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Unknown fate for totem pole

SUQUAMISH — A 39-year old landmark that’s overlooked the downtown area of the Port Madison Reservation may see an unfortunate demise in the near future.

The “Land in the Sky” totem pole, standing tall between Suquamish Way and South Street, has been discovered to be rotting badly inside, Bennie Armstrong, Suquamish Tribal Chairman, said at the Chief Seattle Days Celebration several weeks ago.

The tribe is concerned because one of the wings of the eagle at the top of the pole had fallen off.

The Suquamish decided to remove the other wing and, in doing so, exposed the withering insides. The tribe has not made a formal statement as to what will happen to the pole, whether it will be replaced or repaired.

The totem pole was erected on the reservation in July 1963, after travelling the country with its carver, Chief Joe Hillaire.

A Lummi Tribe member, Hillaire came to live on the reservation after marrying a woman from Suquamish.

The son and grandson of story pole carvers, Hillaire began carving totems when he was 16, and was believed to have carved more than 100 poles before creating “Land in the Sky.” He died at the age of 73 in 1963.

“Land in the Sky” was Hillaire’s seventh major pole. It was 35-feet tall, 13,240 pounds and carved out of a Washington Red Cedar that was approximately 1,000 years old when it was cut down.

The totem was part of a two-pole project Hillaire did for the sister-cities of Kobe, Japan and Seattle. One pole was flown to Japan in 1961 where Hillaire completed it and placed it in front of Kobe City Hall.

The second pole became part of a nationwide tour from Seattle to the East Coast, (including New York City, where Hillaire worked on the pole in the middle of Times Square) and back to Seattle to the World’s Fair in April 1962. The pole was completed and erected on the reservation in 1963.

According to Hillaire, from a March 1962 press release about the tour, a totem pole is not an idol or a thing of worship, but is erected to commemorate an important event, similar to a statue in a park, while telling a story from the bottom up.

The press release explained that the story comes from an ancient North Coast Native American legend which describes two young brothers who climb into the sky on a thread of arrow shafts and conquer the moon after a battle.

The younger brother marries the moon’s daughter and the older brother marries the daughter of the sun. The animals depicted on the pole represent the animals in the moon’s army that the brothers had to battle.

Members of the tribe today have a personal relation to the pole, especially Marilyn Jones, Director of the Suquamish Museum, who had her picture taken with her sister in front of the pole when it was first erected.

“Growing up with the pole to me is something I knew eventually time would take its toll on it,” Jones said, noting the landmark has had a lot of meaning to her since she grew up with it.

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