Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Bend’s High Desert Museum dives into the Indigenous view of Sasquatch in new exhibit

Five artists interpret the legendary creature in sculpture, paintings, film, and multi-media work in a show that goes beyond the popular-culture image of Bigfoot.

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"Shapeshifter" by Rocky LaRock (Salish). Photo by Carolyn Lamberson
“Shapeshifter,” a mask by Rocky LaRock (Salish), evokes a huge being emerging from a dark forest. Photo by Carolyn Lamberson

We’ve all seen the grainy, iconic footage. Shot in 1967, it depicts a large ape-like creature walking through a Northern California forest.

The authenticity of that film clip remains up for debate. What isn’t debatable among Indigenous tribes is the existence of such a creature. To English speakers, it is called Sasquatch or Bigfoot. In Chinook, it is Skúkum. Among the Molala people, it is Lipáani, while it is called Kwiiykwiyáy in the language of the Upper Cowlitz.

This Indigenous perspective on Sasquatch is the subject of an exhibit at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Sensing Sasquatch, on view through Jan. 12, 2025, features multimedia works by five Indigenous artists.

The stories of this being have been passed down among Native communities for generations. Artist Phillip Cash Cash, who has two works in Sensing Sasquatch, heard the stories from his grandparents during his childhood in Pendleton.

“My grandparents helped raise me, and they spoke a lot about all of these different kinds of beings that existed in the landscape, and Sasquatch being one of them,” said Cash Cash, who is enrolled Cayuse and Nez Perce on his mother’s side. “The community has its own way of speaking about this particular being, and it’s not like they go out into the public and world and tell all about it. It’s not like that. It’s kind of kept close-knit — community, communication, stories circulating. But that’s about as far as they go, because it’s like respecting the individual’s privacy and their experience.”

In the notes accompanying her large-scale sculpture The Protector, artist HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Littlebull (Yakama, Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Cree) describes herself as a Bigfoot protector who destroys “evidence or any trace they leave behind. I will erase footprints or burn hair; whatever I must do so others cannot hunt them.”

The show opens with a bit of whimsy. Greeting visitors at the exhibit entrance is the back end of a Subaru Outback, and patrons are invited to festoon it with their own Bigfoot stickers, a nod to the creature’s staying power in popular culture.

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"Around Us Watching" by Charlene "Tillie" Moody (Warm Springs). Photo by Carolyn Lamberson
“Around Us Watching,” multi-media by Charlene “Tillie” Moody (Warm Springs). Photo by Carolyn Lamberson

When museum officials first thought about creating an exhibit centered on Bigfoot, they all assumed the popular-culture aspect of the creature would be a major focal point, said museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw. Their perspective changed after conversations with some of the museum’s Indigenous consultants.

“As we heard stories from our Indigenous advisers and partners, it became very clear that that scope of knowledge was what we needed to have in the gallery,” she said. “It was so transformative for us to think differently, and oftentimes that’s where the ideas for our exhibits really coalesce, as if we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never thought of it that way,’ then we want to create that for visitors.”

Upon entry to the exhibit, visitors are greeted with a language map, which features the different words for Sasquatch among Indigenous tribes, from the Modoc of Southern Oregon and California to the coastal tribes and inland to the Northern Paiute, Nez Perce, and Colville-Okanagan peoples.

Salish artist Rocky LaRock’s striking Shapeshifter mask is mounted high on a wall and bathed in spotlight, evoking the image of a huge being emerging from the dark forest. Nez Perce and Onondaga artist Frank Buffalo Hyde’s mixed-media piece Enigma features a fur-covered arm and leg affixed to a wall – and a surprise for those with patience to keep watching.

The first of Cash Cash’s two pieces in the exhibit is a film, Sasquatch Running. Filmed on Mount Lemmon in Tucson, Ariz., and at China Hat near Newberry Crater southeast of Bend, the film offers a Sasquatch’s point of view of running through desert scrubland and rolling foothills. Cash Cash’s Sasquatch Rattle No. 1 follows. It includes a human-sized ceremonial rattle made of wood and deer antlers, paired with an enormous rattle featuring moose and elk antlers. The audio track playing in the space is a recording of the large rattle in use.

"Sasquatch Rattle No. 1" by Phillip Cash Cash (Cayuse, Nez Perce). Photo by Carolyn Lamberson
“Sasquatch Rattle No. 1,” by Phillip Cash Cash (Cayuse, Nez Perce). Photo by Carolyn Lamberson

In the center of the room is a hulking, faceless The Protector, created by Littlebull. The fur-covered work is perched on a platform, giving the being even more height. As viewers near the end of the exhibit, they are greeted by Around Us Watching, a multimedia piece created by Warm Springs artist Charlene “Tillie” Moody. One side features a Sasquatch shape covered in smoked buffalo hide. The other side is painted and depicts, according to the artist statement, a merging of traditional art, such as rock painting and basket weaving, with more contemporary styles. The effect is both whimsical and a little frightening, with the Sasquatch’s red eyes looking down on a bucolic scene of humans camping in the forest surrounded by blue jays and raccoons.

The show contradicts the popular image of Sasquatch, one created from movies such as Harry and the Hendersons, or used to sell everything from real estate to men’s grooming products. Sasquatch is not a monster to be feared.

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“When people do have an experience or an encounter [with Sasquatch], it’s very life-affirming, very transformative, and it affects people very deeply,” Cash Cash said. “One of the ideas that I think is really important with the exhibit is that it will help sort of challenge people’s ideas about the world and help them to rethink their views and consider the possibility of this non-human other that exists out there.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Carolyn Lamberson is a longtime Pacific Northwest newspaper journalist who has worked at daily newspapers in Eugene, Roseburg, Bend, Vancouver, and Spokane. A former features editor for The Spokesman-Review, she covered music, visual arts, literary arts, and theater in the Inland Northwest. While there, she created and curated the newspaper’s annual short fiction series, Summer Stories, which in its 10-year run featured works by authors such as Jess Walter, Jamie Ford, Sharma Shields, Tiffany Midge, and Shawn Vestal. She now lives with her family in Central Oregon, where in her spare time she enjoys sitting along the banks of the Deschutes River and knitting.

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One Response

  1. I love this. The indigenous “interpretation” and/or experience of what has come to be called the “paranormal” is a fascinating topic and deserves our attention.

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