He built one of Bergen’s landmarks

Duane Pasco

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein
Duane Pasco had his first exhibit in 1966. His totem poles stand in two locations in Seattle, in Occidental Park and at the Seattle Center. Another one of his totem poles is found in Alaska in Sitka National Historical Park.

Bergen, Norway

Editor’s note: Since the time when this article was published in 2016, a lot has happened. Duane Pasco continues to work in his shop on Bainbridge Island, and the two sister cities have rekindled their relationship with a series of programs, including a major celebration of their 50-year jubilee in 2017, exchanges in the arts and social issues, and travel in both directions—and there are no signs of stopping.

Adapted from Bergensavisen, Apr. 4, 2016 
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall 

The year was 1970. Bergen had just turned 900, and big celebrations were underway: historical parades, street festivals, a 20-foot-high “White Lady” marzipan cake, and 900 lights in the city streets. The exact date of the birthday was May 12. On the table of presents was a nearly 30-foot-high totem pole with greetings from Bergen’s sister city Seattle.

Before the unveiling on Oct. 2 of the same year, in usual Bergensian manner, discussions were taking place. Some thought the work of art would destroy Nordnes Park. Others wanted to use as it as diving board for the swimming pool there.

Fifty years ago, the totem pole was completed and shipped from the workshop of American Duane Pasco, a respected artist, who has breathed new life into the Northwest tribal art form. 

Totem pole by Duane Pasco

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein
The totem pole in Nordnes Park was given to Bergen as a gift in 1970. In the background, you see the Aquarium, with the front facing the fjord.

The rain

It is a lovely winter day and the sunlight is bursting through the big trees surrounding Pasco’s home and workshop. The artist lives on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle. The island has been the home of many Norwegian settlers, and the nearest town to the artist’s home is Poulsbo, known to many as “Little Norway.”

You find everything from “No Smoking” to “King Olav Parking Place” on the signs of the small town’s picturesque main street. They have a 17th of May celebration that goes on for an entire weekend under the name of “Viking Festival.”

From Pasco’s workshop, the sound of hammering can be heard. Even if he’s managed to reach the age of 85 [today 89], he’s not slacking off. He appears to be very focused, as he works on something that looks like a large canoe; he doesn’t let himself be interrupted by the banging on the outside door that is heard through all the hammering.

“Come in, come in,” he shouts.

Pasco greets us in Norwegian. He interjects a few Norwegian words or sentences where he thinks they might fit in. But Pasco isn’t Norwegian. He’s not Native American either.

“Once I was interviewed by a newspaper, and when the photographer was going to take a picture of me, the journalist burst out, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, do you have a costume or some feathers you can put on?’” Pasco tells us. 

“I told him that we don’t do that. Besides, I’m an Irish American, not even Native American,” he adds.

carving by Duane Pasco

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein
Animal faces are central in Northwest Native American wooden sculptures.

Grew up in Alaska

Pasco shares how he has been interested in different cultures since he was a child. He grew up near indigenous tribes in Alaska during the 1930s, and he became fascinated with their culture. The Norwegian phrases that he picked up are from a class he took.

“Out of curiosity, I went and signed myself up. I guess I have an ear for language, and I studied and practiced the words each evening.”

Pasco leaves the workshop with us. It is chilly in the shade, but the sun warms things up. All around are works from the artist’s long career in woodcarving: canoes, smaller figures, and totem poles.

We walk past a tree branch that is cut in two, partially whittled. Duane points to it and says:

“That’s how I get started when I’m going to get a branch ready for carving. First you first have to make the stem symmetrical and then you have to cut out facets before you lay out where the animal motifs you’ve selected are going to be placed.”

Pasco tells how when he was working on the totem pole for Bergen, there was a person sleeping under the hollowed-out stem. 

“One morning I started work at the crack of dawn, and I started hammering on the stem. Suddenly, a shaking and dizzy homeless person came out, a little taken aback by this brutal awakening.” 

It was in the oldest part of the Seattle in the center of the city that Pasco worked on the gift to Bergen for one month in a stretch, because he had to get back to the teaching job he had at that time.

“It was work, work, and work. It may have been my best work. Considering that I usually take two to three months for such a big piece, I was satisfied with it. But on the other hand, I don’t usually work 13 to 14 hours a day like I did with it.”

Usually it is a tribal chief who orders a totem pole. Explained in simple terms, it is the myths of the great tribal families that determine which motifs are chosen.

But in the case of the totem pole in Bergen, it was the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association (SBSCA) that made the order. At the very top is a bear, then an orca, and at the bottom, a beaver holding a branch.

“Since the totem pole in Bergen was ordered in the usual manner, the SBSCA chose the various motifs. They wanted to have something that was typical for both countries. I don’t know if you have animals in your part of the country, but you have them in Norway, don’t you? The totem pole is made completely of wood, apart from a few elements. When I received pictures of the raised pole, the fin on the back of the orca was mounted upside down. I got them to change it,” he said with a laugh.

