19 Mar “We Are Here” Honors Native Americans (Part 1 of 3)
Honoring Rogue Valley Native Americans.
Creation of the original wood carving.
Introducing Grandma Aggie.
The 1856 Oregon Trail of Tears
Sculptor: Russell Beebe.
Ashland Public Art Series.
Setting the scene
“On October 29, 2004 Agnes Baker Pilgrim met with a small gathering of people at the base of the Gateway Alder [tree]. There she led us in a ceremony that was the beginning of a path. Grandma Agnes began the ceremony by offering tobacco and lighting fires, one fire for each of the Four Directions, in tins around the Gateway Alder. She then asked for blessing and guidance from the Sprits of the Four Directions as she communed with the tree. Here she is seen speaking directly to the Gateway Alder.”James Royce Young
What is “We Are Here?”
On his website, Russell Beebe wrote: “From the Blessing of Ashland’s Gateway Alder Tree has emerged a 20 foot monument to the First Nations of Southwest Oregon. The tribes honored in this work are the Shasta (male figure) & Takelma (represented by the inspired likeness of Agnes Baker Pilgrim) Nations. The sculpture is titled ‘We are Here.’ Designer and Sculptor is Russell Beebe – of Anishinaabe Native heritage. Special thanks to Lloyd Matthew Haines.”
“We Are Here” is a sculpture that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley, and is part of the City of Ashland public art collection. In addition to a sculpture or statue, it has been called a wood carving, a Spirit Pole and a Prayer Pole.
When American settlers arrived in the early 1850s, they found the Shasta, Takelma and other tribes living in the Ashland area and throughout Southern Oregon. When Hargadine and Helman made the first donation land claims in January 1852 in what is now Ashland, there was a Shasta winter village called K’wakhakha at the site of the Ashland Plaza.
The late Grandma Aggie said that her people, the Takelma, had performed a sacred Salmon ceremony on the Rogue River for 22,000 years. “We Are Here” remembers the Native Americans who lived on this land before the settlers came and “claimed” it.
Between 1852 and 1856, there were four years of conflicts and broken promises as local Native Americans tried to defend their ancestral land. Suffering from diseases and hunger, as well as deaths from the fighting, the remaining Shasta and Takelma were forcibly marched in 1856 to the Siletz Indian Reservation, 150 miles north along the Oregon coast. Through the years, Native Americans have moved back to Southern Oregon, some like the Shasta and Takelma because it is their ancestral homeland.
Where is “We Are Here?”
We Are Here is located where North Main Street and Lithia Way meet. It is a very visible location at the west gateway to downtown Ashland, one short block from the Plaza.
The first challenge
Lloyd Matthew Haines owned the sort-of-triangular lot where North Main Street and Lithia Way come together, which you can see on the map above. He wanted to build there, but it was challenging. Two groups of people opposed his plan. One loosely organized group opposed just about any downtown development, and they were very vocal. The second group objected to cutting down the large 53-year-old alder tree on the property.
Haines instructed his architects to try to design the building around the tree, thus saving it. The architects concluded that the lot was too small for that to work. They said the tree had to go.
An inner calling
Haines felt an inner calling that the tree should be made into “a piece of art that represented the Native American people and their presence in the valley.” As he put it, he knew “that’s what I needed to do.” He contacted wood carver Russell Beebe, of Anishinaabe Native heritage, and Takelma elder Grandma Aggie (Agnes Baker Pilgrim) to ask for their help.
How Matthew Haines first met Russell Beebe and Grandma Aggie
Haines knew the two of them from a tree carving project at his house a few years before. An oak tree had died from old age. Rather than cut it up for firewood, Haines thought of honoring the tree and the land by carving something from it. He contacted the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild to see if someone would be interested in the project. Russell Beebe responded, and within two days of seeing the tree he came to Haines with a plan for a sculpture that was eventually called “My Relatives.”
Russell Beebe wrote of his design for “My Relatives”: “At first glance the big tree gave me an indication of how my design would evolve, from the juncture of the first large branch down to the base. The very uniform trunk offered freedom to create while the divergence of the branch above would dictate form. This and Mr. Haines’ desire that the sculpture honor the Tree, our Wildlife and the Native Peoples who once lived in the area gave me the spectrum to create.”
Beebe introduced stone worker Jesse Biesanz to Haines at this time, and Biesanz later went on to build the stone base for each “We Are Here” sculpture.
When “My Relatives” was complete, Beebe invited his friend Grandma Aggie to see the carving. This was when she and Matthew Haines first met.
