Activists want to remove Seattle’s iconic totem poles

Opponents say the art fixtures misrepresent the local Native community.

 

This story originally appeared at .

Colleen Echohawk first started thinking about the totem poles in Victor Steinbrueck Park about five years ago. During a meeting of the Metropolitan Improvement District, she says she heard a police officer quip about the downtown park, “Did you know that that park was originally designed for Native people to go and drink?”

“I was like, ‘Are you fricking kidding me?’ ” said Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club and a member of both the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and the Upper Ahtna Athabascan people.

The officer so casually dropped a trope that has dogged the Pike Place Market park for so long, that it hardly registered in the room. “It’s hurtful,” said Echohawk. “It’s embarrassing. It’s like, this is what the community thought we were capable of?”

So Echohawk began thinking more about how local Native people of the Duwamish region are portrayed. And through that effort she found herself back at the park in question, looking up to the two poles that loom over the Highway 99 viaduct below, each carved and installed in 1984.

In them, she saw something troubling: The poles were created to honor Native history. But they do not represent the people on whose land Seattle now sits. Totem poles did not originate in the Puget Sound area. Rather, they are from the Native people of the Northwest coast — from Vancouver Island, north to Haida Gwaii to the southern edges of Alaska — and the Tlingit people.

In 1982, the two 50-foot cedar totem poles were erected at Victor Steinbrueck Park.

The Coast Salish people who have long populated the lands surrounding Puget Sound, such as the local Duwamish and Suquamish, on the other hand, are known for their  — shorter carvings, with outstretched arms — and a more minimalist style of art.

“I think they thought they were doing a good thing,” Echohawk said of those who commissioned the poles. “But because of misrepresentation in the Native community, it has consequences.”

For Echohawk, who works daily with Native people struggling with homelessness, accurately representing Native communities is a matter of life and death. “One of the things that I know is that the lack of cultural representation in the Native community turns into inequity, it turns into poverty, high homelessness rates,” she said. “These kinds of issues have everything to do with people dying.”

Now, Councilmember Debora Juarez, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, has taken up the issue and is leading an effort to remove the poles. She is serious enough about the effort that she has said she would consider stripping the park from the boundaries of the protective Pike Place Market Historical District to make it happen.

But for some Seattle historians and preservationists, such a move would be an affront to the market and the history of that particular park. “These are complicated issues and we need to have public discussions, but I think it’s entirely misguided attention at the Victor Steinbrueck poles,” said Peter Steinbrueck, a former City Councilmember and son of the man the park is named for. “It was an act of love and compassion that the poles came to be … and you don’t just undo something like that because some council members have raised issues.”

The totem poles, commissioned by Victor Steinbrueck, were both carved in 1984.
Victor Steinbrueck was the man most responsible for preventing a redevelopment of Pike Place Market in the 1960s. He and his family are revered among those most interested in preserving certain pieces of Seattle history; his efforts have been repeatedly invoked in recent months as inspiration for the activists who seek to save the Showbox, which is located across the street from the market. In fact, the Seattle City Council’s effort to save the music venue from demolition has brought it temporarily into the Historical District that Victor Steinbrueck helped create.

But while the park is officially named for Steinbrueck, many know it simply as Native Park — and it does indeed have a reputation as a place where Native people spend time. Designed by the late Rich Haag, the park’s defining features are its sloping berms where visitors recline, the sweeping views of Puget Sound and the Olympics — and the two poles, made of cedar logs and jutting 50 feet into the air.

The park will undergo a substantial renovation in 2019. The membrane separating it from a parking garage below has become leaky and in need of repair. During that repair, the poles will come down. And therein lies the opportunity for those who oppose their presence — to simply not put them back. Echohawk and others say the Museum of History and Industry in South Lake Union has agreed to work with the city to take them.

Since the park is part of the historical district, removing the poles would require support from the Pike Place Market Historical Commission. Representatives from the commission declined to comment. But in an August email to Echohawk and other local Native artists and designers, an aide to Councilmember Juarez seemed to suspect the commission would not approve, writing, “It is likely that if we submit an application to remove the poles from the Park that the historical commission will deny the request.”

Repeated requests to speak with Councilmember Juarez over several weeks were not successful, but public remarks show that she has not ruled out going around the commission by removing Victor Steinbrueck Park from the Historical District entirely. During an August committee meeting, as the council began its discussions about expanding the Pike Place Market to include the Showbox, Juarez said, “My office is dealing with the Pike Place Historical District where we would like to see some property removed from the district,” a reference to the park.

Additionally, her aide wrote in the email, “Council action or action from the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods can override the historic commission.”