Contact between the two cities

During the unveiling in 1970, the then-mayor of Bergen, Ragnar Juell Morken, gave a speech and said, “The totem pole is a symbol of the contact that the sister cities have with the vast areas that surround the cities, with wilderness and mountains. It is the bear that symbolizes this, while the whale represents the wealth of fisheries, and the beaver with the branch in its mouth is the building force for the two cities’ societies.”

The indigenous tribes liked to put up their totem poles at the entrances to their houses. In Bergen it stands guard at the seaway.

“I don’t know exactly why this place was selected, but it is very fitting,” said Pasco.

Not from Seattle

He was born in Seattle but grew up in Alaska. And it was there that his interest for the tradition-rich art form began. It was also in these areas where totem poles were first built.

Historically, these ornate totem poles were not built by local tribes in Seattle: totem poles were not part of the local culture. It was first after some people from Seattle stole a totem pole from a village in Alaska and put in the center of the city in 1899 that the totem pole became a symbol for the city.

“Many have taken inspiration from the art form. Even if folks aren’t from the tribes,” he said, alluding a bit to himself.

At the time when the order for the Bergen totem pole was placed, Pasco knew so much about the handicraft that he was also an instructor in it. He believes that this is the reason he was selected as the one to build the totem pole.

“In 1970, there weren’t many around who could build traditional totem poles.”

For a long time, American and Canadian authorities had banned the art form, especially when it came to larger versions.

This ban could be seen as part of the suppression of the indigenous people in North America. For example, the “potlatch” ceremony that took place when a totem pole was raised had been made illegal. A political policy of assimilation was put in place, in which indigenous people were encouraged to blend in with mainstream society and give up their traditions and rituals.

Between 1900 and 1950, very few totem poles were built, and subsequently there weren’t many left with any knowledge of the technique.

The workshop of Duane Pasco

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein
In a carport next to his workshop, Duane Pasco was working on four seafaring vessels.

From indigenous people to Vikings

In the carport next to Duane’s workshop are four seafaring vessels. One stands out, not just because there are three canoes and one boat, but because to Norwegian eyes, the boat looks very Norwegian.

“I finished that one last year. It’s a traditional færing or ‘four-oaring,’ a Viking boat.”

Pasco was, in fact, in Norway six years after the totem pole was erected in the park, not to see his own work but to find out how to build such a boat.

“I was supposed to go to Bergen for the unveiling, but I simply wasn’t able to get off work.”

But after reading about boat builders in Norway who had a hard time finding apprentices, he made up his mind.

“I said to my wife, I’m heading to Norway. I took off, but I came to the boat builder with no money in my pockets.”

The trip was not in vain. Pasco found inspiration among gadgets and keychains. With rugged and wrinkled hands, he rolls out a worn poster with simple illustrations of all corners of a boat.

I bought this in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. This is what I’ve used as my template for building the boat. It is said to be one of the small boats that was excavated together with the big ships.”

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein
In 1976, Pasco headed for Norway to learn about boat building.

Originally, he had taken some measurements of the exhibit ship, but after his trip to the souvenir shop, it was just a matter of following the “recipe.”

Even if the woodworking he does daily differs from the Nordic tradition with its stave churches and Viking motifs, he finds a good deal of inspiration there. The material is the same, and the techniques are similar.

In answer to the question why it took so many years for him to finish the boat that he was so anxious to build, he replied:

“I simply didn’t have enough time, but it was so much fun. I’d love to build another one. Next year maybe?”

 When we were going to christen the boat, we thought it would be nice to do it according to tradition. We brought in a ‘Viking’ who had been part of one of the parades in Poulsbo, but he was pretty skeptical.”

The “genuine Viking” had never been out in a small boat before.

Hoping for more activity

Friendship city, twin city, or sister city: the concept has many names and came to life after World War II. The idea was to bring people and cultures together on various levels.

Lori Ann Reinhall, president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, shares that the two cities have been sister cities since 1967.

“Historically, Seattle has had very strong connections with western Norway, with many similarities in the natural environment: the sea, mountains, and forest,” she said.

“There was also a large number of Norwegian immigrants coming to the area up through the 1970s.”

It was the committee that she is now in charge of that raised the funds to present the gift for Bergen’s jubilee.

“It’s interesting that a Native American totem pole was designed and built to be sent to Bergen since you don’t have anything like it there. A fun idea.”

In the past, there was a lot of activity between the two sister cities, with exchanges between schools and universities, in addition to cultural programs. 

“But the interest and number of activities has declined in recent years,” Reinhall said.

She visited Bergen, and her dream has been to strengthen the ties between the two cities again.

“I think it is important to keep this relationship alive, to invigorate it again, especially as we approach our 50-year anniversary next year. We are working with different cultural institutions to try to commemorate it.”

The committee in the United States has also taken on traditions from Bergen and Norway that now live on in Seattle. Each year they celebrate the 17th of May, and they even have their own version of the “Seven-Mountain Hike,” or “Sjufjellsturen in Norwegian. The city doesn’t have seven mountains, but its city center is surrounded by seven hills.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Emil Weatherhead Breistein

Emil Weatherhead Breistein ia a freelance photographer and journalist based in Bergen, Norway. He is a strong supporter of The Norwegian American and the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association.