Opposition and resolution
Now back to the alder tree and the proposed building at North Main Street and Lithia Way. There was still the large group opposed to new downtown development, with enough power to have stopped several other downtown projects in previous years. The building project was appealed to the City Council by opponents. Appeals like this tend to be contentious.
At the Council meeting, Russell Beebe presented plans for the alder tree carving. Grandma Aggie followed him and spoke on behalf of the project. She said that Haines’ plan for the “We Are Here” sculpture was a small but important step toward honoring Native people. Haines and Beebe both told me they could feel the entire energy of the room shift as Grandma Aggie was talking.
“This is about healing.”Grandma Aggie
She reminded council members and the audience that people whose ancestral lands these are were nearly wiped out. Since then, Native people have been consistently ignored and marginalized for more than 150 years. Despite the painful history, she said, Native people have returned to the Rogue Valley and Ashland.
Then she said something that cut through all the bickering. “You wouldn’t know that we exist. There’s nothing visible of Native people anywhere here except Dead Indian Road.” Beebe described that moment to me: “Everyone was stunned and that was the end of the protest.”
After her talk, the City Council approved the building and sculpture with little opposition.
Russell Beebe envisions “We Are Here” design
Russell Beebe wrote in 2006: “The original design for this sculpture evolved in just a few hours as I sat by the living alder tree. With Mr. Haines’ thought of ‘family’ in mind, the ‘story of old’ came through in my sketches and remained constant regardless of changes made. All I had to do was visualize and understand what the tree showed me, then let my hands do their work.” Beebe felt that his design represents “the story told by the old ones about our duty to walk in balance with nature.”
When I interviewed Beebe in June of 2020, he added to the story. He told me he was sitting in a bar and restaurant by the alder tree that day. “So I got a hamburger and I sat at the table and just looked at the alder. By the time I finished the hamburger, I had my design figured out. It was that quick.”
Blessing the alder tree
Haines asked Grandma Aggie to perform a ceremony of blessing and thanks for the alder tree before it was cut down (see first photo above). A few people gathered with her on October 29, 2004 for ceremony and prayer.
She wrote in her 2015 book that “we talked with that tree about what we were going to do with it, that it is going to be made into perpetuity. ‘We are going to carve on you, we’re going to make you beautiful. You’ll live forever, but we’re going to move you up here.’ We talked to it like a human being.”
This intentional beginning with ceremony started “We Are Here” on the path to be more than just a statue. When the wood carving was installed on North Main Street in 2006, there was ceremony in the context of a community celebration. When the wood carving was moved to Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University in 2012, there was ceremony. When the bronze replica was installed on North Main Street in 2013, there was ceremony.
Why is the Alder tree referred to as “mother?”
According to Beebe, the alder is not a long-lived tree, but it plays an important role in the natural process of regeneration, a role so valuable that it is called “mother.” Alder trees grow along streams all over the world. When flood or fire destroys the stream-side landscape, alders are among the first large plants to grow back. They grow quickly and spread their branches and leaves. Slower growing trees and plants then get established beneath the protection of the “mother.” With a smile, Beebe ended this story: “And after about 60 years, she says ‘okay children, you’re on your own.’ Then she’s done.”
Moving the alder tree to Russell Beebe’s studio
When the alder tree was cut, it turned out that it was near the end of its short life. According to the arborist who took it down, it had about ten years to live.
Beebe said, “When they cut the tree down, they were going to lower it down on to Main Street, so they stopped traffic for a bit. When they lowered it down on to the street, whoever was at the controls [of the crane] let go a little too quick, so they kind of thumped it on the street. When they did that, it broke a big branch off, one that was going to be part of my design. So, what to do? My original design was quite different.”
“Faced with this tree with a broken limb, my original design was gone,” Beebe continued. “I had to go with what was given me. So everything changed and evolved, and was way better because of that broken limb. Now everything kind of emerges from the tree, represents the soul of the tree.”
Russell Beebe carves the alder tree
This is how the alder tree looked when it arrived at Russell Beebe’s studio.
I had the honor of being able to spend several hours with Beebe at his rural outdoor studio. When I visited, he was nearing completion of an Iroquois teaching pole carving for someone in upstate New York. Here is a photo of it in process.
Unlike the straight Iroquois teaching pole that was laid on its side for carving, the “We Are Here” sculpture with its large branches was carved with the tree upright. Beebe set up scaffolding around the tree and began carving from the top down.
The Shasta Man and Takelma Woman are both toward the top of the sculpture. Before he started on the Takelma Woman modeled on Grandma Aggie, Beebe asked Aggie to bring him traditional Takelma garb, a cradle board and whatever else she wanted to bring. He said, “I wanted to get that right.”
