How do you dispose of an old totem pole? Fortunately, this is not a problem we regularly face. But a tall totem gifted by Seattle to its sister city in Japan renewed this question.
In 1961, the City of Seattle shipped to its new sister city of Kobe, Japan, a 35-foot tall totem crowned by a thunderbird figure with wooden wings spread wide. The painted totem stood in a park next to Kobe's city hall for more than 50 years.
But a few years ago, city workers detected dry rot inside the cedar pole. Mayor Kizo Hisamoto said this was dangerous because it meant the old totem could possibly topple in a storm.
Through an interpreter, the mayor explained how the city of 1.5 million people wrestled with how to respectfully retire a rotted totem pole.
"We listened to the opinions of many people from Seattle and we decided to move it and lay it down on the earth in a forest in the northern part of Kobe and return it to the earth as the tradition states,” Hisamoto said.
The totem was cut off at its base in March 2015 and is now laid down in the municipal arboretum in a section of Pacific Northwest native plants called the Seattle Forest. It's still quite recognizable as a totem pole as it slowly decays. A glass monument beside the totem's base preserves its story at its former location next to city hall.
Scholarship by anthropologists and Native American art curators confirms that Kobe's approach conforms with traditional tribal practices for when a totem reaches the end of its life.
"Objects are created to be used and when those objects are damaged or worn out, they are thrown away and new ones are made," stated Gloria Cranmer Webster, a cultural consultant from British Columbia’s Kwakwaka'wakw people. "This applies to everything from small masks to large totem poles. For example, many Indian people feel that once a pole has served its purpose it should be allowed to go back into the ground."
The Kobe-Seattle Friendship Pole was carved by Lummi Nation artist Joe Hillaire (1894-1967). Its installation in Kobe was cause for a big parade at which Hillaire and the then-mayor of Seattle were guests of honor.
A couple of years earlier in 1957 Seattle and Kobe had become each other's first sister city. That grassroots connection followed the post-World War II normalization of relations between Japan and the United States.