Oregon Country Fair Board Axes "Story Pole"

May 2, 2017

After a recent surge of criticism, a Native American-style totem pole will not be installed at the Oregon Country Fair.  The Fair Board made its decision Monday night. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports.

The Story Pole, under construction.
Credit Ritz Sauna and Showers Facebook photo.


The five-year project was long-criticized by some as an act of cultural appropriation.  The plan had been to raise the “Story Pole” in the Ritz Sauna and Showers area this summer.

Carver Brad Bolton, with the Story Pole last summer.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

David Lewis is a cultural anthropologist and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde.  He says the Haida-style pole isn’t authentic, and is a case of white privilege trumping cultural sensitivity.

“Pretty common, it’s part of the “Hippy” tradition or the “New Age” tradition," says Lewis. "And it’s been in the last 20-30 years that Native people and other people have been pushing back against that. 

"I had suggested perhaps they brand it pretty well, interpret it pretty well, so that people understood that it’s actually a copy.  Or that they actually work through the Haida tribe, to maybe get some sort of exchange of that pole for another one from the tribe itself.” 

Several people with the Story Pole project declined immediate comment.  A Facebook group called “Native Voices Against the Ritz Sauna’s Story Pole” shared a statement thanking the fair board, and calling the decision a turning point that’ll make the event a better place, “for the Seventh Generation and beyond.”

Update as of 11:15am, 5/3/2017: 

From the Ritz Sauna and Shower team:

"We are sorry for all the distress that the discussion about our art piece, “Working Together”, the Ritz Story Pole, has generated. We were specifically asked by the Oregon Country Fair management not to engage or respond to the misinformation being generated recently in social media. We did as we were asked and made no public statements or social media posts since mid-April.  

"The installation of the Story Pole was approved twice by the Oregon Country Fair Board over a period of several years after archeological surveys were completed and letters were sent to Oregon tribes for comment. No official concerns were expressed at that time.


"We were assured that the Oregon Country Fair continued to support the installation of the Ritz Story Pole. But, without our input or inclusion on the public agenda and in violation of agreements and processes that we had engaged in good faith, the Oregon Country Fair Board determined by a unanimous vote on May 1st that our art piece could not be raised as planned or displayed on OCF property. Ritz staff learned that the Board planned to take this action only six hours before the meeting.


"The Ritz Story Pole, owned by the Ritz Sauna, has been in the public realm at the Oregon Country Fair for 5 years. Hundreds of Fair goers have carved on the pole and thousands have run their hands over the intricate carving, visiting each year to see the progress. “Working Together” is in final preparations for installation and currently remains in safe storage.

Story Pole carving, in February 2016.
Credit Ritz Sauna and Showers Facebook photo.


"This art piece is our design inspired by native art of the Northwest Coast. We have readily acknowledged the source of our inspiration, made no claim that it was designed by native carvers, made it clear that the figures on the pole relate to the Ritz story and history, and have not now or ever expect to benefit financially.


"The Ritz Sauna and Showers will operate at the Oregon Country Fair 2017. We are grateful for the support we have received over the years and through this controversy. We have heard the concerns and will be responding accordingly. We desire a more inclusive and transparent process and will continue to honor and encourage civil dialogue about the intersection of art and culture." 



Copyright 2017, KLCC.