Zoo totem makeover

Restoration of 50-foot Chief Lelooska totem pole an artistic labor of love

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published:

 

Did you know?

• An example of Chief Lelooska's totem pole artistry on public display locally is in the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave. It is on permanent loan from Georgia-Pacific. An inch over 16 feet, it was moved to the library in 2005 and is in the first-floor Totem Room.

Did you know?

• An example of Chief Lelooska’s totem pole artistry on public display locally is in the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave. It is on permanent loan from Georgia-Pacific. An inch over 16 feet, it was moved to the library in 2005 and is in the first-floor Totem Room.

The restoration of a Chief Lelooska totem pole at the Oregon Zoo is a chance for people to get back in touch with Northwest tribal themes.

That includes members of the Southwest Washington artist’s family, who are a hands-on part of the project.

The totem pole was created in 1959 by Don Smith, an Indian carver and storyteller known as Chief Lelooska. As part of a facilities makeover, the Oregon Zoo moved the 50-foot-tall totem pole into temporary storage last year.

That provided an opportunity to refurbish and repaint the 55-year-old landmark. Don Smith died in 1996, but his family is carrying on his artistic traditions.

The Lelooska Foundation, an educational and cultural nonprofit based in Ariel, is overseeing the renovation. Younger brother Tsungani Fearon Smith is leading the restoration efforts. The family’s artists are repairing cracks and rot, as well as painting, cleaning and detailing the carving. Zoo volunteers are helping with the restoration.

It’s been a powerful family experience, said Mariah Reese, executive director of the Lelooska Foundation. She is the daughter of Tsungani and Lelooska’s niece.

Reese’s daughter Mara, 11, and her son Isaac, 10, are part of the project, along with her sister, Lottie Stoll-Smith.

Family members have restored several Lelooska totem poles, said Reese.

“It’s amazing what you can learn from putting your hands on wood — wood he had carved,” she said. “Trying to clean it and restore it, you learn how designs go across the wood, and how things are carved out to represent animals and spiritual beings on the pole.

“It’s hard to wrap your mind around it, but it’s like he’s teaching you, in a way: being able to be that close to the work,” she said. “It’s why I wanted to make sure my kids were part of the process.”

This is the second time the totem pole has been restored.

“When we restored it the first time, about 15 years ago, it was in pretty bad shape,” Reese said. “It was very weathered, the paint was gone, and some parts had to be carved. Tsungani made new wings for the thunderbird on top. It was in better shape this time.”

Lelooska’s Northwest coastal style totem pole was carved from cedar during the 1959 Oregon Centennial Exposition, zoo spokesman Hova Najarian said.

It honors soldiers from Oregon who participated in Operation Deep Freeze, a series of exploratory missions to Antarctica during the late 1950s. It was installed on zoo grounds in 1960; it is on the National Register of Historic Places and catalogued in the Smithsonian American Art Museum database.

It’s tentatively scheduled for reinstallation near the zoo’s mountain goat habitat late this month, Najarian said.

A 15-foot totem pole carved by father-and-son artists Rex and Ray Losey in 1977 also was removed and is being refurbished.

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