Curating culture in the City of Kenmore

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News

Slightly less than an hour’s drive from the Tulalip Reservation, going southbound on I-5, one can find the City of Kenmore. A relatively small city with an estimated 24,000 residents, it’s a suburban town that occupies the land where the Sammamish River joins Lake Washington.

Native Americans were the only people living in what is now the Kenmore area as recently as two hundred years ago. They lived on the waterway that later became known as the Sammamish Slough. It’s not difficult to imagine these Coast Salish ancestors establishing multiple villages in such a pristine fishing and hunting area, with each village having one or more cedar-plank longhouses to hold village families.

According to the Kenmore Historical Society, it was a great place to live, to fish, and to hunt. Migrating salmon entered the lake from the sea and swam to the mouth of the Sammamish Slough. Ducks and geese were abundant, landing in nearby marshes and the estuary on their annual migrations. Game was plentiful, and the area supported large populations of otters, beavers, muskrats, and other animals.

Flash forward to 2023, and that stunning Coast Salish identity that once thrived on those pre-colonized Kenmore lands is actively being curated once again by modern-day culture-bearers. The latest example of this reclamation process occurred just this summer as a special story pole awakening ceremony kicked off the city’s 25th anniversary celebration. 

Installed in the heart of the town square and unveiled during a city-wide celebration is a towering 12-foot story pole created by Tulalip artist Ty Juvinel.

“I get asked the question often, “What is a story pole?” because people think we only made totem poles. When, in fact, our Coast Salish ancestors of this region made story poles and house poles,” shared Ty. “The difference was that a house pole was kept inside, while story poles were placed outside and were of utmost importance in acknowledging a nearby longhouse.

“I’ve been told there used to be a longhouse where the town hall used to be,” added the 36-year-old culture bearer. “The meaning behind this story pole actually explains the meaning of why Tulalip’s logo is the killer whale. The inspiration comes from the traditional story Seal Hunter Brothers as told by Lushootseed legend Martha Lamont. Further inspiration for this pole’s design and carving style was to intentionally reflect the style of [last hereditary chief of the Snohomish Tribe] William Shelton and the story poles he created.”

Ty spent hundreds of hours over the course of months to create this awe-inspiring story pole that started as a 12-foot tall by 30-inch wide single Cedar beam procured along the peninsula.

At their core, story poles are cultural storytellers. They are meticulously carved from large, straight cedar logs – chosen for their durability and resistance to decay – using various handheld tools. The intricate designs and figures adorning the poles are then carefully painted with earth tone or Medicine Wheel pigments.

Each story pole narrates a unique story, most often detailing a tribal village’s history or an iconic narrative that’s been told for millennia. They are central to preserving and spreading traditional teachings passed on via the oral tradition, a key aspect of Coast Salish culture.

In that vein, it’s become an artist’s signature for Ty to welcome members of the local community to leave a lasting mark on his story poles to both solidify allyship and serve as a reminder that they heard the pole’s story and can be held accountable to pass on the teaching. He achieves this by inviting all those in attendance at the story pole’s awakening to leave their painted thumbprint on a dedicated panel at the pole’s base.

“It solidifies the story pole being welcomed into the community. There isn’t a lot of opportunity for people to engage with art or our culture, making it much more memorable for those who leave their fingerprint,” said Ty. “Twenty years from now or even longer, those who were here might return, and when they do, they’ll be able to spot their print and, hopefully, remember what they witnessed and tell others about it.”

Coast Salish story poles are so much more than wooden sculptures, they are living embodiments of Indigenous history, culture, and spirituality. With their roots stretching back millennia, they stand as a testament to the resilience and enduring traditions of the region’s first peoples. As they continue to be celebrated and respected, their stories, like Martha Lamont’s Seal Hunter Brothers, will echo through the ages, ensuring that this tradition remains alive for generations to come.