The second item concern the circumstances over bringing the totem pole to Seattle. The NPS web site - collaborated in another web site - states:

The Totem Pole first appeared in 1899, after members of the Chamber of Commerce, vacationing in Alaska, stole it from Tlingit Indians. The men gave the object to the city as a gift, but the tribe justly sued for its return and $20,000 in damages. The courts found the men guilty of theft, but fined them only $500 and allowed the city to retain ownership.

An article on says:
The totem had been stolen from a Tlingit village several weeks before and was presented to the City of Seattle by the Chamber of Commerce 'Committee of Fifteen' -- the group of Seattle vandals (who were prominent citizens) that had taken the totem...The Seattle totem belonged to the Raven Clan (English surname Kinninook) and had been carved in about the year 1790 to honor a woman named Chief-of-All-Women who drowned in the Nass River while on a journey to visit an ailing sister. The top carving was that of a raven, which in Tlingit mythology did everything, knew everything, and seemed to be everywhere at once. In Seattle, the raven faced north up 1st Avenue...When the ship stopped at Fort Tongass, third mate R. D. McGillvery went ashore. He later described what happened, 'The Indians were all away fishing, except for one who stayed in his house and looked scared to death. We picked out the best looking totem pole... I took a couple of sailors ashore and we chopped it down - just like you'd chop down a tree. It was too big to roll down the beach, so we sawed it in two.' Members of the Committee of Fifteen paid McGillvrey $2.50 for his effort and the pieces were hoisted aboard the ship.

More of the account can be read by following the link. This article also confirms that the totem pole was replaced rather than repaired.

The totem pole of today still stands, though it does look weathered. The paint is faded, and there is moss on various faces. The raven's beak has a white curved piece off one side but not the other - it could be intentionally asymmetric or the other side is now missing. The square is in good shape now, but through the 1970s this area was run-down, and some buildings were demolished before a citizens group stopped it.

So, come to see an imported piece of Alaska, and admire the workmanship, no matter when it was made.


American Guide Series - A Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier: Visit Link

National Park Service (Iron Pergoda and Totem Pole): Visit Link (Stolen totem pole unveiled in Seattle's Pioneer Square on October 18, 1899.): Visit Link
Book: Washington

Page Number(s) of Excerpt: 114-115

Year Originally Published: 1939

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