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Totem TalesBy AAA Travel Editor

In one sense totem poles are the ultimate form of pictography—the art of writing with pictures. Carved from red cedar logs and emblazoned with symbolic animals and spirits, they are artistic expressions of their makers' tribal histories, telling straightforward stories in a mythological way.

Several Northwest Coast Native American tribes constructed totem poles. They included the Haida, who inhabited the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia; the Tlingit Indians of southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia; and the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia. In addition, the Coast Salish people in southern British Columbia and western Washington carved large human figures that represented ancestors and benevolent spirits.

One interesting fact to know before your trip is that poles served both practical and ceremonial functions. Some were buttressed against the front of a dwelling, serving as part of the doorway. Carved interior poles supported roof beams. Free-standing memorial totems placed in front of a house usually honored a deceased chief, while a mortuary pole had a niche at the top housing the coffin of an important individual. Other totems were signifiers of affluence, affirming wealth, prestige or the importance of family or clan affiliation.

Common motifs were masklike faces, human (or humanoid) figures, bears, beavers, eagles, whales and other animals. One of the more dramatic and familiar totem figures is the thunderbird, easily recognized by its beaked face and outstretched wings. In addition to the intricately carved wood, many totems also featured painted surfaces, particularly the colors red, black and turquoise.

There is little knowledge of totems prior to 1800, although late 18th-century explorers reported their existence. For one thing, the moist, humid climate of the Pacific Northwest was not kind to anything made of wood, hastening the process of decay. But the European fur trade brought both metal tools and wealth to the coastal tribes. Totems thus increased in size, often raised in conjunction with a potlatch, or elaborate feast ceremony. By the late 1800s most tribes had ceased carving large monumental poles; instead, they began creating smaller versions as souvenirs for the growing tourist trade, which continues to thrive because of travel sites and agencies.

Today the largest and most impressive totems stand in coastal British Columbia, but there are several places in Seattle where you can see pole replicas. Perhaps the best-known example stands in Pioneer Square at the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way. It has a checkered history: In 1899, members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce pilfered the original while on an Alaskan vacation. The men were found guilty of theft but fined only $500, and the city was allowed to retain ownership. Vandals subsequently set the totem on fire in 1938, and the pieces were returned to Alaska, where Tlingit Indian craftsmen graciously carved a reproduction; it was dedicated with tribal blessings and has stood at the square since. Another one is in nearby Occidental Square Park (on Occidental Avenue between S. Washington and S. Main streets).

Two 50-foot totems stand in Victor Steinbrueck Park, downtown on Western Avenue at the foot of Virginia Street (just north of Pike Place Market), and dazzle those on vacation in Seattle. For totems with a view, head to Belvedere Viewpoint in West Seattle (S.W. Admiral Way at S.W. Olga Street). Two cedar poles feature stylized depictions of beavers, fish and frogs, while the park offers terrific views across Elliott Bay to the downtown skyline, backed by the Cascades. North of downtown, there are five cedar totems on the grounds of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture , on the University of Washington campus (entrance at N.E. 45th Street and 17th Avenue N.E.). One of them is a replica of a Dzunuk'wa figure, which some people consider to be the female counterpart of the shy mythical forest giant Sasquatch.

Tiny Blake Island, in Puget Sound 8 miles from the waterfront, makes a memorable day trip or one of many things to do this weekend. Take an Argosy Cruises tour boat to Tillicum Village, where a collection of totems surrounds the village's cedar longhouse. The entire island, once a Suquamish Indian ancestral fishing camp, is now Blake Island Marine State Park .

One persistent myth is that the “low man on the totem pole” has a corresponding lowly status. But the fact is that while totems sometimes included a “ridicule” figure intended to shame or embarrass the individual depicted, there is no overall significance attached to the placement of figures on the pole.

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Seattle, WA

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350 ft.

Sales Tax

State and county sales taxes total 10.1 percent in Seattle. A lodging tax of 10.1 to 15.6 percent is levied along with a 17.8 percent rental car tax.



Police (non-emergency)

(206) 625-5011


Harborview Medical Center, (206) 744-3000; Northwest Hospital & Medical Center, (206) 364-0500; Swedish Medical Center-First Hill, (206) 386-6000; University of Washington Medical Center, (206) 598-3300; Virginia Mason Medical Center, (206) 223-6600.

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701 Pike St. Seattle, WA 98101. Phone:(206)461-5800 or (866)732-2695

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Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) International Airport

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Hertz offers discounts to AAA members; phone (206) 903-6260 or (800) 654-3080.

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Amtrak passenger trains, (800) 872-7245, arrive and depart the King Street Station at 303 S. Jackson St. Amtrak also serves Edmonds, Everett, Tacoma and Tukwila.


The Greyhound Lines Inc. station is at 503 S. Royal Brougham Way; phone (206) 624-0618 or (800) 231-2222.


Taxis must be contacted by phone or hired while stopped at cab stands. Major companies are Farwest Taxi, (206) 622-1717; Orange Cab, (206) 522-8800; and Yellow Cab, (206) 622-6500.

Public Transportation

Transportation by bus, trolley, street car, light-rail, monorail and trains is available in Seattle.


Two companies provide water transportation within the greater Seattle area and to British Columbia.

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