As he was carving the tree, neighbors would stop and look and ask questions about it. “One of my neighbors suggested putting more fish in there,” Beebe told me. At that point, the main salmon was partially carved. The neighbor asked, “Wouldn’t that look cool to have more fish? What do you think about that?” Beebe thought about it, and decided to add more fish. He liked that it became a community sculpture, not just “his” sculpture.
Beebe wrote: “The more than 1,000 hours I spent carving this piece were delightful.” “Emotionally, this work brings forward those ancient ones of my own distant native roots and touches my heart. I feel the steady drumbeat of the seasons.” Through this wood carving, Beebe tried to capture not only the spiritual history (and current presence) of Rogue Valley First Nations people, but also the spiritual history of his own people.
His grandfather was his first teacher in carving wood, and also introduced him to tribal traditions. Beebe is a descendant of the Anishinaabe tribe in the north central United States and south central Canada. As an adult, Beebe received his “spirit name” Wabashkigamash. He tries to express his Native traditions in his work and in how he lives his life.
What is represented on the alder tree carving
Beebe said, “Where we live now, once were the Takelma, the Shasta and many other tribes. I couldn’t put them all on here, but I included those two.” The Shasta Man and Takelma woman each have a child, who represent the future.
Representing the Takelma is Grandma Aggie as she looked in her 30s, wearing her regalia. Beebe told me with a laugh, “I got the blessing from her daughter Nadine. She came out one day and looked at my depiction of the 30-year-old [Aggie]. She said, ‘That’s mom.’ So I got it right.”
Then he included many animals without whom the Native people would not have survived: the deer (stag), the eagle, the salmon, bear, beaver, coyote, snake and cougar. The spirit figure of Raven is included. “The dragonfly was put there just for Aggie,” he added. The dragonfly is one of her spirit animals.
Grandma Aggie wrote, “The First Nations include not only the Takelma, Shasta, Tututni and other tribes, but also the Salmon Nation, the Bear Nation, the Tree Nations, and all the species of life in this region.” She had a true “big picture” perspective embracing all of life, as I learned when I attended her deeply emotional memorial service in 2019.
The Native people had ceremonies for all of these animal nations. Beebe asked if I was familiar with the Salmon Ceremony, which Grandma Aggie reestablished in the Rogue Valley in 1994 for the first time since the 1856 Trail of Tears. I told him I had seen a video about the Salmon Ceremony during Grandma Aggie’s 2019 memorial service. He said, “That’s all part of Indian life, everybody having a few bites of the first salmon caught, and then returning the skin and bones back to the river. There’s a thank you in that, a reverence, which is what this [sculpture] is all about.”
“We Are Here” is a Spirit Pole and Prayer Pole
“Attaching an Eagle feather to this really turned it into a Spirit Pole, as Aggie terms it. For us, seeing the Eagle feather on there also turned it into a Prayer Pole. Individuals would pray there. Sometimes we would have ceremony.”Russell Beebe
Russell Beebe was honored by being asked to place a sacred Eagle feather high on the sculpture. Traditionally, the presence of an Eagle feather is what transforms this wood carving into a spirit pole or prayer pole.
Grandma Aggie wrote: “Our Native students that are going to come to Southern Oregon University, they need something here to show them that there’s been Native people here on this land.” “Also, to remember the ancient ones of the land would be this tree, to stand in perpetuity in honor of the First Nation people.” “So there is now a spirit pole in Ashland that came through an attorney, Matthew Haines.”
“We Are Here” was called “a memorial to the First Nations” by Matthew Haines, who funded it. Through the presence of the Eagle feather and ceremony, it has become much more than a memorial.
Beebe described the meaning of spirit pole to me. It honors the spirits of the Native people and wildlife who lived in this area long ago. But it is not just about remembering the past. He added, “In our minds, they are still here.” The spirits of those who are gone, both people and Creation, are still with us in the present day.
When the Eagle feather is attached, “We Are Here” is also a living place of prayer, as much as any church or temple. Through the years, many community prayers and ceremonies have taken place at this prayer pole. Native people also come individually or in small groups to offer prayers here.
Installation day photos
“We Are Here” was moved from Russell Beebe’s studio to its location on North Main Street on September 19, 2006. The move included ceremony by Grandma Aggie and Dan Wahpepah.
Dedication day: September 30, 2006
“Everywhere I go around the world, I pray.Agnes Baker Pilgrim
I don’t care what religion you belong to.
My church is the sky and earth, and I pray for all in between the sky and earth.
