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’We Are Here’

Grandma Aggie blesses an alder tree Oct. 29, 2004. Photo by James Royce Young
Flyer for the dedication of "We Are Here," Sept. 30, 2006. Photo illustration by James Royce Young
Sculpture honoring Native Americans born out of public discourse
First of five parts

"This is about healing."

Grandma Aggie

"We Are Here" is an 20-foot-tall public art sculpture in Ashland that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley. It has been called a wood carving, a Spirit Pole and a Prayer Pole.

This will be a series of five articles to tell you little-known stories of the two "We Are Here" sculptures and of the Native American people who were here and still are here.

A bronze replica "We Are Here" is located on North Main Street where it meets Lithia Way. The original "We Are Here" wood carving that the replica was made from stands inside Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University.

In this article, you will learn about the commercial development controversy that led to the creation of this sculpture. You will meet wood carver Russell Beebe, Takelma elder Grandma Aggie and the alder tree itself.

Before that, let's go back to the beginning — the beginning of Ashland and beyond.

When Robert Hargadine, Abel Helman and the other first American settlers made land claims here in January 1852, they found a winter village of perhaps 100 members of the Ikirakutsum Band of the Shasta Nation at what is now the Ashland Plaza. The Shasta village was called K’wakhakha, “Where the crow lights.”

The Shasta and Takelma nations lived and hunted in the southern part of the Rogue Valley. "We Are Here," as a Spirit Pole, remembers the thousands of years Native Americans lived here before settlers came and claimed it.

Between 1852 and 1856, there were four years of conflicts and broken promises as Native Americans tried to defend their ancestral land. Suffering from disease, hunger and deaths from the fighting, the remaining Shasta and Takelma were forcibly marched in the 1856 Trail of Tears to the Siletz Indian Reservation, 150 miles north along the Oregon Coast.

Through the years, Native Americans have moved back to Southern Oregon. "We Are Here," as a Prayer Pole, is a place of prayer for people today — not just a memorial for the past.

That is why it is called "We Are Here." It is not called "We Were Here."

Now let's fast-forward to the year 2004. Here's how the idea of the public artwork came to be. Lloyd Matthew Haines owned the triangular lot where North Main Street and Lithia Way come together. He wanted to put up a new building 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 a large alder tree on the property. Haines instructed his architects to try to design the building around the tree.

After study, the architects concluded that the lot was too small to build on and also save the tree.

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, who passed away in 2019), to ask for their help.

Opponents of the new building appealed its approval to Ashland City Council. At the council meeting, 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.

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.”

“Everyone was stunned, and that was the end of the protest,” Beebe recalled. After her talk, the council approved the building and sculpture with little opposition.

Beebe designed the sculpture in a few hours as he sat by the living alder tree. He wrote that his design represents “the story told by the old ones about our duty to walk in balance with nature.”

Haines asked Grandma Aggie to perform a ceremony of blessing and thanks for the alder tree before it was cut down. A few people gathered with her Oct. 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 and a community celebration.

When the wood carving was moved to Hannon Library in 2012, there was ceremony. When the bronze replica was installed on North Main Street in 2013, there was ceremony.

Beebe said that in Native traditions, the alder tree is referred to as "mother," because of its valuable role in the process of regeneration. 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 'OK children, you’re on your own.' Then she’s done."

Indeed, according to the arborist who cut down the alder carved for "We Are Here," it only had about 10 years to live.

Coming in Part 2: How Russell Beebe carved the tree. Why the dedication day, Sept. 30, 2006, was so emotional.

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