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Oregon Country Fair cancels story pole

Amid charges from Native Americans of cultural appropriation, the Oregon Country Fair board of directors changed course and voted Monday night to cancel the planned raising of a “story pole” done in Native style on the fair’s property in Veneta.

The unanimous vote from the 12-member board followed a tense and sometimes contentious hour-long hearing at which Natives from a variety of Northwest tribes denounced the planned pole – an 8,000-pound, 36-foot cedar pole that was to be topped by a carved flamingo and would feature LED lights – as “cultural genocide.”

“Custer died for your sins!” shouted one Native woman from the back of the room, which was filled to bursting with about 80 people.

The Fair board approved the project in 2016 but had apparently not consulted local tribes about the story pole. It was to have been erected at Ritz Sauna and Showers, a popular station at the Fair for four decades that has been run by a group calling itself the Flamingo Clan.

The pole, which was shipped here from British Columbia, is being carved by Brad Bolton, who has used the widely popular iconography of Northwest tribes for more than two decades in his work. “A lot of people have come by and said they enjoyed it, Natives and Anglos alike,” he told the hearing. “We’re not claiming that we’re Natives. We’re not saying this is a Native pole.”

Instead, speakers explained, the contemporary pole adapts the Native story-pole medium to tell the story of Ritz Sauna and to memorialize four Fair members – two from Ritz Sauna – who were killed in an airplane crash in 2012.

An Indiegogo fundraising page says the project has raised more than $20,000 towards a goal of $46,000.

Native speakers at the hearing were not persuaded that the pole's mission outweighed its cultural appropriation.

“I would not go to my sister’s tribe and make whatever I wanted of theirs,” said Rowena Jackson, who identified herself as affiliated with the Klamath, Modoc and Paiute tribes. “That is the last thing I could ever do to my sister.”

Jackson addressed Bolton sympathetically. “I’m really glad to meet you,” she said. “I’m sure you’re one of the most artistic people in this community.”

Shaken and looking chastised, Bolton said after the board’s vote he had no idea what was going to happen now with the story pole.

EW will follow this post with a more in-depth story in our print edition. Read an earlier story in Willamette Week here.