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Seattle moves to replace totem poles with authentic indigenous art

Totem poles have become a symbol of Seattle, but it turns out they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people of the Northwest. Now there is a growing movement to right the cultural wrongs done by well-meaning white settlers.

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Totem poles from Alaska's tribes, Chief Seattle dressed in the headdress of a Great Plains tribe - these are just some of the things Native Americans say Seattle hasn't gotten right.

Now they want to change that.

Colleen Echohawk stood beside a totem pole inside the Chief Seattle Club, where she is executive director. Totem poles, like the one that rises high above the ground in Pioneer Square, represent native tribes from Alaska, not the Pacific Northwest.

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"Well, they stole them, yeah," said Echohawk.

She was asked how that happened.

"There were people who went to Alaska in the gold rush," Echohawk said. "And they got excited. And they saw these beautiful totem poles, which are appropriate to Alaska native culture, and they thought they were cool. And they were brought back to Seattle. Sadly, sometimes they brought them back and they hadn't asked permission."

A case in point is the Pioneer Square totem pole.

"This was two years after the Yukon gold rush," said author Robert Spalding via Skype

Spalding has written a new book, "Monumental Seattle: The Story Behind the City's Statues, Memorials, and Markers." Spalding says some prominent businessmen decided they needed a totem pole to connect Seattle to the Last Frontier, so they stole one from the Tlingit tribe, which is native to Alaska.

"They went ashore and they cut down this totem pole," Spalding said, "Floated it back out to the ship and brought it to Seattle."

Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez says it is more than the theft.

"Imagine a whole group of people where this is indigenous land that is not represented," said Juarez.

She spoke out recently on the Seattle Channel program, “City Inside/Out: Council Edition.” 

"It comes down to a value system in who we are as Seattle, Chief Seattle," she said. "And you know we have the emblem of the chief, which by the way is a 'Plains Indian,' not a 'coastal Indian.' We have the poles down at Steinbrueck Park, which are not traditional Coastal Salish poles."

Indeed, she and others say this park, initially known as Native Park, was largely the creation of one man, Victor Steinbrueck. The totem poles were designed by Marvin Oliver, a well-known native artist, but "He's pretty clear that those are Victor's poles," says Colleen Echohawk. "He says that over and over again."

At some point, Echohawk called their actions "compassionate racism." 

"Yeah, that is a phrase I kind of have coined a little bit on this," said Echohawk. "I feel like there was so much good intention, like so (many) compassionate people who were creating this park."

Still, she says those good intentions have not made life better for native peoples here. 

"These kinds of of appropriation of our arts and culture and misrepresentative of who we are, as native people, it has a reaction," Echohawk said. "And the reaction is in human suffering."

She and others are pushing for changes at Victor Steinbrueck Park that better reflect the native people it was designed to honor. Any changes would come before the Seattle City Council committee Debora Juarez chairs. Juarez is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation.

A new chapter is being written.

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