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“We Are Here:” the move to SOU library

Russell Beebe carved the cougar, bear and salmon benches at SOU Hannon Library. [Photo by Peter Finkle]

Fourth of five parts

"We Are Here" is a sculpture (also called a prayer pole) that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley. In the previous three articles in this series, I wrote about when Matthew Haines felt a calling to turn the old alder tree into art, how Russell Beebe created the original wood carving sculpture, the dedication ceremony led by Grandma Aggie, and how a bronze replica of the original sculpture was made.

Because the sculpture was carved from the soft wood of an alder tree, Haines and Beebe decided after a few years that it would have to move indoors in order to last for generations.

Haines asked Grandma Aggie's permission for a bronze replica of “We Are Here” to replace the wood sculpture outdoors at the prime location on North Main Street near the Ashland Plaza. She agreed and suggested that the original wood sculpture be moved to the SOU Library. After the city and university authorized the idea, the move took place Dec. 18, 2012.

It snowed the morning of the move, which made for pretty photos but delayed the lifting crane truck. The crane lowered "We Are Here" onto a huge steel-railed rolling dolly, where it was tightly chained on a flatbed truck for transport to the library.

Dan Wahpepah, who coordinated the move, said that “We Are Here” was strapped in the U-shaped dolly with come-alongs on both sides, so they had flexibility to maneuver the large statue through the library doors and then onto the new base installed in the library. Come-alongs are winches that incorporate ratchets for better control. Once in the library, it was bolted to a hinge on the concrete base and then lifted. Lifting it upright from the dolly took strong ropes and many hands pulling.

Wahpepah said the move followed Native American traditions. With an important move, it is traditional to stop four times to honor the four directions. Members of the SOU Native American Student Union assisted in the move, along with community members.

A new base was created for the library location of the “We Are Here” wood prayer pole, beginning with a square chunk of 5,000 pounds of concrete. After “We Are Here” was in place on this concrete, stone worker Jesse Biesanz began the process of adding a round dome of mortar and river rocks to the base.

When you visit the sculpture in the library, you will see four animals carved in sandstone at the four cardinal directions of the base. These depict four animals from the Anishinaabe creation story. Russell Beebe, who carved the wood prayer pole, also carved the four animals in sandstone. Beebe is of Anishinaabe tribal heritage. You can read his description of the creation story on the library wall near “We Are Here.”

Notice the three beautiful benches by the prayer pole at SOU library. Beebe carved all three from the trunk of one large pine tree: one is Bear, one is Cougar (or Mountain Lion) and one is Salmon.

Grandma Aggie wrote in her book, “Russell carved eight-foot benches for people to go and meditate or to have any type of classes there; they would have room. … So he has carved these big eight-foot benches around the spirit pole, and I thought that way people could come and pray, or you could have some sort of a program here about the tree where people could come and sit quietly or whatever.”

The "We Are Here" sculpture and prayer pole is rich with meaning. Here is a brief introduction to the meaning of the animals and people you see there.

The major theme is that of kinship. For thousands of years, Southern Oregon tribes lived a sustainable lifestyle in balance with the land, animals and plants of the region. Because it was a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the local population remained small and spread out. Each tribal group had slightly different beliefs and ceremonies. However, all felt a kinship with the animals and plants they depended on for their survival. Russell Beebe brought that sense of kinship into his carving of "We Are Here."

Grandma Aggie expressed the concept of kinship in her book. She 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.

The Native people relied on local animals for food, clothing and daily necessities such as needles, fishhooks, digging stick handles, bow strings and more. In the final article in this series, I will write in more detail about the meaning of each individual carving on the prayer pole.

Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for his Ashland stories.