Seattle Now & Then: The Tacoma totem pole, 1927

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: In this Tacoma Historical Society lobby card for the 1927 silent film “Eyes of the Totem,” filmed in Tacoma, actress Wanda Hawley, playing a homeless single mother, wears sunglasses while sitting at the base of the Tacoma totem pole, searching for the killer of her husband. This view is at 10th and A streets looking east to the Municipal Dock and tideflats, including Tacoma Lumber Co. (The pole was moved one block north in 1954.) The historical society has just released a digital version of “Eyes” for rental or purchase. (Courtesy Tacoma Historical Society)
NOW: A Tacoma Power worker uses a chainsaw to slice a midsection from the 118-year-old Tacoma totem pole. (Jean Sherrard) See below for many more NOW photos.

Published in the Seattle Times online on Sept. 2, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Sept. 5, 2021

Tacoma’s totem-pole takedown aims to ease tribal trauma
By Clay Eals

All the arguing over tearing down what some consider to be inappropriate public monuments becomes palpable once you hear the revving-up of chainsaws.

The roar came to Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park, the South A Street vista overlooking the port’s industrial tideflats, at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3. That’s when Tacoma Power workers hoisted cherry-picker buckets and began slicing into pieces a 118-year city landmark — the Tacoma totem pole.

Capped by an eagle, it was erected just before then-President Teddy Roosevelt’s May 22, 1903, visit to Tacoma as a lasting way to promote the City of Destiny in favorable comparison to northern neighbor Seattle. Described as 75 to 105 feet long, with some 15 feet underground, the pole bore a plaque calling it “the largest totem pole in the world,” a status touted for decades but eclipsed elsewhere.

First it stood at 10th Street next to the old Tacoma Hotel, then was moved one block north in 1954. It came down in 1974-76 for extensive restoration and was steadied in 2014 by a tall metal brace.

Its most prominent national role came in the 1927 silent film “Eyes of the Totem” (working title “The Totem Pole Beggar”), helmed by famed director W.S. Van Dyke and restored and re-premiered in 2015 by the Tacoma Historical Society. As shown in our “Then” photo, the pole figured strikingly in the melodrama.

NOW: The carved eagle atop the 118-year-old Tacoma totem pole is held by a strap around its neck as a Tacoma Power worker below uses a chainsaw to cut the uppermost slice off the pole. (Jean Sherrard)

Trouble is, the pole, long said to have been carved by Alaskan Natives hired by Tacoma businessmen, recently has been deemed both inauthentic in origin and purpose and unrepresentative of the indigenous Puyallup Tribe, which sought its exile. “There has been a lot of trauma,” tribal council chair Annette Bryan has said, “and we have to tell the true story to be able to heal.”

Tacoma officials agreed. They plan to commission new Coast Salish art for the park while storing the pole’s pieces and working with the historical society to display them with appropriate interpretation.

Debate rages on, however. Doug Granum of Southworth, who led the pole’s mid-1970s restoration, calls its amputation tragic. “Destroying history,” he says, “is right out of the Communist playbook.”

The feelings of Don Lacky, former member of the Tacoma Arts Commission who fervently pursued the pole’s preservation, are more mixed. “I can understand why the Puyallup nation finds it offensive,” he says. “It would be like Russia putting up a monument here in the United States.”

Meanwhile, 46-year Tacoma resident Verna Stewart, one of a few non-city staff or media witnessing the two-hour chainsaw takedown, was grateful to see removal of what she calls “another American history lie.”

WEB EXTRAS

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

We present a huge collection of extras related to this column’s topic.

Below are 14 additional NOW photos (in chronological order), four other photos and, in chronological order, 119 historical clippings from the Tacoma News Tribune and other online newspaper sources (including two period reviews!) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

We also present four videos: (1) comments from Amy McBride, Tacoma’s arts administrator, (2) comments from Don Lacky, former Tacoma arts commissioner, (3) comments from Verna Stewart, 46-year resident of Tacoma, and (4) a start-to-finish, 43-minute account of the totem pole’s takedown.

In addition, we present a provocative essay by Southworth artist Doug Granum, who led the restoration of the totem pole in 1976 and strongly opposed its takedown. Below the essay are photos of the pole taken by Granum prior to its 1976 restoration.

We also present (1) an Aug. 5, 2021, press release from the Tacoma Historical Society announcing the ability to see online its restoration of the 1927 silent film “Eyes of the Totem” and (2) extensive packets from three recent meetings of Tacoma’s arts and landmarks preservation commissions. The packets include letters from citizens, staff assessments and historical photos and graphics.

