As Controversial Story Pole Waits In Warehouse, Ritz Staffers Deliberate Next Steps

Aug 1, 2017

Earlier this year, the Oregon Country Fair axed plans to display the Story Pole…a 36-foot tall wooden carving done in a distinctive, Native American style.  As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, its fate is still being decided.  

The Story Pole in storage.
Credit George Braddock / Ritz Sauna and Showers

George Braddock is with the Ritz Sauna and Showers, which had coordinated the Story Pole Project for five years.  He says the pole is being kept in a warehouse while Ritz staff deliberate. 

George Braddock, booth representative for Ritz Sauna & Showers, at KLCC studios.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“It’s interesting, a lot of people have said that that Story Pole has been imbibed with a lot of spirit, and that in many ways it’s going to determine where it’s going to end up.” 

Mounting criticism erupted months ahead of this year’s Oregon Country Fair, from Native Americans and their supporters. 

David Lewis, a cultural anthropologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, questioned the Haida-style pole’s purpose.  

“Because there was no Haida people involved, they hadn’t really gotten it approved from the Haida tribe, that it was not really a Haida pole…so it was cultural appropriation," says Lewis. 

“Certainly we apologize for any hurt that’s taken place as a result of anything we’ve done at Sauna,” says Braddock.  He says they worried about boycotts or protests at the Oregon Country Fair this year. 

But instead they fielded 500 comments from visitors about making the facility more accommodating and comfortable for all visitors. 

And they remain open to working with an area tribe should they pursue a project similar to the Story Pole again.

Story Pole on display, date unknown.
Credit Ritz Sauna & Showers Facebook page

WEB EXTRA: Hear an extended conversation between KLCC's Brian Bull and George Braddock, booth representative of the Ritz Sauna & Showers. 

BULL:  Where is the Story Pole now, and what will become of it? 

BRADDOCK: Well, the Story Pole is in safe keeping, it is in a warehouse out on West 1st avenue.  It’s the warehouse it’s been stored in during wintertime beginning in 2012 when we initially obtained it. And it’s still there, and in terms of what becomes of it now, well that’s an ongoing question.  We’re working hard on getting a lot of input on what we should do moving forward. 

It’s interesting, a lot of people have said that that pole, that Story Pole has been imbibed with a lot of spirit, and that in many ways it’s going to determine where it’s going to end up.  So that may also be part of the conversation at some point.

BULL:  So the Story Pole itself may decide where its eventual destination is. 

BRADDOCK:  I think it’s influencing a lot of things, to be honest.

Ritz Sauna & Showers crew with Story Pole in warehouse.
Credit George Braddock

BULL: Was there much inquiry from visitors and OCF goers about the Story Pole at this most recent event?

BRADDOCK:  Yes, there was.  And we were…although the Story Pole was not permitted to be erected this year, we had previously obtained through various conditions, the right to build the pavilion, which you saw when you were visiting out there this year.  And that pavilion was part of that construction, was a steel armature that the Story Pole was going to be attached to.  And we were able to go ahead and move forward with construction of that pavilion, even though we knew that pole wasn’t going to go up. 

And we did that because 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 our country!  And this project became a focus for that.  So we felt it was important to create a space where people had an opportunity to have this discussion.  And we tried to build a space that provided for that, and invited people to come and write comments, and we staffed that pavilion throughout the fair, and gave people an opportunity to express points of view about the pole.

BULL:   Do you feel George, that the discussion has been largely productive?

BRADDOCK:  I think it’s been very productive.  We’ve really learned a lot. The landscape has changed during the five years this project has been in motion.  And we continue to learn and respond to the things we’re hearing and make changes. So I think 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. 

BULL:  The expectation from last year of course, was that the Story Pole would be finished and officially installed and unveiled at this year’s event.  Were people generally sad, relieved, happy, or confused at the decision not to set up the Story Pole?

BRADDOCK:  We got reactions from across that entire spectrum. I would say that if I had to pick the most common, it was one of surprise and of disappointment that the pole hadn’t gone up. You know, having been in motion for such a long period of time. And a surprising number of people tracked it through the Fair Family News and other publications online, there was a lot of surprise at the decision that the pole wasn’t going up.  

BULLSome people have suggested that if a similar project is ever pursued again, that Ritz Sauna and Showers incorporate the input and skill of Native American artists, carvers, scholars...is that something that your team might consider?

BRADDOCK:  Oh, absolutely.  And we’re continuing to have those conversations today…I think as I’ve tried to…make clear in this conversation, is that we moved forward at a time thinking that we were with in compliance with the necessary requirements to put that pole up, and in addition to that, we actively sought the participation of the broader community in the creation of the pole.  We had both native and non-native individuals, people of all ages and types work on the pole, it was very encouraged.  

And the idea of pole was, that it was a story about the Ritz, and things changed in relationship to that story as the pole was under construction.  You mentioned the plane accident that took the lives of four Oregon Country Fair participants, two of whom were people very involved with the Sauna.  In fact one of the men, Erin Nobel, his father, helped facilitate the obtaining of the pole originally in 2012.

And the pole arrived in April of that year, and then in June of that year, we had the plane accident that took those four lives.  And so then suddenly the pole also became a place to memorialize in some ways, that event.  Erin’s father carved a jaguar on the pole which had been Erin’s totem, and other individuals made special marks in the pole in relationship to those memories.  And so the pole very much so, is an ongoing conversation, and we would…we would, I think…certainly reach out in a different way to, perhaps, native artists of the north coast, as we began into this project, and were we do it again, and we are now continuing to engage with and look for opportunities to have the conversation with native tribes, about how we might change, and how things might be done differently.  Both going forward and changes about the art that exists there today. 

