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Totem Poles Treasures From The Past

Jan Mayrhofer By Jan Mayrhofer on
Badge: Publisher | Level: 14 | Other Culture & Society Expertise:
Totem Pole, Public Domain Photo

Elementary school students in the Pacific Northwest learn early about the culture of the local Native American tribes. What most fascinated me were the stories about totem poles. They were carved from tree trunks, and came in a variety of sizes and were displayed for varying reasons. Most were something like a European coat-of-arms, though somewhat more mystical because many Native Americans believed they had descended from different animals. Some were shame poles, erected to announce publicly that there was a debt owed. There is actually a modern shame pole in Sitka, Alaska that denotes the distorted face of ex-CEO of Exxon for unpaid court-ordered debts for the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.

There are wonderful websites with a lot of information about totem poles, including their history and their meaning. Two such sites that I found interesting and informative are native totems and wikipedia totem poles.

Lately, a couple of local totem poles have been in the news here in the Seattle area. In West Seattle, two poles were stolen right under the noses of the community. In the case of the largest one, a crane company was hired to remove the pole from its position in a landmark viewpoint park and deliver it to the thief’s home, where he had plans to display it as a design element in his home. Police were also involved in the moving of the pole because of the need to stop traffic to allow the crane truck to pull into traffic bearing its load. The thief’s story was that he was working for a local museum that had commissioned him to restore the pole.

The smaller pole, which was located in a small, community mall, apparently wasn't missed right away, but it is assumed that both were stolen by this would-be collector at about the same time.

Once the large pole was delivered to the thief’s home, he belatedly realized it was too large for the space he had intended it, so he wrapped it up and drove it to Oregon, where his brother owns a pawn shop. This is where it was finally discovered, still wrapped and on a trailer in the parking lot, together with the smaller totem pole. It was a huge relief to the fans of the totem poles because they are authentic Native American poles and quite old, so very valuable. A totem pole that is commissioned today is valued in the tens of thousands of dollars range. It is estimated that the large, stolen pole has a value of $100, 000.00.

Right now, both poles are being restored, which they were in sore need of. Over time, weather and insects have taken their toll. No one knows how long it might have been before the community took steps for the restoration project.

It turns out that the restoration of both poles will cost a total of $20, 000.00, which the thief has agreed to pay as his punishment for stealing them. I think this is an interesting form of punishment and feel like it is better than locking him away, forcing the community to foot the restoration bill.

Hopefully, we have learned to appreciate the value of our treasures from the past, these Native American totem poles, and will be more diligent caretakers in the future.