Fall City considers moving downtown totem pole

In 1933, Hugh H. Hinds had a 60-foot red cedar tree trucked to his property in Fall City.

Hinds, an engineer, spent the next year carving the tree into a 43-foot-tall totem pole, inspired by the art of the Haida Tribe. Ever since, the pole in some form has stood as the entrance to Fall City, an unmissable sight among the comparatively short buildings that make up the unincorporated town.

For residents, the pole is an iconic symbol of their town and its history. Cindy Parks, a member of the Fall City Historical Society, likens it to the town’s Space Needle.

“It’s so Fall City,” she said. “Seattle has the Space Needle and we have the totem pole.”

The pole, which at this point has been restored a handful of times, has once again reached its end-of-life phase — and some Fall City residents are questioning whether they should continue to have it as a focal point of their town.

Residents have become increasingly aware that the pole is a misrepresentation of the Snoqualmie Tribe — whose ancestral land is where the pole now sits — and are in the process of deciding what should be done with it.

On a surface level, the issue is two-fold. Not only was the pole carved by a white man, but totem poles are an art style that was never practiced among tribes who call Washington home.

Pole carving is a practice that was traditionally performed by tribes in coastal Southern Alaska and British Columbia. Still, totem poles have had a long-standing presence in the Puget Sound region and have frequently overshadowed local Coast Salish art in terms of its value to Euro-Americans.

“The fact that you have a non-Native person appropriating an art style from thousands of miles away to honor another white person within lands where there’s an established Indigenous presence for a minimum 13,000 years is problematic,” said Steven Moses, an archaeologist for the Snoqualmie Tribe.

“Everyone I’ve talked to [in Fall City] would agree that it’s not culturally appropriate,” he said. “Whatever happens [to the pole], that just opens the door to tell the same story in a more culturally appropriate way.”

There are no concrete plans about what will be done with the pole, but it will be up for discussion and a possible vote at the Fall City Community Association meeting next month, said President Angela Donaldson.

The FCCA owns the Totem Garden, the land where the pole stands, and there is concern about the pole falling over because it is structurally unstable. Although the pole isn’t completely beyond repair, Donaldson said they want to move it out of the town’s main strip to respect the Snoqualmie Tribe, but also want to preserve it in a place that’s accessible to the public.

“Because of comments made by the Snoqualmie Tribe, it would be respectful to remove it,” she said. “But because of its historical significance and iconic nature for our community, we feel it would be best to be in a home that would allow public access.”

The situation in Fall City is one of a handful happening across the Puget Sound region. Most recently, the City of Tacoma removed a 72-foot-tall pole at request of the Puyallup Tribe. In Seattle, Native activists have been working to remove a pole near Pike Place Market.

Appropriation of totem poles in Washington dates back to the turn of the 20th century, more than 30 years before the Fall City pole was raised.

That’s when Alaska was in the midst of a two-decade gold rush that sent travelers flocking to the region. Seeking to capitalize on this traffic and make Seattle the “Gateway to Alaska,” local businessmen traveled up north in 1899 in search of an Alaskan totem pole.

After stealing a 60-foot-tall pole from the Tlingit Tribe, the men presented it to the Seattle City Council. The pole was placed in Pioneer Square that same year and was quickly embraced and popularized by city officials and businesses who used it to attract tourists.

Although Coast Salish Tribes have their own art styles, which are distinct from those of northern tribes, they weren’t as publicly visible as the grandiose and colorful totem poles that caught the attention of travelers. Moses said this is why he believes totem poles became the dominant stereotype for Native art in the region.

“For the Snoqualmie People and really all the indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest, our art styles are more personally spiritual and not meant for public viewing,” he said. “They were kept in our house and not meant for all to see.”

The Fall City Pole was raised in 1934 in dedication to Julia Harshman, a town benefactor who had died a year earlier. Harshman came to Fall City in 1903 and is most notable for starting the first telephone company in the Snoqualmie Valley that ran from Fall City to Tolt (now Carnation), opening with just 30 customers in the Harshman-Prescott House where Aroma Coffee now sits. By the time of her death, the company served roughly 250 customers in Fall City, Tolt, Preston, Pleasant Hill and Stillwater.

At the time the pole was raised, the Snoqualmie Tribe, whose largest village was once in Fall City, were being forced not only from their homes, but also the spaces where they hunted and fished.

“The 1930s was a point in time when the Tribe had been promised a reservation by the federal government that was never actually delivered,” said Jaime Martin, the executive director of government affairs for the Snoqualmie Tribe. “While that original pole was being erected, the Tribe was still without the land that had been promised to us.”

The Tribe was supposed to be guaranteed a reservation after the signing of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. They came close to getting that reservation at the end of the 1930s, but the U.S. government abandoned the plans due to preoccupation with World War II.

Without land, the Tribe lost their federal recognition status in the 1950s. In 1999, the Tribe finally received a reservation and regained their federal status.

By the early 1980s, it was determined that the original Fall City Totem Pole was non-repairable and members of the Fall City Business and Professional Association (now the FCCA) commissioned a member of the Tulalip Tribe to carve a replica that was raised in 1982.

The original pole bounced around locations, eventually ending up at Audrey Schroeder’s barn off of Redmond-Fall City Road. In that barn, a group of 26 Boy Scouts began restoring the old pole. By 2001, the replica was taken down and the old pole was put back up where it still stands today.

Schroeder, an active member of the community who also helped restore the Harshman-Prescott House, took the replica pole with her when she retired and moved out of Fall City.

Her son, Alan Minner, who still lives in town, said residents had a similar discussion about what should be done with the replica pole when it was coming down, but he said none of those suggestions ever came to fruition. That’s something he doesn’t want to see happen to this pole.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I would hate to see it taken down and destroyed,” he said. “I think there needs to be careful consideration.”

Martin and Moses say the totem pole presents an opportunity for the Snoqualmie Tribe and Fall City residents to come together and develop a shared understanding to prevent the misrepresentation of Snoqualmie culture.

“History is ongoing and we don’t need to get stuck in it,” Martin said. “If we want to move forward as a community with shared understanding, there needs to be a shared effort in making sure cultural appropriation isn’t perpetuated.”