We’re all part of the fabric.”
“We Are Here” was dedicated September 30, 2006, a day the Ashland City Council had recognized as First Nations Day.
The 1856 Oregon Trail of Tears
Beyond the meaning of the sculpture itself, the dedication had special meaning because it was the 150thanniversary of the local native people’s Trail of Tears. Between 1852 and 1856, there were many battles in Southern Oregon between settlers and the Native Americans who were defending their ancestral land. Suffering from diseases, hunger and deaths from the fighting, in 1856 the remaining Shasta and Takelma (as well as other tribes) were forcibly marched to the Siletz Indian Reservation, 150 miles north along the Oregon coast.
In her 2015 book, Grandma Aggie gave emotional resonance to the dry facts listed above. She wrote, “I remember how hard it was when I was a child growing up because in those times, in Lincoln County, there was signs on restaurants and different places where Indians and dogs weren’t allowed. And you know, I grew up from that era, but I am not bitter about it. What was is what was. I know I am limited. I can only change right now. I can’t change anything a minute ago, an hour ago, a week ago, or a year ago, so I know I am limited. So, what I did is I forgave all that in my background, of what happened to our people. The Trail of Tears that started here in Southern Oregon in 1856. They were all gathered up here, then run north. They lived here for over 22,000 years, and they actually felt that the Creator had given them this land, it was theirs eternally, forever and forever, as long as the grass grew and the water flowed. It was a hard time for my people in those times, you know, going up in rough terrain in inclement weather. They were force-marched in stormy weather with just moccasins on their feet. They could take one thing, and most of them just carried food wrapped in what they could carry. So then their moccasins wore out, and the elders fell along the wayside. The young were taught to take care of the elders, so they would run back and pick them up, and they were beaten. The guards told them that if they did that again they’d just leave the elders by the wayside for the animals to eat.
“It was a terrible time for them, over two hundred miles of this land going north and to trails where there was no trails. I can fathom how hard it was. And then, after all that journey, when they did get up to Siletz, the agent had used up a lot of the money, so there wasn’t enough blankets to go around. There wasn’t enough food, and many of them perished. It was awful. It’s a wonder I sit here.”
Dedication Day gathering and ceremony
Dedication day included a three-hour gathering at Briscoe School, which opened with a song by Whistling Elk Drum circle, led by Dan Wahpepah.
Speakers included Robert Owens Greygrass (Master of Ceremonies), Agnes Baker Pilgrim (Takelma elder), Lloyd Matthew Haines (father and funder of the Project), Russell Beebe (sculptor), Kate Jackson (City of Ashland representative), Dennis Martinez (topic: Indigenous Stewardship), Robert Kentta (topic: Trail of Tears and cultural restoration), Thomas Doty (story teller), John Michael Greer (topic: Takilma language), Shelly Vendiola (topic: youth and poverty) and SOU Professor David West (topic: history and the present day).
Several hundred people then walked from Briscoe School along North Main Street to the “We Are Here” site at the corner of North Main and Lithia Way. A dedication, with prayers and blessing ceremony, followed at the site. Grandma Aggie blessed the sculpture and the assembled people. The ceremony included a Native American tobacco offering.
After he described how meaningful the dedication was, Beebe laughed and told me, “I have a funny story for you. I talked to you about offering tobacco. My son brought a pouch of tobacco [to the dedication] and we started making tobacco offerings at the base of the sculpture. Many of the people gathered had no idea what we were doing, but they wanted to do it also. Soon all the stones at the base of the sculpture were covered with tobacco. I was hanging around after everybody had left. Along comes this homeless guy. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He wasn’t looking at the sculpture at all. He looked at that tobacco, and he was just scooping it up, like ‘Thank you God.’ That was the giving back part; that was just wonderful.”
Two problems surfaced after a few years
The story of “We Are Here” does not end with the 2006 dedication. After installation, the sculpture was donated to the City of Ashland as public art. Because of its uniqueness, Beebe performed maintenance on the sculpture annually. Within a couple years, he began to see problems.
The first problem was unanticipated. Do you remember that a large branch broke off when the tree was “thumped on the street” during its removal process? The site of the broken branch is now the head of a stag in the carving. Beebe didn’t realize until after the carving was completed that due to the “thump,” a crack extended into the center of the tree. He told me “every spring we would see mold developing.”
The second problem is that alder is a soft wood. The crack complicated the problem of maintaining a soft wood out in the elements. It required extensive maintenance, and Haines was the one who funded Beebe to do that. Beebe told me, “Often I had to recarve where it was starting to rot in spots.”
