Unity Pole: Time Will Tell

Nestled between Frost, Hawkins and Foster Halls, the 28-foot-tall Clark College Unity Pole stands overlooking the campus courtyard. Last March, the SBCTC approved a 27 million dollar project to restructure three buildings around the pole in the next 10 years.

However, several months ago, rot was discovered eating away at the base of the pole, which has left officials debating how they should proceed with maintenance. If left unchecked, the rot will spread, threatening to severely weaken the base and potentially topple it in within the next 8-10 years, Facilities Director Tim Petta said.

When the pole was dedicated 19 years ago, it became a federally protected sacred space. Petta said that this created a complex situation for the Facilities department about where to draw the line between maintaining the site and respecting its sovereignty.

Petta has communicated with representatives of the Native American Student Culture Club about possible solutions. “I think we should have a plan in place for just in case it does become a hazard,” Petta said. “From a facilities perspective, that’s wood that’s rotting and I gotta deal with it. So I brought it to [NASCC faculty adviser Nicole Noelle’s] attention and asked what they wanted to do.”

Traditionally, totem poles are not disturbed after they have been blessed and their intentionality set. “It’s just not culturally appropriate to change or modify that pole,” NASCC President Chana Smith said. “Some of the poles that are standing are so old you cannot even see what was on them. The carvings have eroded away.”

Smith has consulted elders from the local indigenous tribes who presided over the dedication on how to proceed with the situation. They have the final say on whether the pole can be restored. Smith said the current plan is to let the decay run its course and allow the pole to deteriorate naturally.

English professor and former co-adviser of the NASU Gerrard Smith said Trouble for the site began when the old Native American Student Union, which agreed with facilities in 1999 that they would maintain the site, dissolved a few years later, leaving the grounds uncared for.

He said he urged facilities to do something to maintain the site for years but, because of its sacred status and the prior agreement with the NASU, facilities was reluctant to make any changes to the site.

“Personally, I think the pole should be maintained, because of its purpose,” Gerrard Smith said. “Its purpose is to stand for Clark College’s commitment to unity, to tolerance, to acceptance of all people and all cultures, no matter their race or their language or their place of origin. That’s what that pole stands for. That’s what the whole plaza stands for.”

The rot at the pole is not the only issue the sacred site is facing. For years, the garden has been left unkempt and a large tree blots out much of the sunlight for the surrounding plants. Many of the species of plants that had been placed around the base of the pole have begun to die off. “The moss on the turtle was dying,” Gerrard Smith said. “The kinikinik — that’s the hedge around the area —  died off. And the weeds! The thing was just covered with weeds.”

When Gerard Smith saw Chana Smith, along with several other students, pulling weeds and maintaining the site, he was so excited he pitched in and helped.

Noelle, who has a background in biology, has dedicated herself to replanting the garden over the summer.

The NASCC will organize restorative gardening efforts in the near future and encouraged students to volunteer. “We will have a naming ceremony, keeping the totem pole as is and calling the place Unity Plaza,” Noelle wrote in an email. “My goal is for this to be in November when we have our annual powwow.”

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