Lebanon takes a lot of crap in this column, mostly tongue-in-cheek, but this week there’s not much to joke about. As part of a new city project, funding has been allocated to restore Lebanon’s crusty, old, 14-foot-tall totem pole—a form of monumental sculpture originating in the Pacific Northwest. The effort is part of a reboot on downtown Lebanon’s Mural Park as it becomes the future “Strawberry Plaza.” While this is all well and good, the possibly up to $250,000 renovation has one big problem: the totem pole, supposedly a symbol of recognition to the regional Kalapuya tribe, is a disastrous bit of bungled cultural appropriation.
As far as I can determine, no native people were brought in on this project, now or when it was first created. If they had been, somebody might have been around to tell everyone that these “totem” poles were sacred and personal—a lot more than just some stacked animal heads, and certainly not something you just toss together without at least doing the slightest bit of research. In kind, if those efforts had been made, someone would have also likely pointed out the fact that the Kalapuya don’t even use totem poles. Or maybe that the poles were once traditionally erected at the potlatch, a ceremonial feast which was banned from 1885 until 1951 (thank Canada), resulting in significant damage to the perpetuation of Native American culture.
There has been a lot of righting of associated wrongs in Oregon in recent years, thanks to a recent-ish rule put forth by the state Board of Educators banning Native American team names. Despite common sense and decency, some people fought it outright, or made the change while still ripping off Native American art, such as the Southern Oregon University Raiders (formerly the Red Raiders), whose logo is a clearly appropriated native hawk design. The point being that we’re still in the middle of trying to heal a past seemingly damaged beyond repair, not floating about in some mystical post-racial wonderland.
While it’s ludicrous to think that anyone involved in Lebanon’s project has anything but the best intentions, which on some level can be appreciated, we owe it to ourselves to be a little more present when making decisions with someone else’s culture, especially one that has been abused in every way imaginable.
By Johnny Beaver