If only it could talk. The landmark totem pole at Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park would spin a yarn or two of what it has seen in the 115 years it has stood over the City of Destiny.

The Tacoma Totem Pole started its watch over Tacoma in 1903. It was unveiled to the public the day before President Theodore Roosevelt paid a visit to the city. At the time, it stood near the corner of South 10th and A streets, right outside what was then the grand Tacoma Hotel and served as a statement of Tacoma’s status as the economic engine of the region. The city was in a heated battle for that title with its neighbor to the north at the time, after all, so it seemed fitting that it was the tallest totem in the world at 105 feet tall.

Tacoma Hotel
The totem first stood in front of the Tacoma Hotel, as a statement of prosperity and commerce. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

It became an instant hit with tourists to the city, and was commonly featured in postcards and photographs that promoted Tacoma to the people flooding into the area from the East Coast. It even became the central image of the nationally released movie, “Eyes of the Totem,” by Tacoma-based H.C. Weaver in 1927. But that slash on the silver screen would only be followed by years of the totem quietly watching Tacoma’s landscape change as buildings sprung up and then were torn down to then be replaced by something new.

The cedar totem would periodically need repairs and touchups as the decades passed, each time prompting calls for donations and volunteers to do the work. The luxurious Tacoma Hotel burned down, leaving the totem to stand sentinel and neglected over a vacant lot for years. It was then moved a block away in 1954, only to then move again to the new Fireman’s Park in 1974 to allow for the construction of Interstate 705. It still stands there to this day, and now stands at 82 feet. It apparently shrank during the various repairs and moves.

The totem, at the age of 72, was then designated a historic landmark and again served as one of the most photographed icons of the city, alongside Old City Hall and the Murray Morgan Bridge.

Tacoma totem
A support pole was added in 2013 to keep the totem standing for the time being. Photo credit: Steve Dunkelberger

Flash forward 30 years.

City engineers inspected the totem in 2013 and learned it was again in need of repair. The decades of being open to the weather had taken their toll on the guardian of Tacoma. This time, the totem had rotted so badly that it could potentially fall over. Options at the time included finding an indoor venue to display the totem, remove it or shore it up with a support pole. The city opted for the latter option and spent about $70,000 to install the support beam.

“We have stabilized the pole and keep an eye on it to be sure nothing detrimental occurs to it,” Tacoma’s Arts Administrator Amy McBride said. “The totem isn’t something we would repaint. It isn’t the intention of totems to keep them shiny. In fact, traditionally, they are expected to rot away.”

Native American tribes that carve totems consider the journey from display and decay as part of their natural life cycle, so shoring the totem up and allowing it to rot honors that tradition… that is if the totem was actually carved by tribal members.

“We actually question its authenticity,” said Tacoma’s Historical Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight.

Tacoma Totem getting painted
Volunteer crews would periodically repaint the totem, often changing the colors, and therefore the meaning. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

The style, themes and colors don’t match the traditional themes of the Tlingit or Haida people who are credited for carving it. A longstanding theory is that the cedar tree used for the totem was harvested from Vashon Island’s Quartermaster Harbor and carved on-site by white carvers, only to be repackaged as being from “Alaskan Indians.”

The totem’s historical designation application only mentions that “it was carved by two British Columbian Indians whose identity was kept secret for in making the pole for white civilization, they violated the traditions of the tribe.”

Totems, after all, provided tribes with charts of their family lines, with each new tribal tie represented by that tribe’s representative spirit animal.

Whatever the true history of the Tacoma Totem may be, it is forever a part of Tacoma’s history, lore and landscape.

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