Oregon Country Fair Cancels Fake Native Totem Pole Raising

Screenshot Courtesy “The Ritz Story Pole”/Ritz Sauna & Showers/YouTube / Volunteers carve “Working Together,” the Ritz Sauna & Showers story pole. The pole was to be raised at the Oregon Country Fair in July, but designer Brad Bolton did not seek permission from any Native American tribes to use the Native images carved into the pole. As a result, many Native tribes, groups and individuals spoke out against the pole, saying it is cultural appropriation. The Board of the Oregon Country Fair eventually voted unanimously to cancel the pole’s raising.

Ritz Sauna story pole ‘worst appropriation I’ve ever seen’ says descendant of carving family

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.”

Facebook/Ritz Sauna & Showers / Outside the Ritz Sauna & Showers at the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, Oregon.

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.

Facebook/Ritz Sauna & Showers / An appropriated formline design is used to depict a flamingo spirit animal, crest of the “flamingo clan” of artists at the Oregon Country Fair. The flamingo clan members are all associated with the Ritz Sauna & Showers “Story Pole.”

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.”

From the book, “The Totem Carvers: Charlie James, Ellen Neel, and Mungo Martin” by Phil Nuytten, Panorama Publications / The late Ellen Neel, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver and teacher from British Columbia. Neel was a third generation master carver and perhaps the world’s only female totem pole carver. In this photo Neel puts the finishing touches on an 11-foot totem destined for a museum in Denmark. Neel is the grandmother of Wendy Ireland, who later spoke out against the appropriation of formline design and Native sacred beings on the Ritz Sauna & Showers story pole.

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.”

Detail of a token minted by Ritz Sauna & Showers showing an appropriated Native copper shield on one side and the words “eagle sweat lodge” on the other. The tokens were given to customers of Ritz Sauna & Showers to use as payment for services.

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.

Courtesy Indigenous Action Media / Cover of the planned booklet, “Ask First! A Better Practices Guide for Indigenous Engagement in Event Production.” The guide will help event planners be aware of cultural appropriation and provide suggestions for contacting and working with Native communities for permission and assistance with Native art, images and concepts.

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.