“The sixth type of totem pole is called
the ridicule or shame pole. It is most often erected for the purpose of
forcing some person of high standing to meet or recognize an obligation
[such as a debt . . . ]. It is said that the Haidas sometimes carved a
person on a pole upside down for the same purpose”
(The Monuments of Cedar, Keithhahn 56).
As a memorial to corporate greed and the labyrinths of the legal system, this ridicule pole is dedicated to Exxon, who has refused to meet its debt or recognize its obligation to the communities and ecosystems profoundly affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
On the top of this seven foot yellow cedar pole is the upside-down face of Exxon’s now retired C.E.O., Lee Raymond. Four days after the oil spill, an Exxon spokesperson flew to Cordova and assured the community that we were lucky it was Exxon who spilled the oil. Exxon’s ironic, much quoted words, “We will make you whole,” have haunted Cordova these 18 years and are floating on the surface of the oil.
Lee Raymond’s eyes are “$” signs, and his gaping mouth is spilling oil, like the Exxon Valdez tanker that ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, March 24, 1989. The oil that is breaching out of Raymond’s mouth, turns into an oil slick littered with “$” signs. One of the monikers for the oil spill is the “Money Spill,” and those who worked on the clean-up were referred to as the “spillionaires.” The Money Spill divided communities and created ripples of social chaos that still affect people nearly two decades later.
Floating lifeless around the spill are a dead sea otter, a dead sea duck, and a dead eagle. An Orca whale is swimming around the spill, spouting water and oil out of its blow hole. Below the oil spill are two skeletal herring with a school of herring below. The bottom part of the school is tight and dense, as healthy herring should look, but where the school is closer to the spill, the herring get smaller and less dense. In the middle of the school is a herring with lesions, representative of the sick herring that returned to the Sound after the spill. The Prince William Sound herring fishery crashed from a disease outbreak in 1993, the year that young herring from 1989 should have become adults. The population was further weakened by disease and the fishery has been closed indefinitely since 1998. For Cordova’s people and economy and the wildlife of the Sound, the loss has created lasting and profound hardships.
The Lady of Justice with her scales is carved below the school of herring. The Lady is blindfolded signifying the 18 years of legal entanglements that have failed to bring an end to the oil spill litigation. On the Exxon side of the scale is a bag of money and a law book: money and the law appear to be on Exxon’s side. On the plaintiff’s side, the scale holds the Earth. The Earth represents the environment, animals, marine ecosystems, and the people who depend on them, in this case the fishermen and Native people. Notably, in the eyes of the law, the Exxon side weighs more.
Under the plaintiff’s side of the scale is a tombstone in memory of at least 6,000 plaintiffs who have died since this court case began. In other words, 20 percent of the original plaintiffs have died without ever seeing compensation. In the first thirty days of carving this totem pole, five of my friends, who are also plaintiffs, died, adding to the oppressive list of the dead. Under Exxon’s side of the scale is a “Past Due” stamp, highlighting the agonizing length of this court case and the people’s demand for Exxon to pay its overdue bill.
Under the Lady of Justice is a Tlingit-style person crying tears of sadness for the long years of lingering harm to the Sound, the wildlife, and the people. This human-like figure is carved in x-ray, meaning that he is very sick or dead. There is a hole in the heart of the Native, signifying our interpretation of Exxon’s promise to “make us [w]hole,” by taking a piece of our heart and soul. The Native communities have suffered in complex ways from the spill. For example, lingering oil buried on beaches continues to poison traditional subsistence foods and harm wildlife that depends on this food. On both sides of the crying Native are people standing together in unity and in strength. This includes the cleanup workers who became sick from working to clean up Exxon’s oil. Note that Exxon has taken away a part of their “wholeness” as well.
On the lower right-hand side of the pole is a seine boat with a “For Sale” sign on it and a family on the back deck. Of the fishing industries, the Sound’s herring and salmon seine fisheries were affected the most because fishermen were strapped by higher boat and permit loans as well as other related costs that the fisheries could not support after the spill. Many seine operations have gone bankrupt since the spill and over half of the salmon seiners cannot afford to fish their permits today. (Out of 267 of salmon seine boat permits, only 103 are in operation.) Our once bustling harbor that exploded with energy as fishermen prepared for a new season is now greatly subdued.
Finally, there is the booze bottle on the Exxon side of the pole. Sadly, the entire tragedy can be traced back to the misuse of alcohol by the infamous Captain Hazelwood, a man known by his Exxon superiors to have had a drinking problem. Eighteen years and 11 to 38 million gallons of crude oil later, Exxon does not seem to be any closer to paying their debt or recognizing their obligations. Exxon should be ashamed.
Mike Webber is Alutiiq on his mother’s side from Prince William Sound and Tlingit on his father’s side from Katalla and Cape Yakataga on the North Gulf Coast. He has fished the waters of his ancestors since he was six years old. In 1999, he broke his neck in a fishing accident. During his long recovery, he read nonstop books on Native carving and art. The books, and four master carvers, became his teachers. Mike has been carving for seven years. He likes to carve grease bowls, masks and paddles, and his goal is to replicate lost artifacts and regalia. Mike lives with his family in Cordova.
A statement from the dedication of the Exxon Ridicule Pole