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Story pole’s rich tale has rotten ending

1940s Indian artwork removed because decay made it unsafe

OLYMPIA – A 71-foot story pole that had been a centerpiece of American Indian art on the Capitol Campus since 1940 was cut down Wednesday before it fell apart.

The cedar pole, adorned with colorful animal figures, was rotten from water damage and in danger of collapse, according to a September inspection by Architectural Resources Group, a San Francisco-based firm.

The consultant recommended that the state Department of General Administration remove the pole.

A few state employees watched as workers were hoisted aloft in a crane and used a thin-bladed chain saw to cut the pole down in six sections.

“It will be a loss on campus,” legislative employee Debbie Driver said. “It would be nice to see another piece of Native American art take its place.”

Some Northwest tribal members, including Makah tribal carver Greg Colfax, agreed the state should commission art by a contemporary American Indian artist to fill the void.

Colfax, who did extensive restoration work on the pole in 1987 and 1997, didn’t question the decision to take it down.

“Personally, I think it’s had its time,” Colfax said in an earlier interview.

“The inside of the pole is hollow and rotten.”

The pole pieces will be stored temporarily in the vacant Capitol Campus greenhouse, said General Administration spokesman Steve Valandra.

“We’ll ask tribes in the region if they have an interest in them,” he said.

In addition, the state agency will work with the governor’s Office of Indian Affairs on a suitable art-replacement project.

Traditionally, story poles and their figures were designed to teach children life lessons.

The story pole that stood on campus for 70 years grew out of a meeting on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in the 1930s between then-Gov. Ronald Hartley and Snohomish Chief William Shelton, a renowned pole-carver.

Shelton worked on the pole and its 21 carved figures for five years but died in 1938 before completing the pole.

Several other tribal carvers finished the project.

The story of the pole will be told in a historical display that General Administration and the Secretary of State’s Office are preparing for the lobby of the GA Building.

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