The distinctive totem pole displayed at Evergreen Washelli tells an exciting tale of undying love, but for decades the drama and suspense of its Orpheus-like legend had remained a mystery.
The 800-pound pole, which stands 16 feet high, had been carved in the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia and was shipped across the Sound to Thomas Kelley on Bainbridge Island. In the early 1930's, Kelley gave the pole to his next-door neighbor, Clinton S. Harley, then General Manager of Evergreen Washelli, who had the Native art erected in the cemetery.
In 1994, Dave Daly, who was General Manager of Evergreen Washelli at the time, hired Jay Haavik to clean and restore the pole. Although Haavik was a non-native (actually a Ballard-bred "100 percent Norwegian"), he was an artist and teacher of Northwest Indian art. Stating that the totem was still in "remarkable condition," Haavik noted there were some parts that were worn or missing. Recognizing the bold carvings and massive style of the totem to be those of the Haida Tribe, Haavik did some research and found a photo of an almost identical, but smaller, version of the pole in a 1953 book on Haida mythology. The carvers of that 6-foot pole were identified as Luke Watson and George Smith, two of the most well-known and prolific artists of the Haida Tribe. Haavik used the photo he had found to meticulously restore every detail of the totem pole to its original state. Sometime later, a 1927 photo of the larger pole was found which shows the same two artists standing next to it, proving they indeed were the artists.
According to Haida legend, the totem tells the story of Genanasimgat and his wife, who was the daughter of a powerful chief. Having heard that some hunters had spotted a rare white sea-otter, the mother of his bride asked Genanasimgat to kill the otter for its beautiful white fur, which he did. While the mother was skinning the otter, some blood got on the fur, so she asked her daughter to wash it in the sea, which her dutiful daughter did, but somehow the fur escaped her grasp and drifted into deeper water. During her pursuit of the fur, two orca whales kidnapped her. Genanasimgat, who loved his wife with all his heart, followed her to the bottom of the sea, where he met a crane, who hid him from the orcas under her breast feathers. After a number of other suspenseful adventures, Genanasimgat finally rescued his beloved wife and escaped home with her.
It is interesting to note that Luke Watson, whose Native art has been displayed in some of Canada's top museums, isn't of Northwest Indian heritage either. Born to White parents, he was found as an infant by a Haida family, who raised him as their own. George Smith, who helped train Watson as an artist, was his adoptive uncle.