ALL THE ARGUING over tearing down what some consider inappropriate public monuments becomes palpable once you hear the revving-up of chain saws.
The roar came to Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park, the South A Street vista overlooking the port’s industrial tideflats, at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3. That’s when Tacoma Power workers hoisted cherry-picker buckets and began slicing into pieces a 118-year-old city landmark — the Tacoma totem pole.
Capped with an eagle, it was erected just before President Teddy Roosevelt’s May 22, 1903, visit to Tacoma as a lasting way to promote the City of Destiny in favorable comparison to northern neighbor Seattle. Described as 75 to 105 feet tall, with some 15 feet underground, the pole bore a plaque calling it “the largest totem pole in the world,” a status touted for decades but eclipsed elsewhere.
First it stood at 10th Street next to the old Tacoma Hotel, then it was moved one block north in 1954. It came down in 1974-76 for extensive restoration and was steadied in 2014 by a tall metal brace.
Its most prominent national role came in the 1927 silent film “Eyes of the Totem” (working title “The Totem Pole Beggar”), helmed by famed director W.S. Van Dyke and restored and repremiered in 2015 by the Tacoma Historical Society. As shown in our “Then” photo, the pole figured strikingly in the melodrama.
Trouble is, the pole, long said to have been carved by Alaska Natives hired by Tacoma businessmen, recently has been deemed inauthentic in origin and purpose, and unrepresentative of the Indigenous Puyallup Tribe, which sought its exile. “There has been a lot of trauma,” Tribal Council Chairwoman Annette Bryan has said, “and we have to tell the true story to be able to heal.”
Tacoma officials agreed. They plan to commission new Coast Salish art for the park while storing the pole’s pieces and working with the historical society to display them with appropriate interpretation.
Debate rages on, however. Doug Granum of Southworth, who led the pole’s mid-1970s restoration, calls its removal tragic. “Destroying history,” he says, “is right out of the Communist playbook.”
The feelings of Don Lacky, former member of the Tacoma Arts Commission who fervently pursued the pole’s preservation, are more mixed. “I can understand why the Puyallup Nation finds it offensive,” he says. “It would be like Russia putting up a monument here in the United States.”
Meanwhile, 46-year Tacoma resident Verna Stewart, one of a few noncity staff or media witnessing the two-hour chain-saw takedown, was grateful to see the removal of what she calls “another American history lie.”