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Friday, July 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Showing Off: A totem stands tall

Seattle Times staff reporter

We're here to help you show off the Seattle area to your summertime visitors — and teach even you locals a few things.

If you're huge, distinctive and hang around a long time, people might think of you as a symbol of the city, just like the 32-foot-tall totem pole in Pioneer Square. But there are a few things you should know about this particular landmark.

Not quite local. Although totems have become part of the Seattle landscape, the classic, multi-figured totems were originally made only by three Native groups (Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian) in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, according to the Burke Museum.

They "sorta found" it. The Tlingit pole hoisted in Pioneer Square in 1899 was brought back from Alaska by vacationing Seattle boosters who said they thought the village where they found it was abandoned. But after the Tlingits complained, the "finders" were fined $500 — although Seattle got to keep the pole.

Second generation. The Pioneer Square pole was set on fire by vandals in 1938. Tlingit craftsmen worked on the replacement.

Totem myth: According to cliché, the "low man on the totem pole" has the lowest status. That has no basis in fact, according to the Burke Museum. And other sources note that lower figures on a totem — those at eye level — may actually have been done by the best carver on the project.

For more information on the natural and cultural history of the Pacific Northwest, see www.washington.edu/burkemuseum. For previous Showing Off features, see www.seattletimes.com/showingoff.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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