In addition, here are two “Eyes of the Totem” video links:

NOW: In this southeast-facing view in the post-sunrise haze of Tuesday, Aug. 3, the 118-year-old Tacoma totem pole stands in the city’s Fireman’s Park one half-hour before its takedown by a Tacoma Power crew. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: Prior to the cutting, the 118-year-old base of the pole proudly proclaims “Largest Totem Pole in the World.” (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: In this south-facing view early Tuesday morning, Aug. 3, the 118-year-old Tacoma totem pole is framed by artist Lance Kagey’s new Port of Tacoma sculpture called SWELL, which was installed last December in the city’s Fireman’s Park. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: A Tacoma Power crew lifts a cherry-picker bucket to the top of the Tacoma totem pole in preparation for slicing it in pieces on Tuesday morning, Aug. 3. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: A Tacoma Power worker steadies the top (eagle) section of the pole after it was sliced off, while a second bucketed worker looks on. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: The top (eagle) portion of the pole is eased downward to a waiting truck. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: The top (eagle) portion of the pole is eased downward to a waiting truck. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: A Tacoma Power worker eyes a mid-section where it is attached to its metal brace. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: Tacoma Power workers tie off a midsection of the pole before slicing it with a chainsaw. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: The carved eagle that made up the top portion of the 118-year-old Tacoma totem pole rests with other pieces on a Tacoma Power truck, ready to be stored by the city for possible later display by the Tacoma Historical Society. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: A Tacoma Power worker wields a chainsaw to slice another midsection off the 118-year-old totem pole. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: Pieces of the 118-year-old Tacoma totem pole rest in a city truck next to the pole’s stump. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: A Tacoma Power worker uses a chainsaw to slice off the pole’s stump. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: The moon rises on the evening of Aug. 15, 2021, near the top of the metal brace for the Tacoma pole in Fireman’s Park. The brace was installed in 2014 and was not removed on Aug. 3 because city officials say it may be used later in conjunction with Coast Salish art. (Clay Eals)
VIDEO: Click above to see Amy McBride, arts administrator for the City of Tacoma, explain the city’s perspective on Aug. 3, 2021, the morning of the city’s removal of the Tacoma totem pole from Fireman’s Park downtown. Video length: 1:56. (Clay Eals)
VIDEO: Click above to see Don Lacky, a former arts commissioner for the City of Tacoma, explain his perspective on Aug. 3, 2021, the morning of the city’s removal of the Tacoma totem pole from Fireman’s Park downtown. Video length: 5:29. (Clay Eals)
VIDEO: Click above to see Verna Stewart, a 46-year resident of Tacoma, explain her perspective on Aug. 3, 2021, the morning of the city’s removal of the Tacoma totem pole from Fireman’s Park downtown. Video length: 1:24. (Clay Eals)
VIDEO: Click above to see the entire takedown of the Tacoma totem pole on Tuesday morning, Aug. 3, 2021. Video length: 43:01. (Clay Eals)
TWO-PAGE ESSAY: Click above to download and read a pdf of the case made by Southworth artist Douglas Granum, who led restoration of the Tacoma totem pole in 1976, for why it should not have been removed.
THEN: This is a composite photo of the Tacoma totem pole as it lay in Doug Granum’s care for restoration in 1976. Double-click it to see the full detail. (Doug Granum)
THEN: The deteriorated top (eagle) portion of the Tacoma totem pole lies in Doug Granum’s care for restoration in 1976. (Doug Granum)
THEN: The deteriorated top (eagle) portion of the Tacoma totem pole lies in Doug Granum’s care for restoration in 1976. (Doug Granum)
NOW: The four lobby cards for the restored 1927 silent film “Eyes of the Totem” are sold by the Tacoma Historical Society. (Tacoma Historical Society)
Click above to download and read the Aug. 5, 2021, press release from the Tacoma Historical Society for details about the online opportunity to see the organization’s restored version of the 1927 silent film “Eyes of the Totem.” (Tacoma Historical Society)
Click above to download the extensive packet from the June 4, 2013, meeting of the Tacoma Arts Commission in which the Tacoma totem pole was a prominent topic.
Click above to download the extensive packet from the May 12, 2021, meeting of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission in which the Tacoma totem pole was a prominent topic.
Click above to download the extensive packet from the May 26, 2021, meeting of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission in which the Tacoma totem pole was a prominent topic.
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