Our Neighbor The Tacoma Totem Pole

Tacoma Totem Pole Conspiracy PART 2
posted Jun 4, 2013
tacoma, tacomic, totem pole, historical rot, Amy McBride, Arts Commission, Landmarks, History
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This cartoon draws inspiration from Tacoma Urbanist letter to the Editor "Tacoma’s totem pole sits dilapidated in Fireman’s Park for one simple reason: The city has failed to properly maintain it for decades. Built in 1903, the record-breaking totem pole welcomed President Teddy Roosevelt on May 22, 1903, and is an intricate part of Tacoma’s history.

Unlike the Luzon Building, which was privately owned, the totem pole is owned by the citizens of Tacoma. They have a right to see that it preserved and maintained and not destroyed by neglect as has happened with an endless list of Tacoma buildings and landmarks.

As former Washington State History Museum director David Nicandri has pointed out, the proposal to let the totem pole rot in the woods is completely misguided and in his words would be “stupid.” Given Nicandri’s nearly unparalleled knowledge of Tacoma’s history, we should take his analysis and dismay seriously.

Technically, there are a dozen ways that the totem pole can be preserved and strengthened to last another 100 years in downtown Tacoma relatively cheaply. Here is a chance for Tacomans to demonstrate they value their history by preserving their iconic landmarks."

then facebook comment discussion with a Post Defiance writer..

Daniel Lucus Rahe : I don't know how many more times I can be expected to point out that NO ONE is trying to tear the totem pole down. the studies have not been shown to the Commission yet. We don't even have a punchlist of options yet. All this outrage about saving the pole is kind of a waste, because no one - literally not a soul - is trying to take it down. Some poorly-worded comments were pulled out of a reading of notes from an advisory committee discussion. Those notes will have just as much bearing as all the other evidence and information and input we get from public works, historic research, and cultural research. If people cared about the pole, they'd care enough to partner with the city in constructive ways. Instead, people seem to automatically assume there is no constructive way to participate besides setting up rows of soapboxes.

Erik Bjornson : Glad to hear that Daniel. However, the Tacoma Art Commission is meeting on June 4th to determine whether the Totem pole should be "de-accessed" and the News Tribune has reported that many members of the LPC have indicated the pole should be taken down. Hence the dismay of David Nicandri, Peter Callaghan and many others. There is little doubt the totem pole is in real danger from being removed. Otherwise, why special meeting of the Tacoma Arts Commission?

Daniel Lucus Rahe : I'm one of the commissioners on the LPC. The Art Commission discussion is merely about possibly removing the totem pole from the city's public art roster in order to ease public safety and preservation measures. De-listing may not need to occur. I'm not sure. No one is. That's why they call meetings. Staff identifies the options and presents them to the commissions to discuss and vote on, or to create new options. So, if Arts Commission de-lists the pole, LPC is able to act without waiting for a vote from the Arts Commission as well. Simplifies preservation and mitigation efforts, from what I understand. Please, anyone, correct me if I'm wrong. NEXTLY.... Yes, several members stated that they agreed with the cultural sentiment behind taking the pole down. But those members only said those things because that meeting was completely preliminary in nature, and we had very little facts to go on. We are waiting for a lot of data. There was not vote taken, nada. We don't have options to choose between at the moment. It was a discussion, and that is all. The coverage of that meeting has dreadfully neglected that detail. As long as I'm on that commission, there will be at least one commissioner who isn't sold on the "tear it down" option. In fact, none of us are, really. We're WAITING for the data and thinking through the options. Besides, to be treated for infestation and wood rot, the pole will probably have to be taken down temporarily anyway. The reporting on this has just been kinda misleading.

[then award-winning tribnet reporter jumps in..]

Lewis Kamb : Not sure how you conclude the reporting "has just kinda been misleading." The story I wrote clearly states -- several times -- that the working group's recommendation was unofficial and tentative, and that no final decision has been made. http://

The quotes used in the story are verbatim from the meeting. Callaghan posted a complete transcript of the meeting's discussion online.

Perhaps it is very true that LP commissioners said what they did during the meeting "because that meeting was completely preliminary in nature," as you describe. Still, they said them nonetheless. How is it misleading to simply report what was said?

