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‘We Are Here’: The meaning of each carving

Grandma Aggie sitting in the Story Chair by Ti’lomikh Falls on the Rogue River, near the village site of her Takelma ancestors (photo by Stephen Kiesling, 2012)
Takelma Woman detail from "We Are Here" sculpture. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Editor’s note: Final in a five-part series.

"We Are Here" is a City of Ashland public art sculpture (also called a prayer pole) that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley. In the previous four articles, 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, how a bronze replica of the original sculpture was made, and how the original wood carving was moved from its North Main Street location to the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.

The overall theme of the sculpture and prayer pole is one of our kinship with all of Creation. This theme is expressed through individual human and animal carvings on the prayer pole. Let's look at the human carvings and several of the animals, going roughly from the top down, to discover aspects of the deeper meaning of kinship.

Beebe told me that he only had room to represent two of the local tribes, and he chose the Takelma and the Shasta. The Takelma woman and Shasta man each have a child, who represent the future. As the prayer pole is named: "We Are Here."

Takelma Woman: Russell Beebe used the late Grandma Aggie as a model for the Takelma woman. He carved her as she looked in her 30s, wearing her regalia clothing. The Takelma people lived primarily along the Rogue River and to the south as far as what is now the Ashland area. They were a small tribe in the 1850s when settlers arrived in the Rogue Valley. However, Native people had lived in the area for at least 10,000 years.

Shasta Man: The Shasta people lived primarily in Northern California, though in their northern territory they shared the Bear Creek drainage (now the Ashland/Medford area) with Takelma bands.

American settlers James Cardwell and Thomas Smith visited the Ashland area in the winter of 1851-1852. They described a Shasta winter village of perhaps 100 people along Ashland Creek, near the current location of Ashland Plaza. This was the Ikirakutsum Band of the Shasta Nation. In the Shasta language the village was called K’wakhakha, "Where the Crow lights."

From time immemorial, when each spring and summer brought warmer weather, both Shasta and Takelma would spread out in smaller bands at higher elevations to hunt meat and gather wild foods. The two tribes fought at times, but also intermarried, traded and shared hunting grounds.

Canada goose: Canada geese are easy to see – and hear – in the Rogue Valley at certain times of the year. Geese and ducks were among the animal foods hunted and eaten by Rogue Valley Native Americans.

Stag (deer): Deer provided food, clothing and tools. Shirts, hats, buckskin trousers, skirts and moccasins were all made from deer or elk.

Eagle: In her book, Grandma Aggie described the eagle. "Same way with the eagle. It's a messenger. Long before Congress made it the national bird for us, our Native people throughout the land had already had the eagle that way because he could fly the highest and see the farthest and carry our messages to the Beloved. It was already one of our totems."

Salmon: The most important animal foods for Rogue Valley Native Americans were river fish such as salmon and trout. They were caught using nets, fishing lines made of plant fiber or long spears. Traditionally, ceremonies were conducted each year at the beginning of the salmon hunt.

Grandma Aggie played a leading role once again. She was the driving force behind restoration of an ancient salmon ceremony. In the National Park Service website is an article about the Takelma tribe and Grandma Aggie's influence.

"In 1994, for the first time in over 140 years, an ancient ceremony took place to welcome and give thanks for the returning salmon, on the Kanaka Flats of the Applegate River. People of all heritages were welcomed at the annual Salmon Gathering on the Applegate River until 2006. In 2007, the ceremony was moved to the place where it was held for thousands of years: the Tilomikh (Powerhouse Falls), on the Rogue River near Gold Hill, Oregon. Since then, the ceremony has taken place annually in its traditional location, demonstrating that the Takelma culture is alive and will continue into the future."

Beaver: These animals were once abundant in Oregon. Due to demand for beaver pelts in Europe and the Eastern United States, they were nearly trapped to extinction in the 1800s. They have now become reestablished along many streams throughout the state, because they are an important part of a healthy stream ecosystem.

I will let Grandma Aggie have the closing words, from her book “Grandma Says: Wake Up World!” She wrote: "I felt very honored to work with Matthew Haines and Russell Beebe, and it was a great honor to be able to do this for our people, for the Old Ones. That's why I wanted it – for them to be recognized in my background. It was a good feeling. I feel very honored that, when I go to the Star Nation, that there will be that spirit pole because, as I say, Ashland is a threshold and there is nothing Native out there. Now we have the bronze [and wood carving] that will show there were residents of First Nation people there."

Grandma Aggie has now gone to the Star Nation. She will be missed. She will also be remembered whenever someone views the bronze "We Are Here" on North Main Street or the original alder wood "We Are Here" in the SOU library.

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