Tacoma’s totem pole

Is it or isn’t it part of Tacoma’s history?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Did I miss something here? The totem pole has been part of Tacoma’s history, identity and literal landscape for 120 years and the best we can do is cut it up and toss it away and pretend it never mattered?

While it might not align with current (or historic) preferred values, for better or worse, it embodies and represents a key element and era of Tacoma’s formation. Maybe it does not (or ever did) deserve a public prominence, but surely it should be preserved. How many 120 year old artifacts does Tacoma have?

It’s been the center of a downtown park for over a hundred years, played a key role in an early Tacoma film (Eyes of the Totem) many civic events and now it’s final destiny is to be chopped up, quietly discarded – and erased from our shared memory?

This air-brushed, sanitized history might work for some places, but for the messy, contradictory and yes, gritty Tacoma I know, this is just not how we do things. Or if it ever was, it’s not a way that ever worked for us.

My primary objection is that we seem to be asking the wrong questions; is it a key (and unique) figure in our city’s history and identity?

For better or worse, it obviously is.

It might reflect cultural exclusionism and appropriation (and it certainly does) and it might encapsulate a bitter, petty and pointless rivalry with Seattle (and it certainly does), but in both ways, it expresses “truth” about who we in Tacoma, are, what we valued and where we came from.

Is it “authentic”? No.

But does that question have any bearing or even meaning?

Is Fort Nisqually “authentic”? No.

Is the Point Defiance Zoo “authentic”?

That’s like asking if Disneyland is “authentic”.

Is Olive Garden “authentic”?

Taco Bell?

Coca Cola?

Whether the term “authentic” fits any or all of those places or items is irrelevant.

They are part of our identity, our culture and yes, our landscape – they, for better or worse, are entwined with our history.

Should we, on whim, decide to get rid of them?

There may be no reason to keep them prominently displayed. They certainly may speak to a culture and value system long gone, but for some time (decades to centuries) they spoke to a sensibility, even a sense of civic, sometimes national pride.

Is Tacoma’s totem pole something we are “proud of”?

Maybe not.

But is that a fair criteria?

Are we “proud” of much of our local architecture? Our neighborhoods? Our freeways and rail lines? Our bridges and industrial work areas?

<strong>Notice the runner at the bottom of the photo for a sense of the scale. For over a hundred years the pole has been a presence in our community. Photo by Morf Morford</strong>

Notice the runner at the bottom of the photo for a sense of the scale. For over a hundred years the pole has been a presence in our community. Photo by Morf Morford

We have many neglected if not out-right abused parts of our local areas, our aquifers and stunning scenic vistas literally disturbed by garbage and industrial waste.

These areas, like Tacoma’s totem, express what we value (or what we are willing to tolerate) until, apparently like the totem, we can tolerate no more.

I’m not a big fan of Tacoma’s totem.

I’ve never really looked at it or thought that it captured much more than civic boosterism, hubris and pettiness.

It never struck me as “authentic” or even very interesting.

But it also does not deserve to be tossed.

About ten years ago the city decided to spend about $70,000 for a support beam for the totem.

Why was it worth the investment then, but only worthy of abandonment now?

A totem is, by definition, a tribute and a monument, but for whom? And by whom?

What community or event did this totem ever commemorate?

Did we expect it to keep its meaning as the community around it changed?

A totem pole, at its best, is a community level version of a family crest or a clan tartan – it defines a place and a people.

Tacoma’s totem does little of the sort.

Does the totem deserve of place of prominence? Probably not.

Does it deserve to be discarded like some tacky unwanted family heirloom? No.

For whatever reason, and by whatever set of standards, civic leaders commissioned, preserved and protected this pole.

Apparently it spoke to them.

But just as apparently, it does not speak to most of us.

As much as I am not impressed by the totem’s message or history, I hate to see it thrown away.

I’d like to see it set up in some setting where it might belong – maybe a corner of Fort Nisqually or as part of an exhibit on Tacoma’s civic boosterism at The Historical Society or somewhere else.

Like virtually every major artifact of Tacoma’s history, Tacoma’s totem veered from landmark to “guardian of the city” to target of civic disdain.

We may not agree with, or like its message, but it, like a certain family member that we never really understood, still says something about who we are.

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