At some point, Beebe and Haines realized that “We Are Here” would deteriorate irreparably if it were exposed to the elements for many years. It would have to be moved indoors in order to survive long-term.
Haines told the Ashland Tidings in 2012 that “it was important to him to keep some version of the sculpture downtown. He said the sculpture is a symbol of reconciliation and healing.” In this, he was in sync with the vision expressed by both Beebe and Grandma Aggie.
“The ‘We Are Here’ sculpture has had a healing effect on the valley.”Russell Beebe
You can read Part 2 and Part 3 of the three-part series about “We Are Here” at the links below.
CLICK HERE for Part 2 of this series of articles about “We Are Here.” It describes the bronze replica that was crafted and now stands on North Main Street.
CLICK HERE for Part 3 of this series of articles about “We Are Here.” It describes the challenge of moving the original wood carving from North Main Street to Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.
References for Parts 1, 2 and 3:
Aldous, Vickie. “Downtown sculpture to be cast in bronze,” Ashland Tidings, April 18, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)
Aldous, Vickie. “Native people sculpture will move to SOU,” Ashland Tidings, November 3, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)
Anon. “Native Americans of the Rogue Valley,” North Mountain Park Nature Center, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, Version 4: May 2010.
Anon. “We Are Here,” Book Marks, Hannon Library Newsletter, Volume 24, No. 1, Fall 2013.
Anon. “Takelma Tribe,” NPS.gov. (accessed 1/10/2021) https://www.nps.gov/orca/learn/historyculture/takelma-tribe.htm
Anon. “Takelma Legends,” native-languages.org website. (accessed January 17, 2021)
Anon. Ashland City Council Land Acknowledgment, February 2, 2021.
Ayers, Jane. “’Grandma Aggie’ leaves a lasting impact,” Ashland Tidings, December 3, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)
Beebe, Russell. Interview and personal communication, June 2, 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Russell, for sharing your photos with me.
Beebe, Russell. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
Bernhagen, Jaimie. “’We Are Here’ Event with Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Red Earth Descendants website, October 14, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)
Biesanz, Jesse. Interview and personal communication, August 2020.
Cardwell, James, “Southern Oregon Pioneers,” Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, July 8, 1882, page 3, from http://truwe.sohs.org/files/cardwell.html
Darling, John. “’Grandma Aggie’ dies at 95,” Ashland Tidings, November 27, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)
Doty, Thomas. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
Gray, Dennis J. “The Takelma and Their Athapascan Neighbors,” University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 37, 1987.
Haines, Lloyd Matthew. Interview and personal communication, May 13, 2020 and other dates.
Hall, Aaron. “Exploring with Beavers, Nature’s Ecosystem Engineers,” Defenders of Wildlife website, September 28, 2016.
Kuiryamf. “’We Are Here’ statue relocated to Hannon Library,” The Siskiyou, January 15, 2013. (accessed May 14, 2020)
Langford, Jack. Interview and personal communication, May 20, 2020 and other dates.
Martin, Nadine. Many thanks for reviewing the article.
Norman, Julie. Video of the dedication day and dedication ceremony.
Norman, Julie. Interview and personal communication, August 2020 and other dates.
Paris-Stamm, Glen. 31-minute Video. “Artist on Your Doorstep presents: Jack Langford, Sculptor, ‘We Are Here'(prayer pole now in bronze),” City of Ashland website (accessed January 18, 2021)
Also available directly on YouTube
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
Rose, Karen. May 25, 2002. “Takelma Indians: An Essay on Native Americans in the Rogue River Area,” Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society, Hugo, OR. For the entire article go to http://www.hugoneighborhood.org/takelma.htm
Sapir, Edward. “Notes on the Takelma Indians of Southwestern Oregon,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, April-June, 1907.
Valencia, Mandy. “We Are Here,” Ashland Daily Tidings, December 21, 2012.
Valencia, Mandy. 5-minute Video. “We Are Here Dedication Ceremony,” Ashland Tidings website, May 24, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
Valencia, Mandy. 4-minute Video. Russell Beebe carving eyes in the bronze We Are Here statue, Ashland Tidings website, April 2, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
Valencia, Mandy. 3-minute Video. Color heating of the We Are Here bronze statue (Jack Langford and Russell Beebe), Ashland Tidings website, April 15, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
Wahpepah, Dan. Interview, August 10, 2020.
Young, James Royce. James took many of the photos from the creation of “We Are Here” in both wood and bronze, as well as photos of the 2006 dedication and the 2012 move to SOU Hannon Library. I thank James for sharing so many of his photos with me.