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.