Daniel Lucus Rahe : Lewis... That's why I used the informally vague modifier "kinda." Somehow, whether intentional or not, the message that seems to be getting out there is inaccurate. In effect, people seem to be reacting to the LPC as if they are not truly advocates for the pole's preservation. Certainly, the public comment in the media gives us more to consider as we study the coming reports and findings. But, though you may not be able to see it from your perspective, the timbre in pieces like Callaghan's creates something of a false bogeyman in city government - an untrustworthy, scheming, insensitive, incompetent, and hasty bogeyman. Even our attempts to gather as much information and input as possible were looked upon with suspicion. That may not be how it looked from where you and Peter sit, which I understand. I simply hoped to have a partnership relationship with the public in preservation efforts, instead of being part of a somewhat antagonistic one.

Of course, even volunteer participants in the government process require the accountability review of the journalistic process. And, if i was an elected official, I wouldn't be saying any of this for fear of seeming critical of accountability or of having my words misconstrued as imperious. My contention is that the public is probably having a somewhat fruitless conversation about the totem pole. The primary threat is that we don't really know the extent of the damage, the extent of the risk, the feasibility of mitigation, the options for restoration, the implications of the symbology, etc. - not a discussion LPC had about a culturally appropriate demise.

Lewis Kamb : Perhaps "the message that's getting out there" that's upsetting you has nothing to do with the "coverage" you inaccurately claim is misleading; but rather that: 1) the only recommendation (informal or otherwise) that's been made during the process thus far has been to take down the pole and leave it to decay publicly; 2) that recommendation led to a discussion in which no LPC members opposed the recommendation, but more so talked about strategies of how to sell such a perspective to the public; 3) your own essay on the pole concluded, "Sometimes, we can’t save everything that is old. Sometimes, we shouldn’t;" and 4) directly due to the working group's recommendation, the arts commission has taken the very rare step of convening a de-accession review panel to determine whether to remove the pole from the municipal art collection.

I understand it's quite easy to blame the media, but even with the informally vague "kinda" modifer you included in your comments above, you also inaccurately claimed the coverage "dreadfully neglected" to mention the LPC has not made a decision. That's just not true. Read the stories. They say several times, rather bluntly, that no decision has been made.

Also, just to clarify: Other than Callaghan's blog post about the working group's apparent violation of the OPMA (an opinion shared by the WA AG's office), the coverage about the pole has not been accountability in nature. It's been basic, straight-forward coverage of public meetings meant simply to inform about what's going on in the process thus far.

Really, I don't have a problem with people criticizing my or the TNT's coverage. That comes with the territory. But for anyone who is interested in this issue, I would encourage them to actually read what we've published and to read the transcript of the May 8, 2013 LPC meeting (found at the end of this blog post: Or, better yet, listen to a recording of the meeting here: (discussion begins at the 1:42:26 mark). Then, feel free to judge for yourself who is being "kinda misleading" about characterizations of the process so far.

+ + + end fb + + +

RR Commentary: Peter Callaghan hunts down more on the letting-your-pole-rot-in-the-woods meme with mad-cap hilarity. I grew up in Alaska and the last thing they'd do up there is let a pole rot. It's what the dumb hicks down in the lower 48 states pay big money to see from the hulking cruise ships!   Check out these lead caps.   Lewis Kamb tells us more about the Tacoma Totem's death-panel here.   EVEN SO, I think everybody just wants to get rid of the crappy totem neck-brace and 'temporary' fencing before STATE FARM moves in.  REMEMBER THE LUZON!

Previously on The Tacomic...

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by takhoman on 6/4/2013 @ 5:08am

Great job R.R. But remember in Tacoma what city staff wants city staff gets. BE A SOT! SAVE OUR TOTEM!

by Jesse on 6/4/2013 @ 7:37am
There's a lot of ways to extend the life of this pole outdoors or just bring the dang thing inside if they're so certain it's going to rot outside.  This is just an instance where the city will have to be pushed off of their laziness to do the right thing.

by captiveyak on 6/4/2013 @ 8:09am

today's discussion at 2:30. Regardless of the outcome, the pole will still be a historic landmark. a recommendation concerning its status as "public art" - which has no bearing on its status as a protected landmark - may be reached to present to the public for comment and then to Council. 
Whoa! Slow down City! You are moving so hastily on stuff and we can not keep up. Whoa whoa whoa.

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 8:24am
I bet City is already thinking up decomposing internment plots.  I recommend camp 6! 

