Playing Indian

How a fight over Native American symbolism in Oregon brought to light the conflict at America's core.

Playing Indian

How a fight over Native American symbolism in Oregon brought to light the conflict at America's core.

It was always meant to draw attention. The 8,000-pound, 36-foot Alaskan cedar log — brought in from Canada in 2012 after years of legal wrangling over its import — was carved into a totem pole at the Oregon Country Fair over a few summers by a group that runs a sauna and bath house on the site. There were plans for solar-powered LED lights illuminating the eyes of the raven, beaver, dog, and bear figures; not to be outdone, the flamingo figure at the top would have 20-foot-wide wings made of stainless steel, copper, and brass. It was scheduled to go up in the summer of 2015.

But in the past few years, the geographically incorrect, faux-Native totem pole has become a lightning rod of controversy, with charges of cultural appropriation and concern that said pole might disturb prehistoric archeological ruins of actual Native Americans. The pole’s advocates, who are mostly white, did not simply acquiesce to the rising chorus of Native voices; instead, they attacked a relatively new diversity task force, belittled local tribespeople, and attempted to undermine the fair’s archaeology crew in order to raise the totem pole. How a group of hippies in a community purportedly tied together by peace, love, and understanding ended up sounding like a bunch of neocons speaks to the troubled dynamic between America’s aging — and largely white — hippie subculture and the Native American communities they’ve long imitated.

The Oregon Country Fair is a three-day-long music, arts, and culture festival that has been held just outside Eugene, Oregon every July since 1969. Around 50,000 visitors, including everyone from octogenarian hippies to families with young children to groups of twenty-somethings, descend on the fairgrounds from all over the Pacific Northwest, though the fair has been known to inspire the kind of loyalty that results in people flying out for it long after they’ve moved away from the area. Free of corporate sponsors and run mostly by volunteers, visitors to the fair often come bedecked in fantastical costumes or contemporary hippie garb (think harem pants, Chaco sandals, copious tie-dye). There are stands selling crystals and handmade crafts, booths offering tofu burgers and tempeh wraps, and musical performances by a quintet that does “bluegrass-inspired 3-dimensional psychtrance.” Seventy bucks gets you a three-day pass.

The fair was first held as a homespun fundraiser for a local alternative school, and its profile quickly grew thanks to the countercultural leader Ken Kesey, who was raised in the area. In 1972, Kesey asked the Grateful Dead if they’d play a benefit concert for his brother’s struggling creamery — while Ken experimented with LSD, Chuck Kesey had been playing around with Lactobacillus acidophilus; he was the first in the U.S. to sell yogurt with live probiotics. The tickets were printed on the back of yogurt labels and a stage was built with felled trees. According to Chuck, the Grateful Dead called it the “stark nakedest scene they’d ever attended.” (The fair no longer allows nudity, drugs, or alcohol.)

The Grateful Dead called the Oregon Country Fair the ‘stark nakedest scene they’d ever attended.’

One of the fair’s many booths is called the Ritz Sauna and Showers, a 12,000-square foot series of ramshackle wooden structures offering cold showers and relaxing saunas for attendees at what is typically a hot, dry, and dusty festival. The Ritz is covered in murals featuring numerous mythical figures from various tribes in the curvilinear style derived from the Pacific Northwest Indians.

Easily recognizable but less well-known by name, this type of formline art makes use of U and O shapes, positive and negative space, trigons, and crescents. One of the Ritz’s murals very clearly features Sisiutl, a warrior god in a number of Pacific Northwest tribes; descendants of the Kwakiutl tribe also noted seeing mythological figures like Raven, Thunderbird, and Dzunuḵ̓wa in photos of the murals posted online. Unsurprisingly, the Ritz is also where carving on the 36-foot, 8,000-pound log began in 2012.

