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Friday, July 09, 2004 - Page updated at 01:17 A.M.

Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
Burke Museum's new totem pole tainted by artist's past

Rebecca Andrews, collections manager of ethnology of the Burke Museum, examines the top of a 36-foot-tall cedar totem pole carved by Douglas Tobin of the Squaxin Island tribe.
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They say every totem pole has stories to tell.

You cannot understand the stories unless you know a pole's history — where the tree grew, who carved it, what the stacked symbols were meant to honor, memorialize, or ridicule. "Our Indians live in their totems and not in themselves," said Canadian painter Emily Carr, who traveled among the Coast Salish tribes of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s. "They become the creature that is their ideal and guiding spirit."

Which is precisely the problem with the totem pole that arrived last week at Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

It was carved by a killer.

To the museum's curators, it is a stunning, 36-foot-long work of art, a "welcome pole" crafted from a centuries-old Alaskan cedar log and valued at $70,000. They plan to erect it on the museum grounds on the campus of the University of Washington.

A killer-whale blowhole is depicted on the Burke Museum's new totem pole.
To friends of Olympia's Joanne Jirovec, who was killed in 1986 by two hit men hired by her husband, the pole is a symbol of murder. One of the hit men, Squaxin Island tribal member Douglas Tobin, was paid to carve the pole three years ago after being released from prison.

"The pole doesn't stand for 'welcome,' it stands for 'evil,' " said Barbara Brecheen of Olympia, Jirovec's best friend.

It's an insult to Jirovec's memory to display the pole outside a state museum, her friends say.

"Tobin's a rotten SOB, and to give the guy any credit, on public land, is just plain wrong," said Olympia's Wayne Ruegsegger, who attended church with Jirovec.

Most poignantly, Jirovec attended the University of Washington in the mid-1960s.

"There it will be for all posterity, standing where she went to school — a monument honoring her killer," Brecheen said.

Totem poles are said to acquire meaning as they age. This one is only three years old, but has accumulated a richer history than poles many times its age.

Douglas Tobin is serving a 14-year prison term.
The carving was commissioned by the Port of Olympia in 1997. The port hired Tobin even though officials knew he had been convicted of first-degree manslaughter.

They did not recall the details of the murder-for-hire case, they said, and so it never occurred to them that Tobin's involvement in the killing of a local woman might create a backlash. One commissioner said he probably would have hired Tobin anyway, as Tobin had served out his eight-year sentence.

It turns out that as Tobin was overseeing the carving, he was also running one of the largest geoduck and crab-poaching operations in state history. Tobin is now serving a 14-year prison term for theft, unlawful possession of a firearm and 35 counts for poaching more than $1 million worth of shellfish.

The pole was finished in 2001, and the Port paid Tobin $66,000. Jirovec's friends were aghast when the Port tried to erect it along the Olympia waterfront. After a series of overflow community meetings, the Port agreed to sell it.

Last month, Mukilteo art collector Charles Pancerzewski bought the pole for $28,000 and donated it to the Burke Museum.

"Goodbye Welcome Pole," was the relieved headline in The Olympian newspaper. The Port of Olympia lost $38,000 in the transaction.

The director of the Burke Museum, George MacDonald, jumped at the chance to acquire the museum's first pole carved in the Coast Salish style.

"We don't take any particular moral point of view as to who makes a work of art," he said.

It's common for museums to display pieces with mixed or disturbing histories, he said.

Still the Squaxin Island tribe held a "blessing" ceremony last week to "cancel any negative energy that may be surrounding the pole as a result of its past," said Charlene Krise of the Squaxin tribal museum.

MacDonald attended the ceremony. Every inch of the pole was scrubbed with spruce boughs. The boughs were then burned. Needles were left on the pole to blow off as a flatbed truck carried it up Interstate 5, "diffusing any bad things into the atmosphere," MacDonald said.

Now, the pole is lying on the floor in Burke museum storage, still dotted with a few spruce needles. Museum officials say a Tulalip tribal artist, Ron Hilbert Coy, inspected the totem last week and concluded it was radiating an extremely powerful, but positive, energy.

Jirovec's friends aren't buying it. You can't scrub away nearly two decades of memory and pain with some spruce boughs, they say. They want the pole burned.

One of the Burke museum's missions is to preserve living cultures. This is an irony not lost on Brecheen, as her best friend is dead.

"Can you imagine the City of Modesto putting up a monument made by Laci Peterson's killer?" she said.

MacDonald, the museum director, said current plans are to erect the pole this fall along with a sign listing its carvers, which included lead artist Tobin and several others. He said there is no plan to mention Jirovec or Tobin's criminal history.

Totem poles serve as historical documents, says the Burke museum's Web site, but reading them can be tricky.

"Often, people misinterpret a pole when they do not know the history of the pole," the site cautions.

History, properly and completely told, has different contexts and meanings for different people. For many who knew Joanne Jirovec, this will always be the murder pole. At the very least, the museum ought to tell that part of the story.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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