Ashland High School: ‘We are all in this leaky canoe together’

Dan Wahpepah, at left, makes sure the canoe is correctly oriented as it's lowered onto its mount. Ashland High School photo
August 18, 2022

Native American Student Union, Equity Committee install ‘Otterlifter’ canoe by Siskiyou Boulevard staff report

Members of Ashland High School’s Native American Student Union and the AHS Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee recently finished the first stage of installation of a hand-carved canoe known as “Otterlifter” in front of the high school.

The crimson red canoe was donated by the Wahpepah family as a reminder of the land and the waters, an acknowledgement of Ashland’s original residents and its history. Otterlifter, which was blessed by Takelma elder, the late Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim, known to many as “Grandma Aggie,” represents all of the River People.

The installation recognizes that Native Americans were displaced from the Rogue Valley between 1851 and 1856 when Euro-American settlers pursued gold in the region. The discovery of gold in the Rogue Valley led to warfare, epidemics, starvation and burned Native American villages. Many distinct tribes were forcibly removed from the Rogue Valley and sent to the Siletz and the Grand Ronde Reservations. One group was forced to march 200 miles, a 33-day journey from Table Rock Reservation, to Grand Ronde, which resulted in seven Native American deaths.

The handcrafted canoe ‘Otterlifter’ on its new perch near Ashland High School just off Siskiyou Boulevard, surrounded by placards explaining its background and significance. Ashland High School photo

The installation sign near the canoe is in English and has a QR code that directs readers to a website in both Spanish and English.

AHS will hold a formal celebration to unveil the canoe to the community on Thursday, Oct. 6, preceding Indigenous People’s Day weekend.

“The Ashland School District is extremely grateful for this gift to our community and students, now and in the future, and to all those that contributed it on our campus,” reads a statement from Ashland School District.

The canoe has a dragonfly painted on the stern, which represents Daldal from Takelma stories. Daldal transforms the world and prepares it for human beings, according to the sign erected near the canoe. As the tradition goes, Daldal splits himself into Elder and Younger Brothers and they journey together up the Rogue River, “changing the world in various places.”

At the end of their journey, tradition says that the brothers transform into Lower and Upper Table Rocks. To the Takelma people, the rocks are known as the ribs of the Great Animal that is the world.

Signage placed near the canoe also shares a message from the Ashland School District about the canoe:

“We acknowledge this land in part to express our gratitude for all that it gives us,” reads the sign. “Every gift is a duty. To reciprocate our gift, it is our responsibility to build a world that will sustain us beyond our lifetimes. It is our responsibility to reduce the harm we do to all our human and non-human relations, from the birds to the rivers to the mountains — because we are all in this leaky canoe together.”

The signage recognizes that the installation also represents voices from Ashland Middle School, Grand Ronde Tribal staff, Native American Programs faculty at Southern Oregon University, Southern Oregon Educational Services District, and story-bearers from throughout the community.

Reach reporter Holly Dillemuth at

A sign near Otterlifter explains it is made from a 365-year-old sugar pine tree, and some of the symbology of the canoe’s design and graphics. Ashland High School photo

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at
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