The Ritz didn’t start out covered in Native symbols. Cheekily named after the luxury hotel, it opened in 1976 decorated in an improvisational art-nouveau style. Staffers wore top hats in a nod to its namesake. Attendees might wait in line for an hour and a half in order to take a cold shower; early visitors recall sitting in the sauna with Jerry Garcia and showering next to Kesey.

A few years after it opened, the founder of the Ritz, George Braddock, a general contractor and housing consultant who focuses on disability-accessible housing, became obsessed with Pacific Northwest iconography and the formline style after a trip to Alaska. And while the top hats could be tossed and the art-nouveau style minimized, the Ritz was too established by that time for a name change; according to interviews Braddock gave before the story-pole controversy emerged, people also had a sentimental attachment to the saunas’ pink flamingo mascot. As he was reconceiving the Ritz, Braddock, along with an artist named Brad Bolton, tried to imagine if “by some magic of nature” flamingos lived in the Pacific Northwest how the Native Americans would have iconized them. And so the Native-ization of the saunas began.

As the Ritz expanded over the years, so did membership; there are now 160 people who consider themselves part of the Flamingo Clan. (Each booth at the fair is independently run, usually by a local business or group of friends, but they’re all bound by the same rules and regulations.) The initial makeshift setup with ten showers and a small sauna has been expanded to 80 showers and two large saunas, including one called the Eagle Sweat Lodge, which was “built in the tradition of Native American Sweat Lodges,” according to a now-defunct Ritz webpage.

After a few decades of successful fair experiences, members of the Ritz Clan decided to pay tribute to their own story with a celebratory totem pole. The floodplains where the fair takes place were once occupied by the nomadic Kalapuya Indians, who came to the land when the river waters receded in the summer, but they never carved totem poles. It’s not clear whether the Ritz knew totem poles were a geographically incorrect representation of the area; they declined to furnish any members for interviews for this article and only answered a few questions via email.

Well before the term “cultural appropriation” appeared in academic circles — and decades before it entered the mainstream — Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree folksinger from Canada, visited San Francisco to perform during the infamous Summer of Love in 1967. At a dinner party one night, she was asked by a journalist from the Berkeley Barb about white hippies’ obsession with and emulation of Native Americans. “It doesn’t make any sense to me, these kids trying to be Indians,” she said. “They’ll never be Indians. The white people never seem to realize that they cannot suck the soul out of a race. The ones with the sweetest intentions are the worst soul suckers.”

Country Fair board member Diane Albino put it this way during a board meeting in 2016: “If there were not cultural appropriation there would never have been hippies. I don’t mean to be flippant, but we turned away from the culture of the time and looked elsewhere.” For early fairgoers, part of the joy in the event was in enacting fantasies of the past. “We were wilder and pushing the boundaries every which way,” one long-time fairgoer said in 2007. “We had to be reminded that we have not seceded from the Union and that we were still bound by the laws of the country.”

“The white people never seem to realize that they cannot suck the soul out of a race. The ones with the sweetest intentions are the worst soul suckers.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cree folksinger

Hippies attending the fair in early years cloaked themselves in buckskins and erected teepees, acting out fantasies of Native American life. Kesey and his ilk both exemplified and encouraged an image of the Native American that the historian Sherry L. Smith documents in her book, Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power. According to Smith, hippies across the country saw Native Americans as “symbols of, and even models for, alternative ways of life…[they] were genuine holdouts against American conformity; the original American ‘long hairs.’”

In addition to going to the woods to play make believe, many hippies ventured to sites of Native resistance. During the rise of the pan-Indian, youth-led Red Power movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the interest and involvement of hippies was welcomed and rejected by Native Americans, often at the same time. In Washington state, a number of tribes used a civil disobedience practice they called the “fish-ins” to pressure the government to recognize fishing rights granted in the 1850s.

