by Kari Diehl
Archibald snorted awake in his armchair, his post-prandial afternoon snooze interrupted. What the heck?, he thought. The book he had been reading before dozing off, Suttles’ Coast Salish Essays, fell to the floor as he struggled, still only half-cognizant, to stand up.
Where was the damned cellphone?! He began patting his various pockets—nothing there except lint, a roll of spearmint Lifesavers, and a fountain pen. The side table? Nope, but his car keys were under a pile of scholarly journals. That was good to know.
Whichever Einstein had decided that phones should be untethered from their cradles and allowed to roam free had done a disservice to humanity, Archibald decided. Right before the sixth ring, he realized the cell had fallen into the crack behind the cushion in his wing-backed leather chair.
“Hello? HELLO?” he yelled into the thing.
“Professor McNair? Are you there? Professor?” Lindsay DeMan’s impossibly chirpy voice blasted into the room, pitched at a volume that would wake the dead. Archibald extended the phone to a safer distance from his ear. Just because he was old as God didn’t mean he was deaf, he thought. None of the Millennials seemed to get that.
“Speaking” He sighed lightly. “How can I help you, Lindsay?”
“Professor, I’m here at the museum, with Catherine Walker. There’s something we need you to see.”
The disturbing smell of a malfunctioning furnace greeted Archibald as the museum door slammed shut behind him, courtesy of an offshore wind that promised to turn into a gale by evening. Good God, he wondered, shaking the raindrops from his overcoat, what fire was he being called upon to put out this time?
The blue-and-white “Welcome” sign had been switched to “Closed”—an ominous portent.
“Professor!” Lindsay’s voice came from the top of the grand staircase. “Thank goodness you’ve come so quickly!” She bounced down the slippery steps like Tigger the Tiger, a large yellow LED flashlight gripped tightly in one hand.
Archibald looked at the flashlight askance. “What’s happened? Why is the museum closed during business hours? I hope you aren’t expecting me to fix something, with my bad back…” He tapped his cane on the floor twice, for effect.
“Oh, no, no, no! Everything’s fine—well, the furnace broke this morning, but it’s fixed now. It’s just that—we’ve made such a remarkable discovery downstairs, and we need your expertise to know what it means. Catherine’s there now.”
Lindsay led the way to the ancient elevator and pushed the button, pulling open the brass door guard when the lift arrived from the floor above.
“Just wait until you see what Catherine’s found.” She inserted a tiny key into the elevator’s control panel. “Turns out, the Walker Museum has its very own Chamber of Secrets.”
They descended downward—to and then (what?!) past the basement, finally settling with an uncomfortable lurch. Lindsay turned on her flashlight before exiting the elevator. “Mind your step, Professor. The floor is uneven in places.”
The flashlight’s strong beam arced forward, revealing the bare brick walls of a vast room that might once have been a wine cellar. Massive pillars stood foursquare in the center of the room, soaring to support an unexpectedly high vaulted ceiling. The rectangular blue glow of the cellphone in Catherine Walker’s right hand barely revealed her presence next to the closest pillar.
“Lindsay? Professor McNair?” Catherine’s normally soft voice echoed loudly, tinged with the excitement of uncertainty. She gave only a quick glance over her shoulder at them before directing the weak light of her cellphone’s flashlight toward the center of the room.
Archibald hobbled forward across the ragged flagstones, then leaned heavily on his cane when he saw the figure revealed by the two combined flashlights.
“Oh. My. Word.”
The room’s sole guardian towered to within a few inches of the fifteen-foot ceiling. Identical red-and-black faces were painted on the four sides of its high pedestal, grinning in menace and mockery, tongues outthrust.
Archibald gave a low whistle. “Would you look at that? Lindsay, focus your light higher.”
A single torso and head, carved from western red cedar, arose from the boxlike pedestal, looking for all the world like a sprung jack-in-the-box. Its puppet-like face was painted white, with black hair and—could it really be—mutton chop sideburns? Huge, googly eyes reminded Archibald a little bit of the old, silent “Felix the Cat” movies he’d watched as a kid. Except Felix had never sported a disproportionally tall potlatch hat or sat on an elaborately decorated bentwood box.
“It looks like…like some sort of totem pole?” Catherine lifted her arm up and tentatively ran her fingers along the seamless edge of the pedestal. “But, Professor McNair…I’ve never seen a totem pole that looks like this, with just a single figure. Shouldn’t there be other characters? Bears or wolves or eagles? And…it’s painted to look like…like…”
“A white man.” Archibald finished her sentence for her as he slowly walked around the totem, marking its characteristics. “It’s the caricature of a white man.”
