June 21, 2024

Otterlifter canoe dedication ceremony coming up Oct. 6

Otterlifter at its new home in front of Ashland High School. Peter Finkle photo
September 28, 2022

Ashland High School installation honors Indigenous peoples

By Peter Finkle for

You may have passed by the bright red canoe along Siskiyou Boulevard in front of Ashland High School and wondered why it is there. Here is your chance to find out: Join community members on Thursday, Oct. 6, for the Otterlifter Canoe Land & People Recognition Community Ceremony. It will take place at Ashland High School from 4:30 to 7 p.m.

This photo shows George Fence with Otterlifter at the May 17, 2001, dedication of the canoe. Julie Norman photo

Here’s how the event invitation says: “Ashland School District’s new installation honors the Indigenous peoples of our region and pledges a commitment to our Native community, Elder Relatives, and Earth.”

Many people collaborated to create the Otterlifter canoe, to act as its stewards, and now to prepare this meaningful public art installation. The canoe was carved from a 365-year-old sugar pine tree about 22 years ago by George Fence and Gray Eagle, with guidance from Native American artist Ivan Otterlifter. The canoe is named in honor of Otterlifter, who lived from 1936 to 1999.

Grandma Aggie taught elementary school children at the 2001 Otterlifter dedication. Julie Norman photo

The late Takelma elder Grandma Aggie used Otterlifter as she taught Native American traditions to children. In its new location, Otterlifter will continue to teach respect for “all our relations,” which includes animals, plants, water, soil and Mother Earth. There are four teaching plaques at the four cardinal directions around the canoe.

Martha Stewart even rode in Otterlifter while filming her 2001 television show that featured Grandma Aggie and Aggie’s son Keith Taylor cooking salmon the traditional Takelma way. A photo shows her with Grandma Aggie and Aggie’s grandson Jai Kibbe next to the cooking salmon.

Gray Eagle passed Otterlifter to Dan Wahpepah, who is active in the local Native community. Wahpepah wanted Otterlifter to become a teacher for the entire community, so he donated it to Ashland High School. The Wahpepah family has a strong connection with the Ashland School District. Dan’s daughter Zhawen attended Ashland High School, and his wife, Jennifer, teaches at the school district’s alternative school.

Wahpepah says that Otterlifter’s presence here not only honors the past, present and future Native people of Southern Oregon, but also represents “a way to get back to living sustainably and in balance with our other relatives here.”

You will notice that Otterlifter is described as if it were a person. When I met Dan Wahpepah at the canoe, he explained this to me. “They carved it together in the fashion of the river people who lived around here. In that canoe, in the very bottom there is a heart of the canoe. That basically makes it a living being. Traditionally, the people took care of their canoe as a family member, a brother or sister or aunt or uncle. They fed it, and then they put it to sleep in the wintertime as well. The canoe represented so much to them. It represented travel and commerce, the ability to gather and to hunt. It represented the connection to the river and to all of the other relatives. The river was their highway, their life.”

Martha Stewart rode in Otterlifter during her 2001 television program about Southern Oregon. Here she is with Grandma Aggie and Aggie’s grandson Jai Kibbe. Photo from Julie Norman slide show

I am moved by these words on one of the four plaques at the Otterlifter site: “We dedicate this canoe as a living prayer for our future generations, our non-human relatives, and our earth as a whole. May it awaken our responsibility to listen to, learn from, and act in harmony with Mother Earth. May it serve as a reminder to the contributions of Indigenous peoples, a recognition of the interconnectivity of all beings, and a promise to decolonize our lifeways. As Grandma Aggie said, ‘We are all in this leaky canoe together.'”

Again, the Otterlifter dedication ceremony will take place from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at Ashland High School

Peter Finkle gives Ashland history and art walking tours. See for walking tour information, or to request a custom tour.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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