By Justin L.
Editor’s note: This piece was created during the 2023 session of History Lab, a summer intensive for high school students interested in local history and storytelling. Over the course of two weeks, participants explore creative ways to interpret and share history, conduct research, and produce a work of historical interpretation in a digital medium on a topic of their choosing.
In classic ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission mentality, this “Good Will Committee” of “leading Seattle citizens” took the towering pole to bring back to their city.  While one might expect physical violence or deceitful manipulation from such an event, none was reported by the expedition party. Just the audacity of showing up on strangers’ shores and treating their home like a souvenir shop. According to an account by third mate R. D. McGillvery, “the Indians were all away fishing, except for one who stayed in his house and looked scared to death. We picked out the best looking totem pole... we chopped it down - just like you'd chop down a tree. It was too big to roll down the beach, so we sawed it in two.”  In a lawsuit filed months later by the original owners of the totem pole, James Clise who was the ringleader and Acting President of the Commerce responded that “there were two decrepit Indians which we finally succeeded in interviewing, who made no objection to our taking the pole to Seattle.” 
Attorney William H. Thompson, speaking on behalf of his eight defendants, justified the act saying that “here [in Seattle] the totem will voice the natives' deeds with surer speech than if lying prone on moss and fern on the shore of Tongass Island.”  To state this presumes that not only does Native culture belong to all Americans, but also that the preservation of Native culture requires the magnanimous aid of white people, who will truly appreciate and help elevate its worth. Both are untrue, but these beliefs were on full display at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE) of 1909, where the totem pole served as a poster child for the first world’s fair hosted in Seattle, the ‘City of Totems’.
The fair positioned Seattle as a shining city on the edge of a vast American empire. In the face of unprecedented growth of the Seattle economy, those who were wistful for the pastoral past became fascinated with the wilderness, and romanticized it. This was an untapped market, Seattle noticed. Positioning Native people and culture at the fair as backwards, exotic, and mysterious helped communicate to fairgoers that Native land was their visit and take from, and Seattle was their Gateway to the North. It offered the adventure of a lifetime, and was the frontier to a spectacle.
The ways Native people were on display at the fair, however, was not simply harmless fascination. It chipped away at Native sovereignty, and actually reflects hatred. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, co-authors of “All The Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, bust the myth that all “Native American Culture Belongs to all Americans.” They note that scholar Rayna Green is one of the first to use the concept “Playing Indian”, to unpack the ways in which Americans’ obsession with the “vanishing race'' at times “translated into trying to become them, or at least using them to project new images of themselves as they settled into North America.”  Seattlelites did not love Native culture. They pitied upon Native culture because compared with their industrialized standards of living, they saw Native people as noble savages stuck in the past. And by co-opting their culture and ‘ownership’ of the wilderness, they sought to replace them.