Southern Oregon University’s Hannon Library, already a showcase for unique talent in the Rogue Valley, recently added one of Ashland’s own spiritual and symbolic artifacts.
Carved out of a 53-year-old alder tree, the “We are Here” statue formerly served as not only an attractive gateway to the town, but also a memorial to the Native American tribes who once called the Rogue Valley home.
The dream of the sculpture was born in 2003, when Lloyd Matthew Haines found his plans to build the Shasta Building at 96 N. Main St. were stumped, so to speak, by the alder tree. According to Russell Beebe, lifelong sculptor and local resident for 35 years, Haines’ desire to honor the tree encouraged him to seek out Beebe to preserve it as a work of art.
“I want it to be meaningful,” said Beebe. “I want it to touch peoples’ hearts.”
It only took Beebe about half an hour to visualize the theme for what would soon become known as the “gateway alder:” family. Depicted on the statue are animals and figures representing the Shasta and Tekelma Native American Tribes that once resided here. One such representation is the face of a Native American tribeswoman, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, a long-time friend of Beebe’s and one of the most recognized characteristics of the statue.
“I consider it to be my best piece,” said Beebe, who has been carving since day one.
In 2006, the statue was donated to the city and dedicated to the Native Americans of the area in light of the 150th anniversary of the notorious Oregon Trail of Tears, a series of five forced migrations in 1856 that relocated the local Native American tribes to the Grande Ronde and Sitetz reservations.
“The sculpture has had a healing effect on the valley,” said Beebe.
The statue has received not only local praise, but international recognition as well.
After standing proudly against the elements for six years however, the prayer pole had seen a noticeable amount of wear and tear. Thus the 19-ft tall, 3,000-pound “We are Here” statue was coaxed in to the Hannon Library just in time for the cold winter months.
According to Beebe, coordinator for the relocation, the moving process was very spiritual and ceremonious. Students and faculty belonging to the Native American Student Union on campus put their hands on the statue, stopping the process four times to ask the Spirit of the Four Directions for blessings.
“For Native people, prayer and a spiritual lifestyle are very important,” explained Beebe.
An eagle feather tied to the base of the statue is said to carry prayers to the Great Spirit. A red-tailed hawk feather has been added out of respect for the Native American symbol that is the inspiration for SOU’s mascot.
“[It is] to heal their hearts for the atrocities that took place in the Rogue Valley,” he said.
Despite the fact that the feathers cannot fly to the wind anymore, Beebe hopes that it will remain a prayer pole at its new location on campus.
“Students should look at it and realize the spirit of those Native ancestors are still around.”