Story Time w/ Aunt Phil: Sitka's stolen totem pole
If you have ever traveled to Seattle, you may have visited its iconic Pioneer Square, which once was the heart of the Washington city. During the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, Seattle was the center for travel to Alaska.
A group of businessmen decided it would be a great idea to connect Seattle’s city center to its neighbor to the north by displaying an icon that was uniquely tied to Native culture. Their plan included enlisting one of the most well-known steamships of the day and a bit of larceny.
As the story goes, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce wanted to erect a totem pole in Pioneer Park in downtown Seattle. However, those who carved the magnificent monuments only came from the tribes of northern Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands and the adjacent tribes in British Columbia and Alaska.
So, in the summer of 1899, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put a delegation on board the City of Seattle, a famous steamship that often sailed to and from Alaska, to travel to Sitka to see if they could find a totem pole suitable for the park. Since most of the totems by this time were stationed in Indian burial grounds, the delegation’s mission was indeed delicate.
After a brief stay in Alaska’s old capital, guests returning to the ship were advised by the purser not to believe anything they heard and only half of what they saw from that time forth.
After finishing her business in Sitka, the City of Seattle sailed out a bit and then anchored in a stream. Passengers watched as the crew lowered one of the ship’s lifeboats into the water and a few men rowed ashore. They picked out the best looking totem pole and along with a few sailors, chopped it down just like a tree. It was too big to roll down the beach, so they then sawed it in two.
The totem, which belonged to the Raven Clan, was carved in 1790 to honor a woman called Chief-of-all-Women who’d drowned in the Nass River.
The City of Seattle then returned to her home port with the looted totem pole, which then was put back together and unveiled in Seattle’s Pioneer Square late in 1899. The totem was “greeted by cheers of a multitude of people,” according to a newspaper article of the time.
The Tlingits were not pleased that their totem had been stolen and demanded $20,000 for its return. They settled for $500, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paid.
The original totem stood proudly in Pioneer Square until a careless smoker tossed a cigarette butt against its decaying base in 1938. The city then removed the original totem and replaced it in 1940 with a replica carved by the descendants of the original totem’s carvers.