For Peter Steinbrueck, there’s no question that that would be a mistake. He sees the poles as a marker of friendship between communities. They were commissioned by his father, but designed by Marvin Oliver, a well-known and respected artist of the Quinalt tribe. “The park should not carry [Victor Steinbrueck’s] name if those poles are removed,” Steinbrueck said in an interview. “They’re place-making. They’re central to the park’s designed concept, designed to honor our Native history by Natives and non-Natives.”

There’s no disagreement that the poles are more representative of communities to the north. Oliver, who designed them, declined to comment for this story, but in March, he told the market’s historical commission, “Totem poles are associated not with here, but up north in Vancouver.”

For Steinbrueck, the transitory nature of cultures is part of the story. “What is the relationship that Seattle has to totem poles?” he said. “It’s historical, it points to movements of people up and down the coast.” 

The cedar totem poles were designed by Marvin Oliver of the Quinalt tribe.

But artist Louie Gong of the Nooksack, a Coast Salish tribe, sees it differently. Gong’s storefront in Pike Place Market, Eighth Generation, is entirely Native owned and operated. It’s best known for its Native-designed wool blankets, but also sells everything from jewelry to iPhone cases.

For him, the prevalence of totem poles and art from the north has squeezed out artists interested in creating locally rooted art. “It’s been marginalized here in the Seattle area over the last 200 years because of the prevalence of Northwest coast style art, which is a cultural import,” he said. “Totem poles are not representative of the cultural art of Seattle. While they’re beautiful and we know that it was only good feeling that went into creating the poles at the park, as a Coast Salish artist I feel it’s a strong misrepresentation.”

Tourists, he said, have become trained to seek out — and buy — Northwest Coast style art, rather than work from the more local Coast Salish.

Indeed, the poles are everywhere — Pioneer Square, the Burke Museum, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop., “Seattle is a city of totem poles,” calling them Seattle’s “signature art form.” When Native woodcarver John T. Williams was shot in the back by a Seattle police officer in 2010, he was memorialized through a totem pole. His family has been carving such poles in Seattle dating back to the late 1800s, when John T. Williams’ grandfather moved south from Vancouver Island.

Steinbrueck said if the two poles in his father’s namesake park are going to be removed, then that discussion needs to expand to the whole city’s relationship with totem poles. He pointed to the Pioneer Square pole in particular. The original there was stolen from the Tlingit people by colonialists, shipped south to Seattle. Although the current pole is not the same, the symbolism remains, he said.

“Let’s not be targeting two poles in Seattle falsely and unfairly without having the larger discussion,” he said. “I’m absolutely supportive of having an open discussion with our Native communities broadly. Let’s add to it. Let’s build the story. Let’s continue the story.”

Steinbrueck might get what he asked for. “I do think it’s a conversation to have,” said Echohawk.

Suquamish tribal elder and historian Barbara Lawrence said that the conversation should precede any action. She said she believes the display of totem poles is problematic as it erases the cultures of the people who are still here. She goes into schools and finds education about totem poles and longhouses — also from the north — but little about the original culture and current successes of the Suquamish tribe.

“It’s a serious problem that the public doesn’t know who we are, right here in front of them,” she said. “It looks like it’s harmless, it’s a piece of art. But it’s bigger than art — it’s who we are, it’s where we are from, it’s our language, it’s our very survival.”

But at the same time, Lawrence believes any removal should be done respectfully and with concern for the creators of the totem poles. Marvin Oliver in particular, she said, is beloved and should be intimately involved in the discussion around the future of the Victor Steinbrueck poles. “When somebody commissions a piece of art from him and has it placed somewhere it has a meaning behind it and that’s what I want to know before removing,” she said.

Juarez has support for the poles’ removal from Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who’s been involved in conversations with the historical district. The Mayor’s Office and Department of Neighborhoods have deferred to Juarez’s office on the issue. In a July letter to the Council, transmitting a resolution on improvements to Victor Steinbrueck Park, Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote, “This resolution does not address or take a position on the totem poles in any way,” pledging to continue to work with Native communities to address concerns. The issue could slip into 2019, when construction on the park renovations begin and the poles come down.

Exactly what would take the poles’ place is unclear. Gong points to the Coast Salish Welcome Figure in front of the Tacoma Art Museum, carved by Shaun Peterson of the Puyallup Tribe, as an example of art done right. But whatever goes to Victor Steinbrueck Park, he said, should come from a broad community-based conversation. 

Echohawk stresses that she does not question the motives of the Steinbruecks or any of those involved with the poles originally. She describes Oliver as “amazing.” But at the same time, she said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t unintended wrongs that should be righted, calling it “compassionate racism.”

“When we have 10-12 million people that come through that park, it’s an opportunity for us, as a city, to remember that we’re in a Native city.”

David Kroman is the city reporter for Crosscut.

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