On May 1, the Board of the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, Oregon voted unanimously to cancel the raising of “Working Together,” a 42-foot tall totem pole carved by Brad Bolton, a white man with no traditional training in Native carving, after members of the Siletz, Grand Ronde and several other tribes spoke out against it.
The pole, commonly referred to as the Ritz Sauna “Story Pole,” was to be raised at the fair in an official ceremony in July. The artist calls it a “vertical sculpture” and not an actual totem pole. It was intended to decorate a bathhouse at the fair run by Ritz Sauna & Showers, where fairgoers relax in hot tubs for a price while surrounded by imagery stolen from Native tribes. According to a posting on the company’s Facebook page, the pole “tells the 40-year story of the Ritz Sauna & Showers at the Oregon Country Fair.”
Instant Tradition, Just Add Pretense
Ritz employees, along with a group of artists, had previously formed what they called the “flamingo clan” and five years ago commissioned Bolton to carve a memorial pole to honor four of their members who were killed in a plane crash. Bolton carved the pole on the site of the Ritz Sauna bathhouse at the fair, taking four years to do so and involving the work of many volunteers. Bolton states he consulted with four unnamed Native carvers from different tribes about the story pole, all of whom gave him positive encouragement. But at no time did he state he obtained permission to use images of the crest animals depicted on the pole.
“I’m not Native American. I don’t claim to be Native American. The work I do has no tribal affiliations. I don’t claim that it does, and I never have. I just love the style. The designs are my own,” Bolton states in the March 2016 Oregon Country Fair newsletter.
Totem Pole Is “Worst Appropriation I’ve Ever Seen”
Wendy Ireland is the descendant of a lineage of Kwakwaka’wakw carvers from British Columbia that goes back over 150 years. Her grandmother, Ellen Neel, was one of the only female totem pole carvers in the world and was considered a master carver. When Ireland learned of the Ritz Sauna story pole, she was flabbergasted.
“This is the worst appropriation I’ve ever seen,” she recently told ICMN.
In addition to the story pole, Ireland noticed many sacred Native beings decorating the bathhouse.
“I saw Raven. Then I saw the Sisiutl, which is a part of our mythology, and the Dzunuḵ̓wa. These are holy beings. Thunderbird? They’re holy. We don’t do this.”
Cultural Appropriation Triggers Historical Trauma
Ireland’s great-great-grandfather was Charlie James, a well-respected Kwakwaka’wakw carver who created three famous totem poles that now stand in Vancouver, British Columbia’s Stanley Park. When Ireland saw how her ancestors’ carving style and crest animals were being used as decoration for a bathhouse, her knee-jerk reaction was to come out swinging and she posted many strongly-worded comments to the Ritz Sauna Facebook page and also joined the Facebook group “Native Voices against the Ritz Sauna’s ‘Story Pole.’”
“People think cultural appropriation isn’t an important issue, but seeing aspects of your culture used to decorate a bathhouse is a trigger for historical trauma. In Canada we suffered from the Potlatch Ban where rituals and iconography related to the potlatch ceremony were outlawed for nearly a hundred years. We’ve fought to repatriate many of the ritual items that were taken away from us by the government during the Potlatch Ban. In addition to that, our hereditary chief and master carver Beau Dick died this past March. So having Ritz Sauna use our sacred traditions without asking permission simply retraumatizes us.”
Ireland notes that Ritz Sauna even had special coins minted with Native symbols that are apparently used to pay for time in their hot tubs. On one side a Native copper shield is depicted and on the flip side the words “eagle sweatlodge” appear.
“To see them in a bathhouse where a bunch of hippies are naked, hanging out, doing whatever… I don’t care if there is a special zone existing for that. You just can’t have my sacred objects watching over you. They are watching over you and they don’t like it. They want to go home.”
Lesson to Be Learned: Ask First
Ireland says a set of guidelines are being developed to help event planners with problems like this engage and interact with indigenous communities. “Ask First! A Better Practices Guide for Indigenous Engagement in Event Production” is a planned booklet to be published with the help of Indigenous Action Media.
What most non-Native people don’t understand is energy comes from our ancestors, a mysterious blend of love and strength that flows up through the roots of our heritage when we do things that please the relations who came before us. The violence of colonization severed this flow of energy for many Native people. Getting it back is hard work and often creates resentment from those who don’t understand. But while fighting cultural appropriation is hard and sometimes seems like an unimportant front of the war against colonization, it is also a medicine that heals both the communities we live in and the Native hearts beating inside our chests.