In 1979, it became evident that the Museum of Science and Industry had an intact totem pole in its basement, but it wasn't until 1987 that the Museum agreed to loaned it to the University’s Department of Anthropology, nearly ten years after the department's move from Walker to Haskell Hall. Maneuvering the three–story pole into the cramped Gothic atrium posed a unique challenge in the face of conflicting desires to see the piece upright but also for the piece not to degrade. In the open, the lifespan of a totem pole is around sixty years and, while a certain amount of degradation had set in after sitting in a museum basement for forty years, the piece was and remains in exceptional condition for a totem pole of its age. The red cedar and bright, commercial paints display evidence of normal aging but at a much reduced pace thanks to the shelter from the elements provided by the MSI’s basement.
While there is a wealth of visual information in the totem pole, there is very little in the way of provenance and historical information. The provenance records fizzle out beyond the deed of gift from the railroads to the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of Science and Industry kept very sparse notes on the object. However, based on visual analysis it is possible to draw a number of useful conclusions about the pole’s purpose and origin. While the Haskell Hall pole shows signs of chipping and the accumulation of grime, the paint is intact and there is no insect damage, which would seem to suggest that this piece was not removed from an outdoors environment in the Pacific Northwest. Its good condition would indicate that it was either kept indoors or created shortly before the Railroad Fair. Of all the purposes a totem pole might serve, only one is traditionally for indoor use: the house post. These, however, usually only feature one or two figures and are much smaller to fit as supports for the cedar houses of the Northwest coast. At 29ft tall, the Haskell Hall totem pole is much too large to be a house post. Since it was carved during the era of the potlatch ban when it was illegal to celebrate the raising of a totem pole with the requisite ceremonies, the excellent condition and the size of the totem pole leads researchers to believe that it was constructed shortly before the Railroad Fair with the express purpose of being displayed there. A text created for the installation ceremony at the University of Chicago also suggests that:
“Bill Holm, recently retired curator of the museum at the University of Washington…thinks that it was made by Wilson Williams, a Northwest Coast Indian [sic] who carved commercial and tourist poles during this period, and whose descendants continue to carve today, in Washington State.”
The fact that this totem pole was likely commissioned and not stolen makes it unique both art historically and anthropologically. While Northwest coast totem poles follow a set of guidelines that recommend to the carver how a particular figure should be represented and where they might fall in the order of figures, there is tremendous variety in these works of art that individuates each piece while making sure that they are universally intelligible within the tradition. However, the one displayed in Haskell Hall deviates fairly noticeably from the prescribed formulae of totem pole carving. The raven figure, for example, lacks the sun “halo” typical of its placement on the stack. With the exception of the killer whale and the frog, Northwest Coast carvers rarely deviate from the practice of marking each face with eyebrows; the absence of these markings on the Haskell Hall pole is conspicuous. There are also more bird figures than are traditional for the purpose of telling a story via these carvings and their features are confused; while some follow the conventional depictions of a given type, others appear to have been created as composites from the traditional iconography. These departures cloud our ability to read the totem pole, but offer us a few possible ways to read the origins of the pole and the carver’s relationship to Northwest Coast art. While it’s possible that these deviations are simply innovations, this interpretation leaves more questions than answers; why would the carver make something unintelligible in the larger context of the art form? Further examination of the catalogue of known totem poles indicates that the piece now installed in Haskell Hall could be an interpretation of “The Wrangell Raven.” The deviations from both the norms of totem pole figuration and from the preexisting piece indicates then, that the carver is likely at least one degree removed from traditional conventions. In the late 1940s, many of the old carving masters were no longer around to instruct a new generation thanks in large part to the ban on potlatching and the subsequent lack of demand for totem poles. In the context of commercial production and of a dearth of institutional knowledge, the deviations that make it difficult to read a narrative from the figures depicted in the Haskell Hall pole in fact tell a remarkable story of the Northwest Coast region’s artistic conventions in a time of commercialization and appropriation.
Fittingly, when the pole was raised in Haskell Hall, the anthropology students planned an installation ritual reminiscent of traditional potlatch ceremonies but with a healthy injection of contemporary expectations and iconography. The first year students prepared an elegy to our lost knowledge, lamenting that what little we know about the totem pole erected here is actually quite a bit of information to know about a totem pole in general. As they read from their speech, they deposited examples of Native American iconography and imagery being tokenized and appropriated into a fire: among them the banner of the Washington Redskins, a Calumet baking soda can, and a Land o’ Lakes butter box. This celebration of the purpose of anthropology, to gather knowledge about humans and our culture, shows us just how far we have to go with our relationship to our colonial past and present. The totem pole may have been a valuable commodity for the Fair, but the knowledge of traditional practices and imagery was lost in the commodification process.