For decades, a colorful totem pole topped with an eagle’s outstretched wings stood 40 feet tall on an island in the center of Riverfront Park.
But the landmark’s long residency in the midst of the Spokane River came to an unceremonious end this spring, when it was sawed from its concrete base and sent away, leaving a stump encased in cement where the totem pole used to stand.
A few feet away, a second, smaller totem pole remains.
Spokane Parks and Recreation announced in March that the taller totem pole on snxw meneɂ island – formerly Canada Island – would be returned to its donor, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, an organization that advocates for responsible sportsmanship practices.
But the totem did not end up in the council’s possession. Instead, it made its way to a parking garage owned by developer Kent Hull, who was president of the council at the time and who plans to install the now approximately 35-foot-tall totem elsewhere along the river, near his Iron Bridge corporate park.
The totem pole’s path from a prominent place in a public park to a private development has raised questions about the removal of a once-celebrated piece of art in the heart of Spokane.
While Spokane Parks Department spokeswoman Fianna Dickson said the totem pole was removed at the request of the Spokane Tribe, tribal officials dispute that.
“I can’t say that it was at the request of the tribe,” said Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe Business Council.
But Evans does say the question of whether to remove the totem pole was part of the broader discussion about renaming the island, in large part because “totem poles are not a part of our regional tribal culture and specifically not the Spokane Tribe.”
As a group that included “several individuals, including a representative from Canada, a representative of the parks board and a representative of the tribe” talked about creating an educational and cultural space that represented the sacred history of the island for the Spokane Tribe, Evans acknowledged the subject of moving the totem pole came up.
“The Spokane Tribe felt that was not authentic. That it was not an authentic piece,” said Berry Ellison, program manager for Riverfront Park. “It wasn’t a sharing of cultures and that’s why it didn’t fit with the intent of the agreement between the tribe and the city.”
But Evans disputed that claim.
At the heart of the question of whether the totem poles belong on the island, Evans said, is the question of their connections to indigenous cultures.
In the case of the smaller totem pole, those connections are clear. As for the larger one, Evans says those connections are less straightforward and make the question of whether it should have been removed harder to answer.
Long before the two totem poles were erected on snxw meneɂ island in the 1970s, it was of deep significance to members of the Spokane Tribe, Evans said. They knew the island as the farthest point up river that salmon could swim, making it a sacred place.
But when white settlers arrived in what is now Spokane, the island was one of the first pieces of land that white settlers held. They renamed the island several times, calling it Crystal Island and then Cannon Island before renaming it Canada Island in honor of it serving as the site of Canadian exhibits during Expo ’74.
As part of the expo, a member of British Columbia’s Nootka Nation, Joe David, carved a 25-foot totem pole in the B.C. Pavilion. The totem pole depicts David’s three tribal names and symbolizes a killer whale transforming into a great wolf, according to a 1974 Spokesman-Review article.
After it was complete, members of the Nootka Nation held an ancient tribal ceremony on the island to install it.
The mayor at the time, David Rodgers, said the city received help from the Royal British Columbia Museum about the “care and feeding of the totem pole.”
Two years later, in 1976, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council held the Big Horn Show at the Spokane Convention Center. Afterward, a telephone pole was left over after a logging contest.
Hull, who was president of the council at the time, and other members asked two visiting tribal members to carve a totem from the pole.
Wobay Kitpou, an Algonquin Shamen from Canada, and Michael Paul, a Colville Indian craftsman, carved the totem out of the pole, according to a Spokane Daily Chronicle article at the time.
The artists were touring Spokane schools as part of Indian Awareness Week, the article said.
The totem begins with a whale that symbolizes mother nature, Hull said. Then there is a chief, followed by a bear symbolizing strength, a raven symbolizing wisdom, and the eagle representing the maker and the sky, Hull recounted.
“We were the ones that donated it to the city, and we did all the footwork and legwork,” said Larry Carey, a longtime wildlife council member. “It’s kind of a historical piece for the wildlife council.”
In April 1977, City Councilwoman Margaret Leonard helped coordinate the gift of the totem pole to the city, according to a Spokane Daily Chronicle article. In 1969, Leonard became the first woman elected to the Spokane City Council.
Leonard was a member of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council and was running for Spokane mayor at the time. The pole was dedicated to her and she was represented in the totem along with the carvers themselves, according to a Spokane Daily Chronicle article.
In August 1977, Washington Water Power installed the pole on the island. A dedication ceremony featured the artists and Leonard dressed in traditional Native American clothing.