Story Pole in storage at a Eugene warehouse.
Credit George Braddock / Ritz Sauna and Showers

BULL: One aspect of the Story Pole was that it was  -in part - a memorialization of several of the Ritz Sauna and Showers team members who died in a plane crash.  Are there other plans from your group to honor the memory of these people?

BRADDOCK:  We are in discussion about that and I think the answer is yes.  We are looking for other ways to do that.  We haven’t decided on the appropriate form to do that so far, but it is something that we are working on.

BULL How was the event this year, as far as the Oregon Country Fair, for your organization and facility?

BRADDOCK:   I think the fair went quite well for the facility, there certainly was this backdrop of suspense, you know, around…were there going to active protests, were there going to be boycotts?  So there was a lot of concern about that.  A number of individuals were invited to come to the fair this year that had been at Standing Rock.  And so this conversation about the Story Pole and art and culture was active at the Fair.  I had the opportunity to be invited down to the Front Porch, to speak following the presentation by the folks at Standing Rock. 

And in that conversation, I wanted to really talk about what the Ritz Sauna and Showers is all about, it’s not really all about the Story Pole or all about the native art. Really we’re about creating an inviting and welcoming bathing experience for everyone.  And we feel very much so in service to the broader community in that effort. We have a long history of adapting and of changing to new circumstances, new challenges, and new input.

In 1983, when Emory Blackwell, a man with cerebral palsy arrived at the Ritz Sauna and Showers in his wheelchair, there was no way for him to get in.  We had to go out and physically carry him into the facility, and into the sauna.  So we made the commitment at that time that we were going to make the sauna accessible.   And we came to realize that women didn’t always want to necessarily sauna with men. And so we made a time that was women’s only.  So they could have that experience.

We knew that there were people who weren’t interested in open air bathing.  And we created a wing of the saunas and showers that were private showers. People with different kinds of disabilities, members of our crew that wanted to continue to participate, people with autism, people with sensory processing issues, we began to take into consideration what it was that made it possible for them to be there, and for them to feel comfortable in that space, and actively participate.

Now we’re addressing a lot of issues around aging.  And how do we continue to support people being able to come and use that facility. So we’re really all about finding ways to include as many people as possible.  And one of the new challenges has been presented to us now, is this idea that there are people who are put off by the art, and they really do experience significant trauma and other issues related to that.  And we’ve responded to that.  We’re listening.  We took down our smokestack, which was in fact a totemic stack.  We changed the design on our t-shirts, moving away from a 27-year history of North Coast design, in our shirts. We changed the coin, again moving away from things that were North Coast.  We changed the art in some of the public park areas. 

So we’re listening.  And we’re responding, and continue to want to do that.  We’ve heard native voices on both sides of this question, and we’ve gotten over 500 written comments at our kiosk.  And so this conversation is really important.  And it’s really important that it continue to go forward, and our goal as I stated at the Front Porch, is to… certainly we apologize for any hurt that’s taken place as a result of anything we’ve done at the sauna.  And that we’re listening, and that we’re open to change.  And that we really do need some help understanding more things about the boundary.  I think that the history of the changing ideas in particularly the relationship of the art of North Coast, is an active conversation that’s been going on for a long time.  

And being able to have that conversation with one another that begins from a platform of mutual respect…I think is the most critical part.  You can’t get very far if you start out calling each other names, or relying on stereotypes.  Or any of those kinds of things that kill conversations.  We’re actively involved in and listening and open to change.

BULL:  Lastly George…are there any new initiatives that may be going on at Ritz Sauna and Showers, or other transitions?  Any new ventures or design ideas you see happening in the next 5-10 years?

BRADDOCK:  Well, I certainly hope that we continue to be a facility for the next 5-10 years.  We’ve been working at grooming the next generation of folks to take over the reins of the operation.  We’ve gone through some changes.   And not just in relationship to the art, but who are our patrons?  What do people expecting, so the sauna at night time has become more of a music venue.   And some people really appreciate that, and other people feel that something’s been lost from the more quiet, enchanting type environment that had been there for many years.    

So we’re thinking about creating spaces that again create opportunity for people to have that quieter aspect at the sauna and showers.  So I guess just continuing to find more ways to welcome people.  And to create an opportunity for everyone to have a safe experience there.  And to…see…we’re all about breaking down a lot of stereotypes.  Things from body image, to what we’re all about.  What’s our humanity, what is our shared humanity, and how do we tap into that?  Is really a goal.  The three values that we have, that we hold at Ritz Showers and sauna is a value of tolerance, a value of inclusivity, and a value diversity. And every decision we make, we ask ourselves if we’re staying true to our values.

BULL:  George, that takes care of my questions, anything else?

BRADDOCK:  I would just say that in terms of a little bit of history, the decisions that were made and the conditions that were required for us to move forward in the completion of the pole and the standing of the pole, we did everything that we knew was necessary to do that.  And that process really happened in a very democratic way. 

And it’s sad to me that at the very end, when the decision was made that the pole wasn’t going to go up, that there wasn’t more conversation about that, that all of the players with a stake in the game, particularly those of us with the Ritz Sauna and Showers, really weren’t invited to the table to have that very critical decision.  And so when suddenly we realized in May that we weren’t going to be able to put the pole up, I think that could’ve been done better.   And I think that the Country Fair needs to work harder at being more inclusive in that decision making process.

BULL:   George Braddock, thank you very much for our time.

BRADDOCK:  Thank you.

Copyright 2017, KLCC.