Popular American Cultural Theft of Totem Poles

The story of the Ritz Sauna Totem pole is rich with cultural history. The Ritz Sauna has been associated with the Oregon Country Fair since the beginnings of the fair. They have a large display area at the fair full of copies of native art. They have a replica plank house with native style art and large extravagant raptor figures. It is very interesting that some people have segregated the one issue of a native totem pole from the long history and practice of using native cultural art and figures and even mascot-like figures at the fair.

plank house at OCF

The fair is over 40 years old and so this practice of using Native art as part of the fair “culture” has gone on a long time. The OCF board has native people on it, and there are many native people who attend the fair every year. Most native people have never raised any issues and there are suggestion that the native people associated at the fair, at first, approved of the Totem Pole.

Famous Ritz pole, copy of Haida style pole

I suspect that the problem of cultural appropriate is not really about the fair, even though we assume that they should known better, but its more about the culture of Eugene. This culture, birthed in the Hippy-anti-war-pro-ethic-and-civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s is really what cultural appropriation is all about.

Native wolf figure at OCF

That generation of cultural activists worked hard to gain rights for all manner of peoples in the face of a government bent on making war on and killing millions of people around the world for their communist views. Millions marched on Washington, D.C. for their rights, and they won, for a time. The 1970’s and 1980’s became a time when the former activists became politicians and got stuff done, changing the whole cultural fabric of the nation. Native peoples benefited greatly with numerous laws passed and gaining Native people rights over religion, education, cultural artifacts, foster children and rights to self-determination of tribes. Many tribes in Oregon were restored from over 20 years of termination. Tribes got their rights to be a government back, and took rights to chart a history where tribal people begin to gain back the many losses from colonization of our lands.

In the midst of the regaining of tribal and native rights, our allies, those who we invited in to help us regain our human rights, forgot that native art and culture is not their culture, but ours. We invited them in for a time to help us get basic human rights back, but now its time for the allies to allow us to recover and regain our lifeways, on our own. This has been a tough lesson for many of these former hippies who worked so long to help other people. The tribes are grateful, but it really is our cultural and ancestral lifeway, not something which can be taken and owned by other people.

Interestingly, this is not the first time we have seen cultural appropriation on the part of allies who feel they want to help or emulate native people.

Amazon Pool totem

Beginning in the early 20th century, right around 1910, there was a huge cultural movement in the United States to emulate Native peoples culture and lifeways. White Americans were one or two generations from the “Indian Wars.” The United States, its lands, were taken in a series of wars from tribes. In Oregon there were the Yakima, Cayuse, Modoc, Bannock, Nez Perce, and Rogue River wars with native tribes. From the 1840’s to the 1880’s the conflicts with the tribes were over land rights, rights of tribes to own land and live their culture. When their lands were invaded by scores of American settlers, ranchers, farmers and gold miners, the tribes fought back. Their food sources were ploughed under, their wildlife was hunted out, their fish were disappearing, and so Tribes, who had been here for 10,000 or more years were faced with ultimate extinction and fought back. The blame for the wars in all literary sources went to the tribes, hence “Indian wars.” Indian people were seen as naturally violent and bloodthirsty by the next generations from the original settlers, thus deserving of all they got from the Americans.

End of the Trail Indian sculpture, Waupun

But somewhere in the back of every American’s consciousness was the knowledge that the land had been stolen from the tribes. And noble Chiefly figures like Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle, and Geronimo, who were honored by Americans for fighting the good fight, also showed everyone that Native people had a poignant philosophy as well.

In the early part of the 20th century, the next generation of Native people began to distinguish themselves in other ways, in sports. Figures like Jim Thorpe and Oregon’s own Reuben Sanders arose. These young men were only one generation removed from the Indians wars, and they became stars in the new popular culture in the United States, Sports. They became renowned in football, basketball, and baseball, and track. Many Americans followed the careers of these iconic stars.

Jim Thorpe 2X Gold medalist, 1912 Olympics

In another venue, anthropology, anthropologists were working to collect the information and cultural artifacts of thousands of Native cultures. Anthropologists thought in this era that Native people would disappear, as they saw populations declining. They also saw that the tribal cultures were changing and sought to preserve what they could. Millions of pages of ethnographic fieldwork were created and stored in museums and archives. Millions of cultural artifacts were bought or stolen from tribes to go to world museums. This era is known as the Anthropology Salvage era, and is heavily criticized by scholars today as a time when Native people were taken advantage of, and of how anthropologists saw the problems, and yet did nothing to help tribes.

UBC Museum of Anthropology

These anthropologists also published their information about these disappearing cultures. Numerous articles appeared in magazines about the declining cultures of the Indians. Secondarily, these themes were taken up by popular culture writers who wrote hundreds of articles about the “disappearing Indians” in popular journals of the time.

Statement about the tribes

At some point, the sympathy Americans felt for the Plight of the Indians intermixed with this new information about the loss of their culture, and found purchase in a cultural movement to “recreate Native culture.” Native American culture is unique to America, and Americans felt that they needed to continue the culture of the first Americans, as an expression of solidarity with the Indians and their plight, a way to honor them through what survives, their art and cultural figures.

Popular Mechanics

There then grew a cultural tradition of learning about Native customs by recreating the native art. We see this educational tradition started in educational magazines from the early 20th century.

Then organizations like the YMCA summer camps and especially the Boy Scouts took up native-themed growth education systems based on native concepts. Concepts like the Totem, and learning wild craft skills, where thought to help these young men grow up and become men. In a sense, all of this could help save native culture and honor Indian people by practicing their culture, or the culture reworked for American children.

Totem poles became one of the ultimate expressions of emulating native culture. There were thousands of totem poles made by boy scouts across the country. Educational units proposed education about Totem poles and for children to create a totem pole every year as a cultural art project, out of cardboard and pop-sickle sticks. Many totem poles create by children and community organization were raised in front of schools. The totem poles became a metaphor for the growth of the American child and so naturally became a mascot-like project across the nation.

Boys Life 1959

National Parks and forest centers, and Community parks also have these emulated totem poles. They are quite common across the nation in all public areas.


The subject matter of the Totem Pole is really based on the individuals involved. Most of the emulated poles are of silly caricatures. Some are quite excellent. But they are all examples of a stolen and appropriated culture. Because when this movement was becoming big, in the 1920’s and later, the tribes were losing their cultures.

In Canada, tribal culture was harshly repressed and longhouses were burned. In the United States native peoples were losing culture and language quickly. After 1900, very few totem poles were carved by any tribal people. At tribal centers the art-forms were repressed and dying, while at the same time white Americas felt empowered to take native culture and use it anyway they wanted too. In this context, the emulated poles become symbols for the loss of Native culture and for the repression of tribes.

In Eugene, there are numerous totem poles around the city. None of them relate to Oregon tribes. Totem poles were not a thing that Oregon tribal people did. There are a few carved by native people from other places, that are valid expressions on native culture. Eugene as a city, as a culture needs to think deeply about how it treats native people. Are they continuing repression of native peoples, or are their supporting the appropriate use of native culture by native peoples?

Why is native people practicing native culture somehow subversive, un-American- while white people doing the same thing- is the American way? If Americans really value Native culture, why not just allow native people to have equal rights in society, allow Tribal Nations to be sovereign organizations, and practice their culture and languages like other peoples? Because it really is important for Native culture to have Native people doing it. If native people are not allowed to practice their culture, its actually not native in any way, despite claims that it is.

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