Totem Recall
Totem Recall
By:, Categories: Words & Images, 1 comment



An early 1900s Seattle pioneering photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis had a big idea: to capture on film the last remaining American-Indian tribes before they disappeared completely. Backed by President Theodore Roosevelt and funded by financier JP Morgan, the charismatic Curtis – who is compared to Indiana Jones – spent the next three decades circumnavigating the United States documenting the customs of more than 80 tribes.


His Indian obsession began with a sad, dignified 1896 portrait of the aged Princess Angeline, the last surviving daughter of Chief Sealth (Siahl) – for whom Seattle was named – was one of his first Native American models. This avocation soon admitted Curtis into the fraternity of American explorers, naturalists and ethnographers that ultimately led to the publication of his iconic, 20-volume set The North American Indian. In the process, he took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings and is credited with making the world’s first documentary film.


But there was a toll to be paid for this passion. Ultimately, Curtis’ obsession destroyed his marriage, his health and his finances that left him penniless. You can read more on his odyssey in Timothy Egan’s excellent 2012 book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. And there’s also a good documentary on Curtis, Coming to Light, currently streaming on Netflix (but be quick, it ends on 15 January).


Curtis’ work also brought Indian culture to the masses for the first time. And there’s a popular totem pole situated in Pioneer Square Park with a backstory to it. Some wayward Seattleites, it’s said, stole the original totem pole from the Tlingit natives in southeastern Alaska in 1890. An arsonist then set the stolen pole on fire in 1938, burning it to the ground. When asked by City Hall if they could carve a replacement pole, the ever-obliging Tlingit – recalling that the original had been stolen from them – took the money offered, thanking the city for payment of the first totem, and then said it would cost $5000 to carve another one.


The city duly – and rightly – coughed up the cash and the Tlingit obliged with the oft-photographed totem pole that fittingly stands not more than a good tomahawk’s throw from Curtis’ downtown Seattle photography studio.



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1 Comment

  • I going to check out the documentary, John. Good article. Tacoma used to have 3 tall totem poles just off of 8th and A street. Don't know if they are still there but they were very old.