While those historic rights weren’t being respected, Natives were subject to more recent restrictions on how, where, and when they could fish in addition to what type of fish they could catch. So they’d stage fish-ins to fish without getting proper licenses using traditional fishing techniques, then face police harassment and subsequent arrest, only to return and fish again. A six-acre riverside site outside of Olympia known as Frank’s Landing became the focal point for fish-ins and led to a historic treaty-affirming ruling. As one white supporters present at Frank’s Landing the late sixties explained, “we might be hippies...but we still ha[ve] the privilege of our whiteness and parents who might cause trouble [if we were beaten].”

Widespread interest in hippies and a few surprising celebrity supporters (including Marlon Brando, who sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the 1973 Academy Awards to decline his best actor Oscar for The Godfather) brought the Pacific Northwest fish-ins to the national stage, garnering coverage in publications like TIME and The New York Times. For hippies passing through the Pacific Northwest, sites of Native resistance and occupation were novel places to hang out and experiment with drugs. Some genuinely hoped to be helpful to Native activists; they (often ineffectively) guarded fishing nets from confiscation, collected firewood, shuttled Natives to meetings in their “hippie vans,” and kept the cause in the public eye. Asked by a Seattle Times reporter how he felt about hippies joining the Puyallup Indians for fish-ins, one tribal leader responded, “Well, you don’t see any of the good church people down here helping us, do you?”

Around the same time, Native authors grew increasingly frustrated with the work of well-intentioned white writers like Dee Brown, whose 1970 look at the post-Civil War Indian wars, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, became a New York Times bestseller. Just a year before, Native activist Vine Deloria Jr. published Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, also a best-seller, but one that covered contemporary Indian politics. And then, “as if the whole thing were too much for America to understand,” Deloria wrote a few years later in a 1972 issue of The Indian Historian, “we were buried by the phantoms of the past — the Indians that white America likes much better.” That is, dead ones.

Historians consider the invasion of North America by Europeans among “the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world.” The Kalapuya people living in the 150-mile-long Willamette Valley weren’t spared. A loose affiliation of subgroups, estimates put the population of Kalapuyas at around 15,000 before contact with Europeans and the infectious diseases they brought. One missionary present in the area in the 1830s noted that the “great mortality” induced by epidemics of smallpox and measles finally stopped “from want of subjects.” By 1849, Oregon governor Joseph Lane estimated the Kalayupa population was down to 60 people. While current historians believe the population at that time was actually closer to 600, the impact of European invasion is clear.

In 1877, a linguist spent several months interviewing people on the Grande Ronde reservation in northwestern Oregon, where tribes including the Kalapuya had been forced to relocate after the 1855 Kalapuya Treaty. These oral histories significantly inform current understanding of Kalapuya ways of life, but much is missing. Some Kalapuyas interviewed were alive before the reservation, but none had first-hand experience of pre-epidemic life.

“I’ve spent my whole life telling people that we’re still around, that we’re more than just a museum exhibit.”
Esther Stutzman, Kalapuya elder and storyteller

Archeological discoveries suggest that the Kalapuya presence in the Willamette Valley dates back 10,000 years. Artifacts found in the valley further clarify their way of life. While there were several distinct periods with variance among them, Kalapuyas for the most part lived semi-nomadically in villages, harvesting the root vegetable cava and hunting game. There were three distinct languages and more than a dozen dialects; currently, efforts in Oregon are being made to teach one of them, Chinuk Wawa, to Native children. It’s hard determine how big the current population is, but estimates hover around 4,000. Many Kalapuyas are registered with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon or the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians since a portion of the tribe was sent to the Siletz reservation in the nineteenth century.

“I’ve spent my whole life telling people that we’re still around, that we’re more than just a museum exhibit,” said Esther Stutzman, a Kalapuya elder and storyteller living in a small city near the fairground. “I remember once an Oregonian newspaper published an article about the Kalapuyas being extinct. That certainly came as a surprise to me as a Kalapuya.” Stutzman believes some stories are for public consumption and others are only for Natives. “We believe that stories belong to families,” she said. “To take someone else’s story and tell it is theft.”

