Story pole created by cultural leader and wood carver William Shelton of Tulalip is dedicated on the Washington State Capitol grounds on May 14, 1940.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 2/27/2009
  • Essay 8944
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On May 14, 1940 an 85-foot story pole carved by the late William Shelton (1868-1938) of the Snohomish tribe is officially dedicated on the Washington State Capitol grounds. Dignitaries including Washington Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) and Ex-Governor Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952) attend the ceremony.  The pole symbolizes ongoing peace between the region's Native Americans and whites. 

Spirit Poles of William Shelton

In his lifetime native cultural leader William Shelton (1868-1938) of the Tulalip Tribes created a number of spirit poles that carried the stories he had learned from regional tribal elders. The Olympia pole was his last.  In fact Shelton died before it was finished.  Ex-Governor Roland H. Hartley of Everett had first suggested having a Shelton pole placed on the Washington State Capitol grounds.  Hartley personally chose the cedar to be used and Shelton worked on the pole for five years.  Upon his death in 1938, other tribal carvers finished the project. Upon its completion, Snohomish County school children and the Snohomish County Parent-Teacher-Association raised the funds needed to purchase the pole.  Many of the state's school children donated pennies to the cause.  

The pole was officially dedicated on May 14, 1940 although it was not erected in its concrete base until a month later.  Both Governor Clarence D. Martin and Roland H. Hartley attended the ceremony, Governor Martin accepting the pole from Sarah Stewart, Tacoma president of the Washington Congress of Parents and Teachers.  William Shelton's widow, Ruth Sehome Shelton (d. 1958), and daughter Harriette Shelton Williams (1904-1991) were in attendance and the occasion was made festive by the Edmonds High School and Olympia High School bands.

Although the pole's original length was 85 feet, it stood 71 feet high when finally mounted on the northeast lawn of the west campus, on the south side of the General Administration building. For 70 years the state served as a good caretaker for the pole, repairing, caulking, pressure washing, and repainting it as needed. But time took its toll and the pole was removed on November 3, 2010, out of concern that, due to rot, it had become a safety hazard. The Washington State Archives prepared storyboards telling the pole's history and invited the public to the dismantling ceremony. Few came.

The pole was carefully divided into seven parts, as determined by consultants from the Tulalip Tribes, then stored in an unused greenhouse on Capitol grounds until a new place is found for its care and display. In April 2011 the Tulalip Tribes officially affirmed that the pole belongs to the people of Washington and urged that it be restored and publicly displayed.  All parties involved strongly agree that the story pole is like a book and its parts (like chapters) should remain together.  While a determination has not yet been made regarding the pole’s destination, it will most likely go to the Burke Museum or Tulalip’s Hibulb Cultural Center.

Sources: "Olympia Ready For Dedication of Totem Pole," The Daily Olympian, May 13, 1940, pp. 1, 6 ;  "Dedicate Totem Pole At Capitol," Ibid., May 14, 1940, p. 1; "Indians on Peace Path Help State Dedicate Totem Pole At Capitol," Ibid., May 15, 1940, p. 1; Linda V. Mapes, "The Next Chapter for Old Story Pole Yet To Be Written," The Seattle Times, April 26, 2011 (; "Chief William Shelton's story pole," State of Washington government website, accessed January 30, 2009 (
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate of Clarence D. Martin, and was updated on May 22, 2012.

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