“Is it some sort of a joke?” asked Lindsey. “From a carnival or something? A fake totem pole that somehow ended up in a hidden subterranean chamber?” She rolled her eyes.
“It’s no joke, my dears,” Archibald responded, shaking his head. “Never, in all my years as a Pacific Northwest historian, have I encountered one of these this far south of Alaska. Or—at least—not one this old. I’d need better light to be sure, but I think this must be nineteenth century—perfectly authentic and perfectly preserved. See how vibrant the colors are—bright as the day they were painted. This looks like it’s never felt the rain or even seen the light of day. Which would be incredibly odd because…”
He pointed. “See how, while the face is white, the ears and nostrils have been painted red? That’s telling. This is a shame totem pole—the kind the nineteenth-century Coast Salish and Tlingit and other indigenous carvers made when they wanted to publicly embarrass someone for failing to pay a debt or to right a wrong.”
“I’ve never heard of a shame totem pole,” admitted Lindsey. She’d suggested that they return upstairs so she could open the doors to visitors (although no one, as usual, was braving the rising gale to demand entrance).
She made a pot of coffee, and the three of them were now gathered around a small circular table in the museum’s foyer. “I’m afraid I focused more on early modern art and portraiture in college and grad school.”
“Well, they aren’t as common as the totem poles most people are familiar with,” said Archibald as he poured cream into his mug. “You know—the sort of house posts and mortuary poles they have in the First People’s Gallery at the Royal BC Museum. The best example of a shame totem pole is the Seward Pole in Saxman, Alaska.”
“Seward?” asked Catherine.
“Created to mock William H. Seward—formerly Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State.” Archibald gave a tiny smile. Oh, it felt good to talk history, for a change, instead of museum finances. “What happened, basically, was that Seward visited a Tlingit community—Tongass Village—in Alaska in 1869. Chief Ebbits greeted him with an extravagant potlatch, complete with gifts and ceremony. Seward seems to have just taken this as his due—never so much as sent a thank you note, apparently.
“After about twenty years, the villagers realized that Ebbits’ gifts were never going to be acknowledged, much less repaid (as was their cultural expectation). So, they carved and erected a shame totem pole of Seward in Tongass Village in the 1880s. Although they would’ve taken it down had Seward or his heirs repaid his potlatch debt, this—of course—never happened.”
Archibald leaned over and refilled his coffee mug from the pot on the table.
“Sixty years later,” he continued, “Tlingit descendants who’d moved to Saxman decided to replicate the old Tongass Village pole, since the original one had deteriorated. It’s one of history’s cool ironies that they were able to do this as a federally-funded CCC project. Basically, the U.S. government paid for a totem that continued to shame a former Secretary of State. The very man who, by negotiating the sale of Alaska with Russia, helped to rob the Tlingit of their ancestral lands.” He laughed outright this time.
“So, you’ve actually seen this reproduction?” Lindsay, fascinated by the story, had let her coffee grow cold.”
“Not this one, no. The story gets even better.” Thrilled to have two captive (and, even, attentive) listeners, Archibald continued. “The one I saw—I have a photograph of it, somewhere, at home—is the third, most recent version. A Tlingit carver, Stephen Jackson, started working on this one in 2014, and it was erected on the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase. And so it is that the shaming of William Seward continues to this day…and shall for eternity, I suppose—at least until that debt gets paid.”
“Hmmm…” Lindsay, as usual, couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. “What a marvelous story! If original, nineteenth-century shame poles are so rare, I’d bet that a lot of people will want to see this one. We’ll need to get some better lighting down there…and feature it strongly on our website…”
“Hold on, just a second.” Catherine looked at the younger woman, frowning slightly. “Don’t you think we need to learn a lot more about this totem pole before publicizing it? My Dad never mentioned it, and he was a docent here for decades. It’s been sealed, for God knows how long, in a room that my parents and grandparents never knew existed. Where do you think it came from? And why on Earth would anyone hide a totem pole, of all things, in a concealed chamber?” She stood up, pacing toward the grand staircase.
“You have a point, Catherine.” Archibald raised one hand to scratch the side of his nose, an unconscious gesture that indicated that his mind was operating on full burners. “The point of shame totems was that they be seen. It would be curious to know who carved this one, how it got here…”
“…And who it was meant to shame.” Catherine paused at the foot of the stairs to look up at her great-great grandfather Josiah’s portrait.
And, in the back of her mind, the dream-voice returned to its favorite refrain: “Je disparais mais je retournerai.”
I disappear, but shall return…
To read the story in its entirety, click here.
I was hooked!
Fascinating! Thanks for the twist to the story and for the info on shame totem poles.
Love the combination of history (I’ve seen the poles. at Saxman) and a mystery!