Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Totem Pole, SW Terwilliger

SW Portland's Terwilliger Boulevard was designed as a winding road of scenic views, and there deliberately aren't a lot of structures right along the street, to avoid obstructing these views. One of the few exceptions is the Chart House restaurant, just north of the Beaverton-Hillsdale intersection. Next to the restaurant is a rather large totem pole; the idiosyncratic RACC guidelines say it qualifies as public art, and their database has this to say about it:

“Totem Pole” was carved by Chief Lelooska of Ariel Washington from red cedar harvested from the base of Mt. Adams. This totem pole is one of the most massive in existence measuring fifty feet high and four feet wide. The carved figures depict a beaver surmounted by a grizzly bear next to a raven topped by four watchmen. The totem was carved during Oregon's Centennial in 1959, to celebrate the state's role in Operation Deep Freeze, which established a scientific station at the geographic South Pole.

Born Cherokee, Lelooska (1933-1996) was adopted into the Kwakwaka'wakw, and was known for his mastery of storytelling and carving. As a scholar and educator, Lelooska was an authority on the Indians of North America with a particular emphasis on the tribes of the Northwest coastal region. He was known for his versatility in wood sculpting, creating artwork that ranged in size from hand-held rattles and feast bowls to large-scale totem poles. This piece serves as an excellent example of Lelooska’s work and is a prized part of Portland’s public art collection.

So that's the RACC account; it didn't answer all of my questions, so I dug into the Oregonian database to see what contemporary accounts had to say about it. The first thing to note is that there have been restaurants at this site (known as "Elk Point") for a very long time, stretching back to the early days of Terwilliger Boulevard. Before it became today's Chart House, for many decades it was Palaske's Hillvilla restaurant. It seems Palaske was an Indian art collector, so the idea of adding a totem pole next to his restaurant must have seemed like second nature.

Incidentally, Kenton's Paul Bunyan statue was created for the same centennial exposition, an event that's otherwise been all but forgotten. Based on the surviving art from 1959, we seem to have had sort of derpy and juvenile notions of how to commemorate the state's 100th birthday. (Lost Oregon, Vintage Portland, & Oregon Encyclopedia have interesting posts about the exposition). A totem pole is a weird way to mark the anniversary, at any rate, since it's not as if the Oregon Trail and then statehood were exactly beneficial to local tribes.

The one thing I can't confirm is the story about Antarctic exploration. It may very well be true, but I haven't found anything in the newspaper database to corroborate it.

So here's a brief timeline of the totem pole's creation and later history:
  • The log arrived March 25th 1959. The pole's design was described as a scaled up copy of one from British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, more commonly known as Haida Gwaii these days.
  • A construction photo dated April 7th 1959
  • A May 14th, 1959 front page photo of the pole under construction, wit the caption "Heap Big Totem Pole". In case you were wondering just how racist the Oregonian was back then. I checked briefly and didn't see any letters to the editor calling them out about this headline, which makes me think the paper's white readers of 1959 were ok with this too.
  • Story to go with the previous photo, "Totem pole paint dries" . The article notes this pole had a concrete base, and steel bracing on the back. I didn't think to look at the back, so I don't know if that's still there or not..
  • Raising ceremony June 4th. 27 tons. quoted: "It's an artistic triumph", reports Eddie Palaske. "It's almost half as tall as Meier & Frank's. This will be here long after the Centennial exposition is torn down, perhaps right up to the time the atom bombs strike."
  • June 9th brought a story about Lelooska's indian encampment on the South Park Blocks, part of the Rose Festival Center. I can imagine an Indian encampment there, but try as I might, I can't picture carnival rides on the Park Blocks. I just can't see it.
  • August 25th brought a mention of the inconvenient fact that tribes this far south didn't really do totem poles . It's couched in the usual mocking racial terms, being 1959 and all, but the underlying claim is factually accurate.
  • A tall photo of the pole, dated October 6th . The caption mentions a pond at the base, which isn't there now.
  • January 30th, 1961: A pair of visitors from Finland marveled at the totem pole. The wife mentioned that Finland has no totems because it has no indians. Husband: "No, but we have Swedes".
  • The previous article got an indignant letter to the editor. Bigotry against Indians was still perfectly socially acceptable then, but prejudice against Swedes was on the wane on this side of the Atlantic. I suppose that may count as a form of progress, sort of.
  • A photo of it being repainted for rose festival , June 2nd 1961. The article mentions it has (or had) a gas burner on top to light on special occasions. I don't know whether that still works, and if so, what constitutes a special occasion these days.
  • A 1966 profile of Lelooska & a wider discussion about NW indian art
  • Also a 1983 profile of Lelooska (Don Smith).
  • Palaske's Hillvilla became the Chart House in 1985, and the totem pole underwent restoration at that point.
  • A followup article about the changeover gave a brief history of the place

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