This Is Why Tacoma’s Totem Pole Was Taken Down

In May of 1903, Tacoma unveiled what was then the world’s tallest totem pole. It stood next to the Tacoma Hotel, decorated with brightly colored paint and a halo of light bulbs. Tourists loved it, local filmmakers were inspired by it, and it was a major point of pride for the City of Tacoma at a time when competition with Seattle was at its peak.

There was one big problem though—the entire thing was based on the willful suppression of local native culture and, most likely, an outright lie. It was wrong to install the totem pole in 1903 and it was wrong to spend time and money on a massive support system in 2013 when it was found to be deteriorating. Now, 118 years after its creation, a significant step has been taken toward righting that wrong.

At around 7:00 on the morning of August 3rd, 2021, the pole was cut into eight pieces by Tacoma Power crane operators and taken away to a storage facility. Beyond that, the fate of the pieces is not entirely certain. One goal is to have the top section with the eagle put on display at the Tacoma Historical Society. The context of its display is the important part though. Below is a portion of the Rescission of Tacoma Register of Historic Places Landmark Status document:

“Any possible display would be accompanied by a narrative that includes the full story of the pole to educate and inform current and future generations of the full context surrounding the creation of the pole that acknowledges the harm caused to Indigenous peoples and misinformation perpetuated over the years. A covenant would need to accompany the artifact to preclude any future display outside a museum setting and the requirement that the artifact be accompanied by the full narrative.“

This whole process started last February with a deaccession panel made up of multiple council members from the Puyallup, Tlingit, and Haida Tribes, as well as representatives from the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission and Arts Commission.

Again from the Landmark Status document, “The De-accession panel was assembled with the intention of centering Indigenous voice and perspective to bring information and concerns to the forefront that have not been shared in an official public forum to date.” The removal of the totem pole was unanimously approved in March.

The Tacoma Arts Commission would like to see a new piece of art made by a local Indeginous artist to stand in its place but there are no immediate plans in place for that.

People will surely have some strong feelings about this event. It’s difficult to see a piece of local history destroyed regardless of the reason. It’s also impossible to view this situation outside of the context of confederate monuments coming down elsewhere in the country and the broader topic of “cancel culture” in general.

However, considering the long history of atrocities committed against Indigenous cultures not only here on the land of the Puyallup Tribe but throughout this country, the removal of this totem pole seems like the least that could be done. A wrong that is committed and ignored long enough does not automatically become acceptable. A lie that is left to stand for a century does not eventually become truth.

We can’t change the past but we can acknowledge it and act accordingly. Ignorance and apathy will get us nowhere.

    1. Tacoma is a white city offical closet racist town..And this was a racists intentional hate crime act…. Need to Sue them for millions, now!!!! What a bunch of city offers law breakers and theives of first nations sacred artifacts

  1. We need to recognize our original local residents who lived here for thousands of years with very little environmental impact. Respect and protect their history.

  2. I do not understand how removing this beautiful sculpture changes past mistreatment of our local native peoples. To me it is a dishonor to the artist and native culture, and the beautiful tall tree used to make the totem pole, and any heritage we might recognize. It removes an important cultural symbol from Tacoma’s presence. Why not repair it, and add an educational and honoring storyboard to the display? I am distressed that some are inclined to erase our history, good and bad. Let’s know it and learn from it.

  3. It should be noted there were preservation commission members (myself included,) artists and representatives of local tribes that advocated for this in 2013 but were outnumbered.

    1. Edward E-

      If you’re saying that you and the others advocated for its removal (destruction) in 2013, I sure hope you are proud of yourselves now. One less reason for me to return to my hometown, knowing the city doesn’t even value its own history. It would hurt enough if the pole was merely removed and relocated (say to a museum). But no, it had to be DESTROYED. That hurts and angers me far more, especially as an artist myself. I can appreciate the work that went into creating something of this size. Clearly none of that matters to those in power!

      If however you were saying that you were advocating for its preservation in 2013, then please disregard my above comment. I was a little confused by your comment.

  4. The ignorance of the folks who placed it there in 1903 is staggering. Even back then, they knew that totem poles such as this were symbolic of the North Vancouver Island tribes who generally, and regularly RAIDED the lower Puget Sound tribes’ villages for slaves and property. Good for you. Steve Anderson, a local fur trade historian.

  5. As someone who was born and raised in Tacoma, and lived there most of my life, this absolutely sickens me! The destruction of this artwork, which is more than a century old, is nothing short of vandalism. Legalized vandalism is still vandalism. As an artist myself I can’t look at it any other way.

    As for displaying pieces of it in the future, whether in a museum or otherwise- NO. Absolutely NOT! If it was wrong to keep it where it was, intact, it’s wrong to display it in any form. You destroyed it, so now you can have your little backyard bonfire with your buddies, drinking beer and roasting weenies over Tacoma history. Because you know, we have to get rid of all tangible pieces of history now.

    I haven’t lived in Tacoma for more than 15 years, and I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons to ever return. Even for a visit! No, I never had any particular attachment to that totem pole or any other, but it IS a part of our collective history. When I was little my dad would take me to Fireman’s Park and see the pole. Now one more thing from my past has been forever destroyed. (And my dad passed away quite a few years ago.)

    I know my opinion is not important. So I’ve been told. But I’m really not finding very many reasons to ever come back to my hometown. I no longer recognize it. It’s only a matter of time before everything else historic is forcibly removed, and I’d prefer not to be there to see it.

  6. All things have lives, it was time for it to go. But it was made by native craftsman, that should be honored.

    1. All evidence points to it actually being carved by non-native artists. That was one of the major reasons for its removal.

  7. In 1962 I paid a semi-official visit to our Japanese sister city, Kokura (since absorbed into a megalopolis named Kita-Kyushu). At least one of our mayors had visited previously and presented them with a replica of the Tacoma totem pole, so I brought miniatures for the expected reciprocal gifts. Our friends in Kokura were very hospitable, but a few asked about the significance of the totem pole. Unfortunately, neither the mayors nor i could offer an explanation. Perhaps they should have had a pole custom carved to represent Tacoma’s history back in 1903.

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