Should the Steinbrueck Park Totems be Returned to the Market?

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For nearly 40 years, two 50-foot cedar Totem Poles towered over Victor Steinbrueck Park at Pike Place Public Market. Then last year, those iconic totems were unbolted from their plinths, lifted off using a giant crane and carted away to a storage yard in Discovery Park. On that breezy April morning, Shannon Glass, Seattle Parks and Recreation senior project manager, was reassuring. She said the historic poles would be refurbished and reinstalled – “with fanfare.”

(Image: Adam Fagen on Flickr)

Removal of the two poles was a necessary step during the city’s reconstruction of Victor Steinbrueck Park. The no longer water-tight membrane underlying the park allowed leaking into the Market’s underground parking garage.

Whether those poles will be returned to the park as originally promised is now open to question. Members of some local tribes are pushing for their permanent removal. They want the poles, crafted in the style of more northern tribes like the Haida, replaced with traditional Coast Salish art.

Last December, Seattle Parks reversed its earlier position and petitioned the Pike Place Historical Commission to authorize the poles’ permanent removal. David Graves, a Parks’ strategic adviser, said, “We heard loud and clear the poles are not representative of local culture.”

However, the Market’s Historical Commission, in recognition of the poles’ history and importance to the Public Market, voted in December to deny Parks’ application. When voting to reject, commissioner Elisa Shostak blasted Seattle Parks for having stored the totem poles a few inches off the ground and open to weather for almost a year.

Speaking on behalf of the poles’ restoration was former Seattle Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, son of Market savior Victor Steinbrueck. Peter insisted, “What he (Victor) did was an act of love and compassion for the native people. You don’t just undo something like that.”

While rejecting Parks request last December, the Historical Commission nevertheless left the door open to also adding any new native art to the park. Seattle Parks is currently appealing the commission decision to the city hearing examiner.

The commission decision has ignited a vigorous debate, pro and con.  Advocates favoring return of the poles include Marylin Oliver. Her brother, Marvin Oliver, a Quinault artist and University of Washington Indian studies professor, was commissioned in 1982 by Victor Steinbrueck to design the two poles.  Marvin Oliver, who passed away in 2019, had not only designed the poles, but had personally selected the red cedar trees for the project and overseen the work of James Bender, a non-native, who carved the poles.

A little history: In 1984, the Oliver/Steinbrueck poles were installed and dedicated at Market Park (later renamed Victor Steinbrueck Park) by then Mayor Charles Royer. The two poles vary in design. One is a totem following traditional Northwest Coast design. It depicts a bear, an orca and a raven holding a Salish spinning whorl. The other pole, a more modern design, is topped with a man and a woman standing back-to-back, a tribute to Market merchants.

Marylin Oliver regularly visits the poles, which have been lying unprotected in the Discovery Park storage yard. She clears away leaves and trash near the poles and tends them with a whisk broom, brushing away mold and lichen. She left a note asking any visitors to show respect. Oliver made contact with Makah carver Gregg Colfax who said that, despite significant decay, the poles could be restored. 

Equally protective of the poles is Lisa Steinbrueck, Victor’s daughter, who worries about the poles’ exposure. She says, “If one wanted to slowly destroy the poles, this is how to do it.” Only recently, Parks covered the poles with a tarp.

Lisa, who has a master’s in museology, and her brother David, a retired commercial fisherman who lives on Lopez Island, were recent guests on “The Bridge” radio show that I co-host. They spoke passionately about their concern for the poles’ fate. David even read from field notes his late father made about his work designing the poles with Marvin Oliver.

Along with Marylin Oliver and the Steinbruecks, restoration of the poles has support from the Friends of the Market as well as from members of the Duwamish tribe on whose land the Park is situated. Ken Workman, a Duwamish councilmember and fifth-generation grandson of Chief Seattle, argued that Victor Steinbrueck Park stands close to the last residence of Princess Angeline, the Chief’s oldest daughter. He pointed out that pole designer Oliver had a close connection with the Duwamish as a cousin of Cecile Hanson, Duwamish tribal chair.

In the other camp, those backing the request for the pole’s permanent removal include former Seattle City Council President Deborah Juarez, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation. Her position was backed by Tim Reynon, a Puyallup member who directs tribal relations for the city of Seattle. Reynon testified at the December Historical Commission meeting that the Muckleshoot and Suquamish tribes have offered to create art to replace the pole

Also heard from have been members of other Puget Sound tribes. Among them is Annette Bryan of the Puyallup Tribal Council, who told a Crosscut (now Cascade PBS) reporter: “they (the poles) don’t tell a story about me or my people and make us feel lesser than…because we’re represented by totem poles and teepees. That’s not who we are as Coast Salish people.”  Along with former Seattle councilmembers Juarez and Sally Bagshaw, Bryan sides with who those who want the poles shipped off to the Museum of History and Industry.

So far there has been no final resolution of the controversial matter and, even with the belated addition of a tarp, the two totem poles have not fared well in the Discovery Park storage yard. Hope for return of the poles may lie with a density study to determine their viability and, more than that, with any new decision from Seattle Parks.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the report. Fond memories of the 1980’s in Seattle… a time when the future seemed bright and things seemed to get done without too much over-analysis. But there was no internet back then… which probably explains it.

  2. Great report, Jean. This absolutely sickens me, and is reminiscent of the lost artifacts of the old Seattle Center’s Mercer Arena. The City of Seattle screwed that one up big time (see https://crosscut.com/2019/04/day-gargoyles-disappeared ).

    It is, sadly, not unusual for our local Tribes to be arguing about the totem poles, or anything else for that matter. Especially when the Duwamish Tribe is involved; is this totem pole issue just a proxy war over the bigger fight for federal recognition of the Duwamish (see https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/real-duwamish-seattles-first-people-and-the-bitter-fight-over-federal-recognition/ )?

    If the City were to tap into King Solomon’s wisdom, they would restore the original totem poles AND commission two new Coast Salish totem poles, and then install memorial plaques that explain the differences as well as this remarkable history of the old poles.

  3. Please, let’s restore the poles and add additional Coast Salish art! Raising them again and adding language alongside new art will be an educational opportunity for everyone who visits the Market.
    It may be easier to just ignore the poles, so no one is offended by the idea of putting them back up. But isn’t ignoring the Native peoples of our area part of the problem? I hope we can work through this and find a solution instead of just closing our eyes and letting these works rot away.

  4. For all these past years millions of locals and visitors have enjoyed the totems! Bring them back. There is only a handful of people who know their significant origin from which tribe they carry their story. Respect the memory of the people who oversaw the potential on the Market’s future! They were great givers for such a beautiful park and these totems were and are an integral ingredient for all to enjoy for years to come!

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