‘Land In The Sky’ totem pole returns to its Lummi roots

SUQUAMISH — The 35-foot-tall “Land In The Sky” totem pole that has towered over downtown Suquamish for more than 40 years has finally gone back to its carver’s native land.

The Suquamish Tribe had the pole removed from its location on the corner of South Street and Suquamish Way Monday morning, as officials cited safety reasons for taking it down.

For several years now, the inside of the pole has been deteriorating from rot, making the pole and its components unsafe. A telltale sign came about five years ago when the wings of the eagle that sits atop the pole rotted and fell off. While the wings have been replaced several times and the pole has been repainted, something had to be done before it fell over and injured someone, said Suquamish tribal chairman Leonard Forsman.

After spending the past four years discussing the fate of the totem, Suquamish tribal officials talked with the Lummi Tribal Council in Bellingham since the pole’s carver, Joe Hillaire, was a Lummi member who also resided in Suquamish. Lummi officials decided to take it back and will retain the pole. To replace it, Forsman said the Suquamish will carve a new pole of its own.

The structure was erected on the reservation in July 1963, after traveling the country with Hillaire. The pole was part of a nationwide tour that ended in Seattle at the World’s Fair in April 1962.

“It’s a good thing it’s going to be repaired — it won’t be deteriorating,” said tribal executive director Wayne George. “It’s sad to see it go but it’s still good — once in a while, a pole needs to be fixed.”

Besides the sense of loss among the dozen or so tribal members who were present Monday, there was also some anticipation as to how it was going to be removed. The large bolts securing the bottom of the pole to the ground were so rusted they couldn’t be removed, so their heads were burned off and the bolts were pounded further into the pole. This presented a problem because as the bolts heated up, they began to burn the inside of the pole. Smoke started to seep out of the cracks of the pole and it was unclear if it was going to come down in one piece.

But about two hours of removing bolt heads, extinguishing the heat and rigging the pole to a crane, it came down in its entirety, save for the eagle’s beak, which broke off at the last minute. The pole was then transported to the Lummi Reservation on a bed of tires that were lined with cedar branches.

Traditionally, totem poles were left standing until they fell on their own, explained Suquamish and Tulalip tribal member Marjorie Lawrence. If it fell towards the wood, it was left to deteriorate and go back into the earth. If it fell toward the water, there was a sacred ceremony and it was taken back to the woods.

“We’ve all sat here, we’ve all talked with this pole,” said tribal elder Marilyn Wandrey during a short honoring ceremony before it was taken down. “It’s a sad time for a lot of us but we need to try and show some peace and joy in our hearts as it’s returned to the family and replicated.”

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