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’We Are Here’ carving and dedication

Russell Beebe carving "We Are Here." Note the many levels of scaffolding he used. (photo by James Royce Young)
Grandma Aggie at the dedication, arms upCaption: Grandma Aggie at the September 30, 2006 dedication. (photo by James Royce Young)

Part 1 described how Matthew Haines hired wood carver Russell Beebe to sculpt a memorial to the First Nations of the Rogue Valley from an alder tree that had been growing near the site of the current sculpture.

The alder tree arrived at Russell Beebe's studio with its bark intact and multiple branches sticking out. The 20-foot alder with its large branches had to be carved with the tree upright. Beebe set up scaffolding around the tree and began carving from the top down.

Shasta Man and Takelma Woman, representing the tribes of the Rogue Valley, are both toward the top of the sculpture. Each of them has a child who represents the future. He modeled the Takelma Woman on the late Grandma Aggie. Then he carved some of the animals that Native people shared the valley with: the deer, eagle, salmon, bear, and more. He included the spirit figure of Raven.

"The dragonfly was put there just for Aggie," he added, because the dragonfly was one of her spirit animals.

"The more than 1,000 hours I spent carving this piece were delightful,“ Beebe wrote. ”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 prayer pole, 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 wood carving teacher 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.

"We Are Here" was dedicated Sept. 30, 2006, a day the Ashland City Council had recognized as First Nations Day. Beyond the meaning of the sculpture itself, the dedication had special meaning because 2006 was the 150th anniversary of the local Native people's Trail of Tears.

The Shasta, Takelma and other tribes were pushed off their ancestral lands by American settlers in the early 1850s. Weakened by diseases, and deaths from fighting for their lands, the remaining Rogue Valley Native people were forcibly marched on foot 150 miles north to the Siletz Indian Reservation in March of 1856.

In Grandma Aggie’s 2015 book, Grandma Says: Wake Up World, she 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."

Dedication day included a three-hour gathering at Briscoe School. It opened with a song by Whistling Elk Drum circle, led by Dan Wahpepah. After music and speakers, several hundred people then walked from Briscoe School 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 prayer pole and the assembled people. Russell Beebe was honored to place a sacred Eagle feather high on the prayer pole statue. There was a Native American tobacco offering.

Matthew Haines, who funded "We Are Here," called it "a memorial to the First Nations." Through many community prayers and ceremonies, it has become even more than that. As Grandma Aggie often said, descendants of the Native Americans who lived in the Rogue Valley for thousands of years are still here. Russell Beebe explained that "We Are Here" is a place of prayer to them, not just a statue.

The story of “We Are Here” does not end with the 2006 dedication. After installation, Haines donated the sculpture to the city of Ashland public art collection. Within a few years, a problem developed due to two factors. First, alder is a soft wood. Second, a crack had formed in the wood as the tree was moved to Beebe's studio. The wood carving developed mold through exposure to winter dampness, rain and snow. It required extensive maintenance, more than city staff could handle, so Haines paid for Beebe to attend to the sculpture annually. Beebe remembered, "Often I had to recarve where it was starting to rot in spots."

By 2011 or 2012, 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. A 2012 Ashland Tidings article said that "it was important to [Haines] 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. Learn about what happened next in Part 3.

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