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 8:29am

the site is indeed being altered...  State Farm is moving in and saying: 'hey city clean up your crap!'

by takhoman on 6/4/2013 @ 8:33am

For more fodder go to:

And who cares who gets the credit for saving the pole.

Join The SOTS!

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 8:39am
(permalink! )

by nate.marshall1 on 6/4/2013 @ 8:54am
Lets fight fire with fire to save the Totem Pole.  (And by fire I mean greed based dollar thought with greed based dollar thought as opposed to the perservation of historic or artisitc history this town needs) Why don't we arrange to "Rent" The Totem Pole to Clear Channel to use as a sign post.
 It would NEVER get taken down that way.....
Clearly I am joking here. 
When I first moved to Tacoma I fell in love with downtown, and the totel pole was one of what I considerd the hidden gems of the city's downtown landscape.  Its rare to see such a beautifuly tall bit of native art and histry in our area anymore.  We should be preserving it ( I even say comission another to stand another 100 years at the opposite end of the park and make it a piece of heritage art)

by Erik on 6/4/2013 @ 9:06am
@captiveyak :

<i>today's discussion at 2:30. Regardless of the outcome, the pole will
still be a historic landmark. a recommendation concerning its status as
"public art" - which has no bearing on its status as a protected
landmark - may be reached to present to the public for comment and then
to Council. 
Whoa! Slow down City! You are moving so hastily on stuff and we can not keep up. Whoa whoa whoa.</i>

Yes, the tentacles of the City of Tacoma are moving at breakneck speed to remove and/or destroy the totem pole.  Having the totem pole "deaccessed" would take the totem pole out of the City of Tacoma's art collection, removing a level of protection for it.

At the very least, the Totem Pole is a 110 year old Fireman's Park is a Tacoma historical artifact and deserves to live, be maintained, and restored where it is without being razed by the Luzon. 

As Callaghan pointed out in his article, totem poles are not "left to rot" usually.  Instead, Alaska spends a great deal of time and effort maintaining and repairing totem poles. A new concept to the city.

Here is some of the methods they use to repair them:

Totem Pole Maintenance

Conservators Ellen Carrlee and Ron Sheetz at the Governor’s Totem Pole, Juneau, Alaska in May 2010

Southeast Alaska is the land of totem poles.  These iconic outdoor
sculptures are powerful, valuable, and remarkably vulnerable.  The
Tongass National Forest, covering 80% of Southeast Alaska, is a
temperate (cool) rainforest, with precipitation between 80 and 100
inches per year in most places where totem poles are made and
displayed.  (In comparison, Seattle’s annual precipitation is usually
under 40”.)  Imagine placing a wooden pole in the ground and exposing it
to the weather for decades.  Utility poles, which are heavily
impregnated with preservative chemicals, typically last 25-50 years in
much less aggressive conditions.  Most totem poles are not treated with
preservatives when they are erected.          
Ron Sheetz applies water repellent
I’ve been involved in the maintenance of several totem poles, and in
May 2010 had the great pleasure of working with Ron Sheetz, retired
National Parks Service conservator who specializes in furniture and
wooden objects.  Ron has treated well over 50 totem poles in the past
20+ years, and is a wealth of useful information and experience.  We
agreed it might be useful to have basic totem pole maintenance
instructions on the internet.  Ron also wrote a Conserve-O-Gram for the
National Parks Service a few years back called “Protecting Wood with
Preservative and Water Repellents” available at           
SUMMARY:  If you are responsible for the care of a
totem pole in an outdoor environment, a maintenance/inspection schedule
should be developed and carried out.  Inspections should check for loose
parts, damage, and signs of decay or insect infestation.  Borates and
water repellent should be periodically applied.  Borates help protect
against rot and insects, but are water soluble.  Water repellent
protects the pole and prevents the borates from washing out with the
rain.  The application of borates and water repellent should occur every
3 – 5 years, depending on when the water repellents have worn off
(water no longer beads up on the surface of the wood.)  If the totem
will be moved it is recommended to contact the Native community to allow
them the opportunity to comment and to be involved with the
preservation process.  Moisture management is key to preservation. 
Proper drainage around the base of the pole and lead or copper caps at
the top help preserve the wood.  Typically, if you set aside a week to
do the work, that’s plenty of time and allows for vagrancies of

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 9:31am
still like MofoFromTheHood's comment that this is just one big
conspiracy to obtain historically significant wood chipper mulch for the
Pac Ave rain gardens

by captiveyak on 6/4/2013 @ 9:50am
well, i'm not going to go on the internet anymore and make the "ridiculous" claim that the city will do something reasonable and correct. Apparently the internet is the wrong place to say anything nice about the City. The default consensus here is that if we can screw something up, spoil something beautiful, etc... we will - without good intent, without consideration, without public input, etc. Despite any and all evidence to the contrary. It's just a faulted paradigm that's not worth confronting. 