The Ritz hoped to raise what became known as the “story pole” in the summer of 2015, capping off three years of communal carving. Then the Oregon Country Fair’s board stepped in. The 12-member board, elected by the fair community, meets monthly to set policy and provide direction to paid staffers and volunteers. In the spring of 2015, the board questioned the Ritz over the pole’s placement, raising concern that their ideal location could disturb potentially undiscovered Kalapuya artifacts. The Ritz agreed to delay raising the pole until the following summer in order to build a different base that would minimize ground disturbance. They also agreed to put the pole in a slightly different spot.

“The fair has done more, in my opinion, than any community that I know of in Oregon, with a rich archeological history, to honor and protect that history,” Leslie Scott, who was the general manager of the fair for many years, told me (she’s since moved on to co-found the Oregon Truffle Festival). Since its creation, the fair has grown immensely, and its overseers have tried to accommodate that growth while not disturbing the event’s surroundings. By 1983, an archeology committee was established to protect the land. Throughout the ‘80s, the fair fought the Oregon Department of Transportation on a highway plan that would cut through the fairgrounds arguing for the land’s significance.

Today, a mix of archeologists and hobbyists making up a volunteer crew oversee any booth construction, respond to archeological sightings — like the arrowheads kicked up each year on the dirt dancefloors — and inform the general public about the land’s history with a booth of their own. The fair only has seven full-and part-time employees, so volunteers are essential to the operation.

The year-long delay in erecting the pole proved pivotal; six months before the pole was slated to go up in 2016, the two-year-old diversity task force, in conjunction with the archeology committee, raised the issue of cultural appropriation at a board meeting. Together, the committees suggested that since the Ritz hadn’t consulted with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon or the Confederated Tribes of Siletz (the two major federally recognized tribal groups that Kalapuyas are part of), the board should formally reach out and halt ground-disturbing activity until such consultations took place.

“When we get into culture appropriation, I’m having a hard time applying it to the story pole,” board member Justin Honea said in one of meetings that happened over the following few months. But a member of the archeology committee, Virgil Courtright, was more clear: “In the ‘80s, when they wanted to run a highway through the land, we did not have any problem using the Indian stuff to stop them. Let’s show [the Native Americans] the respect that they deserve.”

After heated back and forth among the board, the erection of the Ritz Sauna story pole was temporarily halted in February 2016 so the board could reach out to local tribes for feedback on the nearly-complete faux totem pole. The subsequent issue of the monthly print and online Fair Family News was filled with angry letters from Bolton, Braddock, and other members of the Ritz Clan, as the group that has run the sauna for decades call themselves. “I’m not Native American. I don’t claim to be Native American,” Bolton wrote. “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.”

“Don’t blind yourselves to the absurdity of this round of censorship, or we could resemble a Khmer Rouge-style re-education camp.”
John Parrott, Ritz Clan member

According to Braddock, “‘cultural police’ masquerading as members of the diversity task force” have been “citing imagined, unchallenged evidence of cultural appropriation…[to] generate a furor.” Others echoed his sentiment. “I object to the zealots’ religious obsession with the distant past,” John Parrott, a Ritz Clan member, wrote, before signing off, “Don’t blind yourselves to the absurdity of this round of censorship, or we could resemble a Khmer Rouge-style re-education camp.” Two other letters happened to run on the same page as Parrott’s; the first about the Camping Crew’s mediation team and the second, a reminder that conflict resolution courses would be available to the fair family.

Inevitably, the story pole controversy spilled onto the internet. Autumn DePoe-Hughes, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, started a Facebook group called “Native Voices Against The Ritz Sauna's ‘Story Pole’” in last April. It now has 691 followers. De-Poe Hughes is a volunteer at the fair in its childcare booth, which happens to be across from the Ritz Sauna and Showers.

