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Seattle to take closer look at public art to make sure it's culturally appropriate

Totem poles in Seattle (KOMO News Photo)

SEATTLE -- For more than a century, totem poles have adorned parts of Seattle.

The carvings are in city parks and on university campuses. Native American and other cultural art is prevalent office buildings, government offices and is sold in galleries across town.

But the Seattle City Council is taking a closer look at art in public spaces, like parks, to make sure it’s culturally appropriate.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, in introducing her budget Wednesday, discussed the proposal. Though, at this point, it doesn’t have any cost associated with it, the proposal includes having landmarks boards and city agencies evaluate art already in place and art being procured by the city.

The future of public art pieces could then be decided by the community.

“Asking these communities what is historical, what it cultural, what gets built, what gets saved,” said Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez in a council meeting earlier this year.

Juarez declined to comment on the proposal Wednesday.

Juarez brought up the need for this public art evaluation last summer - when her colleagues were arguing for preservation groups to save the Showbox, a downtown concert venue.

“People have been deliberate in erasing us and making us invisible,” said Juarez, who is part of the Blackfeet Nation. “The soul of this city are the people who were here.”

Inside council chambers earlier this year Juarez motioned toward the city seal, which features Chief Seattle.

“Imagine people who have been here for time and for memorial in which shows is the only thing we were here is that fake Chief Seattle thing over there,” she said.

Bagshaw, during a council meeting earlier this year, thanked Juarez and backed the plan.

“We have many things, representational art, whether it is a stone a totem pole around the city that has been here, sometimes for over 100 years, may have passed more than a useful life but may have moved into what is now politically offensive,” Bagshaw said.

A timeline on how the proposal will move forward has not been released. Two 50-foot totem poles at Victor Steinbrueck Park, next to Pike Place Market, are at the heart of the controversy.

University of Washington Professor Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse said there’s no history of towering monumental poles being made by the Salish and other Puget Sound region tribes. But, she says, they’ve been used to advertise Seattle for more than a century.

“There’s a long history, over a hundred years of having northern poles up on Salish territory,” said Bunn-Marcuse. “A Seattle totem pole that was originally stolen from the Tlingit community as a symbol of Seattle and put up here as a symbol of Seattle as the gateway to the Alaskan Gold Rush.”

Bunn-Marcuse said totem poles have been used in tourism campaigns for Seattle.

“It’s time to talk about these art pieces and to figure out what are the new pieces we can support that will confront these old histories or bring beautiful, new, opportunities for Salish artists into communities,” Bunn-Marcuse said.

Colleen Echohawk, Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club, agrees.

“This is the right time to have a community conversation to really discuss how to have equity in our public spaces,” Echohawk said. “I think the city is ready to talk about this.”

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