How Do We Honor the History of the Tacoma Totem Pole?

The Tacoma Totem Pole that stands in Fireman’s Park has decayed to the point that it is no longer structurally sound.  After 110 years exposed to the elements, the pole is showing its age with rotted wood that could give way in an earthquake or a strong wind.  While the City explores different options for dealing with the pole, it has been fenced off so it doesn’t fall on anyone’s head.

There are several options being discussed.

The City could invest in structural reinforcements to brace and strengthen the pole.  There’s no cost estimate on that yet, but we’ve seen reports that $10,000 has already been spent on short-term stabilization and inspection.  Engineers are exploring more permanent bracing solutions that would keep the pole upright for another 20 years or more.

The pole could be cut up and displayed in several smaller pieces, which would address the danger of the taller structure falling, but would not halt its decay.  It also would not preserve the pole’s 100-foot height that beat out Seattle’s 60-foot totem pole.

The pole could be lowered and moved indoors to a museum or other location for display. The totem pole is unusual in that it is both a historic landmark and a piece in Tacoma’s municipal art collection.  We read in the TNT that the artwork has been determined not to be of “museum quality,” but it might still be of historic interest.

Or the totem pole could be laid to rest.  Literally.  One option is to take the pole down from where it stands in Fireman’s Park, and place it somewhere on its side where it would be allowed to continue the natural process of decay.  All explained for passersby on a nice interpretive plaque.  This would be similar to what many tribes that carve totem poles traditionally do: they let the pole fall where it stands, and return to nature.

For a piece of Tacoma that’s been relatively ignored for at least the recent decades of the last century, the Tacoma Totem Pole seems to be stirring quite the conversation.  We’ve seen its history dug up, including connections to Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to Tacoma 110 years ago yesterday.  Our friends over at Post Defiance shared their insights into the pole’s history and current predicament, along with some pretty cool historic pictures.  And if that’s not enough for you, Peter Callaghan over at The News Tribune has weighed in, putting his thumb on the scale on the side of preservation.

Interestingly the debate over the Tacoma Totem Pole has turned out to be less about the Native American carvers (it’s not a local tradition), and more about Tacoma’s identity over the past century and more.  If that’s the question, what’s the best way to honor the chapter of our past embodied in the totem pole?

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Erik BRegistered

Tacoma should restore and save the Totem.  It has done well for 110 years, why not keep it there.  It is a bold piece of art in a city that certainly needs some more interesting art, not less of it.  I like that it was placed where it was as a source of city pride.

Tacoma already lost the Luzon to the bulldozer because of fears of it falling down, are Tacomans going to let the totem be destroyed as well?

A few well placed dollars poured into the totem could save it for another 110 years where it is now. 

May 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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John Hathaway

Hurray! We have our first SOT.  Get them organizederic.

May 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Two dogs cuddling

It is totem pole. It may have been commissioned by shysters and viewed by American governmental royalty, but it came from the earth and should be returned to the earth.
  Perhaps a trade could be bartered, give onto the first nations the body of the murderous man Custer and stick the pole in the dirt where he fell. 
How about returning an acre of land from Tacoma to its original owners for every foot of pole you wish to prevent from returning to Earth?

Tacoma it the only city I know that will take millions in contributions form the Puyallup Tribe each year, can spend a quarter of million dollars to erect a bronze statue to honor a know land thief and swindler (Allen c Mason), but can’t find 1.5 million out of a 150 million dollar project to study future transit linkages to the over 5000 tribal members.

Now you say finders keepers!  Shameful.

May 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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fred davieRegistered

Make a mold of the existing pole. Create a resin duplicate and install it. Store the current pole in the basement of the history museum in case some scholar wants to see it. Every few years put up a resin replacement. Problem solved.

May 24, 2013 at 8:12 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Dorian Maine

If the public preference is to preserve the pole, then why couldn’t we just erect a glass tower around it that’s outfitted with humidity controls to slow decay in addition to lighting. Better yet, have that illuminated tower incorporated into a small learning center (the size of that open area in the park where it currently stands) with some of Tacoma’s history and stories centered around the pole. The potential and main draw there is that the center could then be a sort of public apology/reconciliation extended to the native tribes that celebrates their involvement within the creation of our identity while also activating a public park that could use more foot traffic; in much of the same style as the Chinese Reconciliation park, though a bit more informative and accessible.

However, I myself am partial to the idea of letting the tower fade away while a small open air pavilion is constructed that celebrates the history of the pole and the reason why it is decaying away. In it’s place could be a beam of light in remembrance of that piece of history (in the style of the Twin Towers pre-memorial+plaza redesign, though obviously with a much smaller scale lighting solution) or better yet a contemporary towering art piece inspired by the original yet executed with the finest contemporary building materials to exemplify how Tacoma is emerging as a contemporary (and dare I say cutting edge? well maybe not quite yet…) city with a strong identity informed by it’s past. Of course that solution in a truly ideal world would also be able to serve as a public apology/ small scale education center. Perhaps the pavilion could be forgone if instead a led monolith were constructed that displayed a brief animated version of anything that would have been covered in traditional ways; something like this would be much more reflective of a world class destination like Seoul which has interactive digital monoliths placed regularly throughout the entire city that display local facts, nearby establishments and events, as well as live camera feed(!).

Truly this an opportunity for Tacoma to do something interesting, with word spread far and wide through respected design blogs celebrating public space (anybody here read dezeen per chance?) and other outlets. Anyhow, those are just my thoughts on what I would do if I had a cool 3mil to burn on a public project.

May 28, 2013 at 4:33 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Dorian Maine

and of course my young & uninformed self had no idea the pole wasn’t even made by local peoples, meh; so well some of what I sad can be scrapped (mainly the reconciliation thing). Still a good chance for bits of history to be made accessible and interesting through ideas like the rest of mine listed above.

May 28, 2013 at 5:11 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Erik BRegistered

June 4, 2013 at 8:22 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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