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Appropriation and Colonialism at the Oregon Country Fair

Appropriation and Colonialism at the Oregon Country Fair

Cover Image via Willamette Weekly

Places like Eugene, Oregon are often touted as a liberal oasis -- but only if you are White. If you are Indigenous or a person of color then you are subjected to the impacts of a state founded on White greed. With the removal of the tribes in 1856 to Grande-Ronde Indian Reservation, the history of the native peoples of Oregon was obscured for over 100 years. Despite this invisibilization, the surviving and thriving ancestors in the Grande Ronde tribe have ensured that Eugene and the surrounding areas are rich with Native restorative projects. Yet with all of this activity, cultural appropriation is ubiquitous. From “native survival” arts to sweat lodges, Oregon is a hot spot for stealing native culture. The Oregon Country Fair is a prime suspect with their not-so-distant plans to build a “Haida totem pole.” The problems with this run deep in that the Country Fair members never even discussed with the Haida tribe in British Columbia, did not even create an accurate Haida totem pole, and the most obvious of all offenses, the Haida tribe is not even a local tribe in the Pacific Northwest in the first place.   

The group responsible for this horrifying display of White entitlement is called the Flamingo Clan, who oversee the Ritz Sauna and Showers at the Oregon Country Fair. They had been working on what they eventually called the “story pole” for five years -- plenty of time for them to check in with local Indigenous tribes about their intentions and what kind of impact this would have on their communities. Once it was brought to local tribes’ attention, like the Kalapuya tribe, the Oregon Country Fair started receiving ardent objections to the pole.

George Braddock, a representative of the Ritz Sauna and Showers, who had a very involved and encouraging hand with the totem pole expressed how sorry they were for causing hurt. He also states that, “…we really believed that there’s a need for an ongoing conversation about this. It’s part of a larger subject than just this pole or just the Oregon Country Fair, certainly consciousness about cultural appropriation and what it is and what it means, is active conversation around the country!”

Part of a larger subject, he says, but fails to describe what that larger subject is. That larger subject is racism and the upholding of white supremacy. Braddock makes no mention of the complicity of white people in oppressive behaviors, how detrimental and dangerous this behavior is, and how to avoid it in the future.

Braddock said that he believes that the conversation they did have was productive, and that he “really learned a lot.” He goes on to say that he thinks, “…it was very important that this discussion happened, and that it continue to happen...I don’t think the question is settled by any means.” The fact that Braddock believes he gets to decide that this discussion has not been settled is rooted in his Whiteness. He has chosen to ignore all of the voices of Indigenous peoples who decry the creation of the pole in favor of his desires. This totem was undeniably rude, offensive, inappropriate, and an example of how White people perpetuate the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples. This was an example of countless horrific examples where White people cherry-pick what they want from Indigenous folks, Black people, and all people of color, without regard for the significance of what they take, without any acknowledgement of the source, and without regard for the consequence of their actions. The consequences in this case being grotesque misrepresentation, false assumptions that would come from the totem, and the violent erasure of the modern Indigenous peoples living in Eugene and the larger Pacific Northwest region.  

Even worse, the totem memorialized White people who had died. This doesn’t make any sense since this totem is from the Haida people. If White people want a memorial they can make a plaque. The White people of the “Flamingo Clan” changed the original meaning of the totem to fit their own agenda.

Later, Braddock states that, "It’s not even about the story pole, or all about the native art.” Instead, he says  that it’s about “…creating an inviting and welcoming bathing experience for everyone…we have a long history of adapting and of changing to new circumstances, new challenges, and new input.” So, they took a totem from a tribe that is not even of the region, and then they had the gall to say, it’s not even about  the totem or native art? If you want to build a great shower experience for everyone and all ages, great. But you don’t have to yank a totem from the Haida tribe completely out of context in order to do that. Build a giant, gleaming toilet instead because that would actually make sense.

This whole situation would not have been complete without White fragility. Braddock made sure to mention how sad he was that the pole didn’t go up. So, really what was learned? It doesn’t seem like anything because Braddock centers himself. Once again, the conversation was not focused where it needed to be: on the repercussions and real consequences and dangers of Whiteness. He never mentioned anything about racism or white supremacy, which is what we are really talking about here. This is what White supremacy looks like. It’s not always men marching with tiki torches or white pointed hats. It’s not always the KKK. White supremacy is living inside all White people. We won’t see equity until we accept that, and start practicing anti-racism.

Appropriation is dangerous and has very real consequences to others and our own psyches, sometimes even our physical bodies. It is important to never appropriate another person’s culture, language, or emotions. We may find that we have an impulse to identify with someone else’s experience because we too experience struggle in some way. But we can never liken our personal experiences with another. Our personal pain is not like someone else’s.

We need to resist finding ways that we can relate or identify with another person’s plight, because this is a lie. We will never know what it’s like to be anyone else, but ourselves. We must remember our position. I’m cishet, white, able-bodied, so it would be wrong for me to think I can identify or somehow relate to Indigeneous struggle. It would be wrong because it would derail the focus. The focus should always center on the issue at hand. To try to relate, or speak of our own suffering would be so far from the point. Whiteness is so blinding that too often White people put our personal agendas first.

Cultural appropriation is a tool of white supremacy. It is cultural violence and it’s so embedded in our white psyche’s that we carry it with us even when we go to “help,” as we saw with White people taking up space in all the wrong ways at Standing Rock. The pipeline in and of itself is literally taking the resources away from the original peoples of the land by destroying the land, and in turn giving access to their land and resources to wealthy, White people. Yet, while groups gathered to protect the water, White people reinforced settler behavior. With festivals like the Country Fair, White people want all the fun and “spectacle” of Indigeneity and none of the burden. Even when White people try to “help,” too often they end up taking up space in a repeat colonialist kind of way. We need to stop with this idea of “helping” and focus more on how we can dismantle our White supremacy in our beliefs and actions. The idea of “helping” is rooted in being a White savior, and what really needs to happen is for White people to just sit in the discomfort of not being needed to “help” unless they are specifically asked.

Without realizing it, Braddock was upholding anti-Native structures. This commitment to supremacy is embedded in his rejection of discussing the specific history and context of cultural symbols and items like totems, and refusing to acknowledge his privileged position as a White male. White people must acknowledge racial hierarchy in these conversations, and get better at self-critique. Anti-racism is a life-long exercise that must be practiced everyday.

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