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 9:52am
JinxMedic! what have you done with Mr. Rahe?

(look forward to Lewis Kamb's summary of the meeting... I still believe in you folks!)

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 10:01am

by cisserosmiley on 6/4/2013 @ 11:20am
WE should try selling it on eBay first, if no one buys it then fix it.

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 1:37pm
Individual citizens should try selling the pole to tourists

by takhoman on 6/4/2013 @ 2:18pm

My brother and I have a personal interest in that pole as it is part of our family history. Sell it over our dead bodies.

by cisserosmiley on 6/4/2013 @ 2:33pm
FOR SALE !!!  I think "vintage" is a play on historic ?

by Xeno on 6/4/2013 @ 3:19pm
Erik, it is very true totem poles are not left to rot but the disgraceful maintenance history of this pole has put it in another category than even Callaghan can attest to.  I have heard stories that they used to have citizen groups that would repaint the totem in pastels.  Who let that happen?  The entire inner portion has apparently cored out.  How many more stints and bars can we put in this thing before it isn't even a totem anymore? I'd say given the damage, this is too little too late. It saddens me that preventative measures could have probably have been taken earlier, but do we invest in a future pole or invest in rot?

Funny thing is this isn't the first time the City has lost a totem pole.  Few will remember the Cushman Totem that was near the old Cushman building on Duct Cho Street.  The Puyallup Tribe put that Totem to rest.  All in all I think a new totem should be commissioned and under better pretenses than Callaghan's ridiculous notion of defending kitcsh.  Kickstarter totem style!

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 6:27pm
THE TACOMIC chalks up another VICTORY!

by NineInchNachos on 6/4/2013 @ 6:28pm
Tourists $$$ !

by cisserosmiley on 6/4/2013 @ 9:05pm
WE could easily make a mold & cast a permanent totem replica in fiberglass resin. 

by Mofo from the Hood on 6/5/2013 @ 6:22am
Totem poles are false idols. Rational minds look to trees chainsaw-carved into bears.

by NineInchNachos on 6/5/2013 @ 7:19am
many totem poles are of bears

by NineInchNachos on 6/5/2013 @ 7:23am

by Mofo from the Hood on 6/5/2013 @ 8:17am
Totem poles are like bureaucracies. Every now and then you gotta get rid of the dead wood.

by NineInchNachos on 6/5/2013 @ 12:49pm

by takhoman on 6/6/2013 @ 9:37am

Tacoma District #2 Council candidate Lecy-Davis speaks to the issues

For the June 6, 2013 edition of The New Takhoman click the link below.

Comments always welcome.

RR featured AGAIN!

by NineInchNachos on 6/14/2013 @ 8:07am

by takhoman on 6/14/2013 @ 8:24am
If city staff comes up with the money and a plan before the pole rots through. Keep up the pressure. SOT's forever!

by captiveyak on 6/14/2013 @ 9:09am
they kept me from destroying this totem pole. but the next one won't be so lucky.

by NineInchNachos on 6/15/2013 @ 7:40am

by Erik on 9/26/2013 @ 12:32pm
Saved at last from being turned into mulch!

Downtown Tacoma’s 110-year-old totem pole will be saved — at least for now — by erecting a shorter, metal pole beside it.Members of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a plan Wednesday to install a steel support system next to the 80-foot-tall wooden totem pole in Fireman’s Park to keep it from falling over.

The city will attach a 50-foot-tall steel pole in two spots on the back of the wooden landmark, which stands near 9th and A streets in downtown Tacoma.The design favored by the commissioners uses bolts and steel plates to join the totem pole to the support structure, but avoids encircling the carved totem pole with metal cuffs, as an alternate idea would have.

by NineInchNachos on 10/14/2013 @ 11:02am