Autumn of 1899 brought what would become two of Seattle’s most notable figures to the Emerald City: the “Seattle Pole” and “Curio Joe” Standley. While the timing of their arrivals was coincidental, the relationship between that first totem pole and Standley’s curio shop was quite deliberate. Very quickly, totem poles and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop became inextricably entwined, iconic symbols of the burgeoning waterfront town that had risen from the literal ashes of a devastating fire just a decade earlier. A century and a quarter later, that synergy still thrives today.
The history of the first totem pole in Seattle is a well-documented tangle of tragedies and triumphs. In August 1899, a group of civic-minded Seattle businessmen embarked upon an excursion up the Alaskan coast, sponsored by the town’s preeminent newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer – the archives from which much of these details have been gleaned. The group docked at a Tlingit village on Tongass Island, which they professed to have been abandoned – though it was later divulged that the “few” village elders and children they encountered “did not protest” the removal of the 75-foot cedar pole. The group was subsequently admonished and fined for the theft – sources differ on whether the amount they ultimately paid was $500 or $1500 – but they were allowed to return to Seattle with the pole. There is, unsurprisingly, no evidence that the money ever reached the Tongass Tlingit.
A HISTORY LOST, THEN FOUND
Carved around 1790, the Tlingit totem was created by a carver hired to tell the stories dear to the family of Chief-of-All-Women, who had drowned in the Nass River while on her way to see her ailing sister. It was unusual among the Tlingit that a totem pole was dedicated to a woman. The sordid and scandalous taking of the tribute pole from its home was one of the most disgraceful, injurious acts perpetrated by the city’s fledgling Chamber of Commerce against Natives. And, to add insult to that injury, not only was the pole felled like a dead tree, then cut in half for ease of transport, then a beak broken and repaired with a different shape, then painted for display – the family history that the totem represented was lost, misinterpreted by a self-proclaimed expert on Native art and ethnology, with no one to refute his “facts” for decades.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the true story behind the creation and destruction of the totem pole honoring Chief-of-All-Women was published by anthropologist Viola Garfield in her book, The Seattle Totem Pole.
A FUTURE FORGED
In October 1899, what was once a grand tribute to a revered Tlingit woman and her family in the Raven Clan, was ceremoniously raised in Pioneer place as a symbol of Seattle’s growing reputation of the “Gateway to Alaska” and, also in hopes that the towering monument would bring renown and revenue from a curious public eager to see the impressive art piece in person. It worked, and as a result, Seattle became synonymous with the image of that totem, despite totem carving never having been a part of coastal Washington tribes’ art traditions. J. E. Standley was about to change all that.
A CHANGE OF ART
Daddy Standley had an uncanny ability to identify opportunity, which is partly what brought him to Seattle in the first place. Recognizing the public’s zeal for viewing and possessing the exotic, and the popularity of the Seattle Pole with locals and visitors alike, he promptly adopted the image of the totem in his advertising and correspondence. Over the next few years, Standley grew Ye Olde Curiosity Shop from a small storefront to one of the most renowned and flourishing businesses on the waterfront. He did this by generating a demand for a product (totem poles) that did not previously exist in Seattle, then commissioning local Native artists to produce that item for sale in his shop.
Prior to 1900, Seattle area Native tribes never held the tradition of storytelling through carved totems, as did the Tlingit and Kwakiutl further north. It seems Daddy Standley was the first to approach local indigenous craftsmen to carve totem poles, particularly in the Kwakiutl style, for the purpose of displaying and selling them in his shop. In addition to the larger poles made for adorning storefronts, yards, and gardens, Standley commissioned small-scale totems for ease of travel. These held such appeal with tourists, they quickly became the bulk of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop’s stock in trade.
In 1907, Standley developed a working relationship with Nuu-Chah-Nulth artist, Sam Williams, who became a master carver, at first by copying the work of other tribes, then rapidly developing his own unique style, in the Nitinat tradition, that has been passed down through generations. Sam, and the four sons he trained to carve, went on to produce thousands of totem poles and other works for Standley throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Their descendants continue that tradition to this day.
TOUTING TOTEMS FOR TOURISM
One of the most successful ventures for early Seattle was the decision to host the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909. The AYP Expo was not only a boon to Seattle’s economy and popularity as a travel destination, but it did much to enmesh the image of the totem pole as an icon of the Emerald City. This was primarily due to the influence of Standley and the Northwest Coast hybrid art style that emerged from his tenacity in promoting totem production, and the artistry of the Native people who carved for him. Standley provided many totem poles and other items for exhibit at the Expo, and further boosted the visibility of Seattle and PNW totem poles with donations to museums like the Smithsonian in D. C., and the Museum of the American Indian in New York.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop was then, and still is today, one of the only places to find a spectacular variety of PNW Native-carved totem poles, masks, plaques, and other artwork available for sale to the public. Unique, vintage and antique pieces are also on display as part of the family’s world-famous free museum collection, making Ye Olde Curiosity Shop a must-see stop for so many people visiting Seattle.