Artistic legacy of a Ballard fish and chips shop

Turns out the kitschy Totem House, a local icon, played an important role in the revival of Northwest Indian art.

Turns out the kitschy Totem House, a local icon, played an important role in the revival of Northwest Indian art.

Fans of Old Ballard have been lamenting the closure of Totem House the, well, totemic fish 'n' chips place out by the Locks. The neighborhood has had a rough stretch of losing cultural icons from bowling alleys to diners.  Since late last month, in addition to Totem House, closures have been announced for the decorative arts gallery Souvenir and Carnegie's Restaurant (in the historic library) . 

But before Totem House is lamented as merely a piece of Seattle kitsch, Coll Thrush, historian and author of the excellent book Native Seattle (UW Press, 2007), reminds me that he wrote about an important and overlooked aspect of Totem House building that makes it a cultural, artistic, architectural and native icon for the city.

Thrush writes about the life of urban Native Americans, and their influence on the city and vice versa. Seattle has appropriated much Northwest Coast native art as its own, from Pioneer Square's totem pole to the design of its man hole covers. But much of this iconography was the result of the work and vision of Native American artists who lived and worked here, including a burst of activity during the 1930s. The city was a market for art, but also home to working native artists. One of those artists was Jimmy John, a Nuu-chah-nulth from Vancouver Island.

Thrush writes on page 160 of Native Seattle:

"From the community of Mowachat on the west coast of Vancouver Island, (Jimmy) John had traveled regularly to Seattle with his family and often sold items he carved from wood and silver to Ye Olde Curiostiy Shop and other tourist outlets. One of his most lucrative opportunities, however, came in 1936,when he was hired by a curio-shop owner to carve a series of totem poles that would be incorporated into the design of a new building. By 1937, the misnamed Haida House was doing a brisk business in baskets, masks, models canoes, and miniature totam poles out of a building adorned with Thunderbirds, bears, and eagles carved by John in return for room and board. The Haida House —now the Totem House Fish and Chips shop — was part of a new 1930s vernacular that used totem poles, tipis and other Indian images to capture the attention of tourists, but behind the seeming kitsch lay the labor and expertise of a Native artisan. For John, who lived in Seattle for 10 years before returning to British Columbia to become a leader in the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, urban life provided not just economic opportunity but a chance to establish himself as a Native artist. and in doing so, he helped craft Seattle's Indian iconography."

Another book at hand that covers the subject of the role of Native American iconography and art and its role in promoting Seattle, tourism and local identity is Kate C. Duncan's fascinating 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art (UW Press, 2000).

With Totem House shut down, it will be worth watching to see what happens to the property, owned by an investment company. Clearly, there is more to it than chowder and chips.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.