“If the pole was raised, it would be in full view of many children, including my own five-year-old son,” DePoe-Hughes said. “We live so far away from my tribe, his sense of self-identity and knowledge of his own culture can be affected by outside influences.” She wouldn’t know how to explain a totem pole that looks partially Native but also includes a number of Coachella-like, EDM-ish additions like LED lights for animal eyes, but she would at least try. “I'm not sure that every child that would see the pole would have things explained to them,” she said. “So that would be another generation of children who grow up believing things are traditionally Native when they’re not.”

The Ritz Clan and those in favor of the pole responded to the criticism on and offline with a litany of excuses. Some suggested the problem was bigger than the pole (and therefore shouldn’t involve the pole), others argued that it was just art (“a single art project is not the appropriate venue to address this larger issue of land use”) and still others suggested that art and free expression are among the most important manifestations of the human spirit, and therefore so sacred that they cannot be touched by issues like cultural appropriation. Ritz supporters argued that things had already gone too far (“Can't even put chopsticks in my hair no more without offending some white folks defending someone else's culture” a CTO of a hippie-EDM virtual-reality company commented on someone else’s Facebook post about the issue) or would certainly go way further (“This opens the door for the Kalapuya [tribe] to run the Country Fair,” another person said).

“Can’t even put chopsticks in my hair no more without offending some white folks defending someone else’s culture.”
A comment on the Facebook page of one Oregonian who solicited feedback on the Story Pole controversy

Native activists and community members who criticized the pole on Facebook were told by Ritz supporters to “go do something important, like defend Standing Rock.” When I spoke to cultural anthropologist David Lewis, who has Kalapuya ancestry and is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde of Oregon, he was not at all surprised to hear about the controversy. “For years, we’ve been dealing with faux-shamans offering healing ceremonies and white people doing Native-style sweat lodges in [nearby] Eugene,” Lewis said. “This is just the latest.”

At monthly board meetings in March and April 2016, members of the Ritz went to plead their case and community activists went to oppose the pole. Various Native tribespeople also attended the meetings, expressing their anger and disappointment in the Ritz and its backers. Robert DeSpain, one of the fair’s early managers and the founder of the archeology committee, was there too. Listening to the tribe members, DeSpain reflected on the fair’s beginnings.

“There’s nothing more conservative than a bunch of old hippies.”
Cynthia Wooten, the fair’s co-founder

“I look back on it now and I see the cultural appropriation that we were practicing [in the early days of the Fair] was really a desire for a deeper more meaningful spiritual way of life that we saw in Native traditions,” he said. “I realized it was a fantasy I was trying to live imagining myself as Native.” DeSpain is in the minority of fairgoers who have listened to Native voices and questioned his own actions. “There’s nothing more conservative than a bunch of old hippies,” Cynthia Wooten, the fair’s co-founder, told me this spring.

A few weeks after the April meeting, the board declared that the story pole could not be raised on fair property at all, a death knell for the appropriative behemoth. At this year’s fair, Ritz founder Braddock was invited to speak at the end of the “Standing Rock Unity Panel.” He said that the Flamingo Clan would remove the additional Native imagery that covers their booth. But the clan also put up posters about art and censorship, suggesting they’re still trying to re-frame the issue, even while soliciting community feedback. Braddock is now running for a seat on the board under the banners of “transparency” and “democracy,” two buzzwords lobbied against the board by pole supporters. Hellbent on telling their story to future generations, the Ritz announced at this year’s fair that they’re spearheading a time-capsule project involving four metal canisters filled with assorted fair-related ephemera, welded shut, and meant to be opened in ten, 25, 50, and 100 years, respectively.

Where the pole would have been raised sit some picnic benches. The pole is in storage and the Ritz is unsure what they’ll do with it. One thing is certain, though; they tried to make their mark on the land and ignore its people, but the land and its people made a mark on them.

Alex Ronan is a writer in Berlin. Illustrations by Calum Heath