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.
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.”
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, four other photos, one postcard and, in chronological order, 119 historical clippings from the Tacoma News Tribune and other online newspaper sources (including two period movie 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: