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What’s in a name? A conversation about the meaning of Totem and a call for name suggestions

PRSA Puget Sound President Amy Turner and Diversity & Inclusion Committee Chair Hallie Fuchs recently (virtually) sat down for a conversation with a representative from the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF), a Seattle-based non-profit whose vision is to be a social service provider, community center, and cultural home for urban Indians.

The Totem Awards, is an annual competition and prestigious honor that recognizes projects and programs that demonstrate excellence in public relations. The program was created in 1978 and at the time, intended to pay homage to Native American tribes and their artistic contributions to the Pacific Northwest. While the imagery of totem pole isn’t attributed to the awards, our connection is in the word which is defined as: a natural object or an animate being, such as an animal or bird, assumed as the emblem of a person, clan, family or group or anything serving as a distinctive, often honored and venerated symbol or emblem.

Now in 2021 and guided by the information that we have on cultural appropriation, we are looking at the name and holding ourselves accountable and forging a new path forward. This also means acknowledging the discomfort, exclusion and exploitation of Native American, Indian and First Nations and Indigenous peoples.

We’re seeing nationally recognized teams like the Washington Football Team and the Cleveland Indians changing their names, and even prior at schools like Eastern Washington University (1973) and Seattle University (2000). This understanding comes from the idea that representation does not necessarily mean honor.

Our consultation with the development director of UIATF also gave meaningful insight into cultural appreciation vs. appropriation and the history of totem poles in the Puget Sound area.

Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation: 

The Totem Awards lack the inclusion of Native/Indian people which means as we cannot and do not appreciate the meaning or value of a totem pole and Native/Indian people do not receive benefit from the use of the name.

Appreciating the meaning behind totem poles can also be taken into account. As it is an art form that can represent life events and tell stories, it can loosely be attributed to the diverse and rich spiritual, religious and culturally significant aspects of Native culture.

Taking such an important monument and using it for an award that does not include nor honor any portion of Native culture falls under appropriation.

History of Totem Poles: 

The totem pole is not a traditional monument to the Puget Sound, these were generally created further north by the Haida, Vancouver Island, First Nations and Indigenous peoples and Alaska Corporations peoples. The history of monuments seen in lower Washington are sometimes stolen, displayed out of context or were gifts. There's even ways to look up the origins of particular poles.

While they are now a well accepted art form for many Native artists to display their traditional carving skills, PRSA Puget Sound cannot go on in good faith with the name “Totem” after this education from UIATF and understanding of the appropriation of the word.

Call For Name Suggestions

In order to continue to promote the integrity and meaning of the awards “as a symbol of creativity and accomplishment for the public relations industry in the Puget Sound area,” we are currently soliciting new names that better represent communications excellence. Submit your entry by 11:59 p.m. on April 5. Any questions or comments can be sent to [email protected]


Below are additional resources about name or mascot changes and cultural appropriation.

Burke Museum: How did totem poles become a symbol of Seattle?

Crosscut: Local Native leaders want Pike Place totem poles removed C rosscut: Seattle’s monument fails

Pacific Standard Magazine: Totem Vodka and Indigenous cultural appropriation

Seattle Times: Native mascots are still a sticking point for high schools

Seattle Times: ‘It was just elation’: Tribes in Washington celebrate name change 

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