Friday, January 22, 2010

The Case of the Missing Totem Pole

by Jennifer Davis Hayes, Renton Community & Economic Development

What do the Renton Fred Meyer store, the Duwamish Tribe, the Renton Municipal Arts Commission, the West Seattle Blog,, the Renton History Museum and a small town in Oregon all have in common? Each plays a part in an amazing tale that unfolded this winter and involved the mystery of the missing Henry Moses honoring pole.

Henry Moses was the last Chief of the Duwamish Tribe and a graduate of Renton High School. In the 1970s a group of local business owners commissioned an honoring pole for him. In recent years, it has been “hidden” in clear view in a planting strip in the Renton Fred Meyer shopping center.

At the November Renton Municipal Arts Commission meeting, Commissioner Fred Lund shared his disappointment at the state of the honoring pole, which was surrounded by weeds and garbage. The Commission encouraged Fred to gather information about the pole to discuss with Fred Meyer management. After going to Liz Stewart at the Renton History Museum and gathering articles from the 1970s about the pole and dedication ceremony, Fred visited the Fred Meyer store and noticed the pole was gone. Fred Meyer Manager Eric Georgia didn’t know about any corporate actions to remove the pole. Our next thought was that perhaps the Duwamish Tribe had the pole for restoration, since a member had contacted the Arts Commission eight months earlier.

But in early December, Fred found a mention on about two totem poles found in Keizer, Oregon. One was identified as a pole stolen from West Seattle, but the other pole was of unidentified origin. The developing story first had been reported on the West Seattle Blog.

After a frantic e-mailing of the story to Duwamish Tribe members Eric Georgia and White-Bear (the member who had expressed interest in restoring it) – a sigh of relief and exclamation: “That’s our pole!”

A visit by Seattle Police officers to Fred Meyer confirmed ownership and the SPD communicated that they wanted the pole out of their secured evidence room immediately because the pole was infested with bugs! As you can imagine, 1001 calls were made in several directions to figure out what to do next. Fortunately, the original carver, Jim Ploegman, still lives in Renton. He offered his studio space to allow the Duwamish to restore the pole.

Two things down, but now how to pay for it? Luckily all those involved wanted to see a happy ending for this story and the initial meeting with Fred Meyer confirmed their interest in restoring the pole and placing it back on their property – this time in a more visible location. Store officials also committed resources to pay for the work. We don’t know the amount it will cost, so we may reach out to other resources to help ensure this pole isn’t lost to age.

It has been an amazing story to date, somewhat of a Christmas miracle. What’s even more amazing is how this theft has brought together uncommon partners (Fred Meyer, Renton Municipal Arts Commission, Renton History Museum, Duwamish Tribe, and a wood carver) to restore a community treasure. Look for updates on this blog and for the rededication
ceremony which, if timing is right, may be tied into Renton High School's centennial year activities.


  1. What an amazing story this was! We were so glad we could play a role in researching the pole, and kudos to the Renton Municipal Arts Commission for doing the legwork that returned the pole to Renton--without RMAC's diligence, the honoring pole might have been lost for good!