The totem pole continued to be a part of events on the island, including the annual Gathering at the Falls Powwow. It was the site of prayers in the Seven Drums, a traditional native religion, in 1999.
Then in 2010, Spokane Parks and Recreation repainted and repaired it.
Dave Randolph was longtime parks and recreation foreman who made it a point to look after the totem, Hull said
“I think after he was gone, the city just didn’t want to maintain it,” Hull said.
A resolution was signed by the park board in November 2016 giving the Spokane Business Council, the governing body of the Spokane Tribe, some autonomy over what happens on the island and in Riverfront Park.
“The Spokane Park Board agrees to work with the Spokane Business Council concerning the determination of appropriate land uses, activities, signage and public art displays on Canada Island and throughout Riverfront Park, and to include the Spokane Business Council’s designated representatives in all major design deliberations concerning Canada Island,” the resolution reads.
“They were renaming it more to recognize the Spokane Tribe, you know. It’s our historical homeland,” Evans said. “When totem poles aren’t a part of our past, it doesn’t make sense to bring in a different culture to document as if it’s part of our culture.”
Emails show that the Spokane Tribe requested both totems on the island be removed before Aug. 27, 2016, the date of a ceremony during the Gathering at the Falls Powwow and ahead of the island renaming and dedication.
In 2017, the island was officially renamed snxw meneɂ, (sin-HOO-men-huh), a Salish word that means “salmon people.”
Asked recently about how the decision to move the taller totem pole came to be, neither Dickson nor Berry Ellison, program manager and landscape architect for Riverfront Park, knew who made the final decision to have the totem removed, when the decision was made, or that the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council did not take final possession of the totem pole.
Normally, the Spokane Board Joint Arts Committee, which is comprised of representatives from Spokane Arts and the parks board, would make the decision to remove a piece of public art owned by the parks department from the public arts catalog, said Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts.
However, the totem is not considered public art by the parks department, because city officials say it predates Spokane Arts. As a result, it did not require a vote from the park board to be removed, according to emails between city officials provided by Dickson.
But the totem was donated to the city in 1977, a year after the Spokane Arts was founded.
Huggins said, though, that a process for adding public art to the city’s arts catalog may not have been in place yet. And the piece was never classified as art, a cultural artifact or a monument, she said.
Karen Mobley, former long-time executive director of Spokane Arts, was not surprised that many historic artifacts are not part of the city art catalog.
“They didn’t retroactively go back to the founding of the city and accession every decorative or cultural or art project that was placed on public property,” Mobley said.
Mobley said Spokane Arts’ responsibilities are many and could have left gaps in the process of dealing with what could potentially be considered public art.
“It’s not a thing that has been supported robustly with a deep set of curators and administrative staff,” Mobley said. “So, the fact that there were a few things that perhaps in the early years were not consistently done is not surprising to me.”
While no one at the city could specify who made the final decision to have the totem pole removed, a brief outline of the process described by Huggins shows Spokane Arts advised the parks department on the removal of the totem.
Spokane Arts supported honoring the Spokane Tribe’s request to remove the totem, as long as the donating organization was willing to take back the piece and as long as the piece was photographed for historical documentation, Huggins said in an email.
Carey has been a member of the wildlife council since the early 1970s and took it upon himself to coordinate with the city on the future of the totem.
The park had been discussing the removal of the totem pole for some time, Carey said, and he was worried about its future.
“I didn’t want it to turn into firewood,” Carey said.
He worked with the parks to potentially find another site for the totem, but the parks department never considered moving it somewhere else under their jurisdiction, Ellison said.
“I think the park board just didn’t want to relocate it,” Ellison said. “We have been wrecking a lot of things out of Riverfront over the four years of redevelopment here.”
At first, it was thought that the totem would be installed at the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council’s office space, but Carey said logistics and monetary concerns with chipping away the concrete base got in the way.
Instead, the parks department cut the bottom 8 feet off the pole, leaving a stump encased in cement where the totem used to stand in the park. They took the totem to the parks storage yard, where city officials believed the wildlife council picked it up. But in actuality, it was Hull who retrieved the totem.
For Hull, the way the pole was removed was upsetting, he said. But he has vowed to preserve it, creating a new base for it and installing near the bridge that is the namesake of his Iron Bridge development.
“The meaning of these (the totem pole’s) symbols relates to all tribes,” Hull said. “And it’s something that has meaning to me.”
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