2017: Chief Kno-Tah leaves his post at Shute Park
Editor's note: This story is part of the News-Times' special series, "Decade in Review." This series features three stories that helped to define each year of the 2010s. These can retell single stories that mattered to readers of the time, a saga that played out across many articles, and even stories that were crowded to the margins by other news at the time but have made a lasting impact on our region.
For some Hillsboro residents, there might be no two words that spark as strong an emotional reaction as "Chief Kno-Tah."
The carved wooden statue created by artist Peter "Wolf" Toth was an icon of Hillsboro for more than three decades. In 2015, it was a stop on a nine-month, cross-country motorcycle tour. In 2016, it featured in the Hillsboro Tribune again as residents named Shute Park, the Chief's longtime home, their second favorite in the entire city.
But beneath the surface, Chief Kno-Tah had been in trouble for years.
The Chief's plight came to light after it was damaged in a winter storm in February 2017. A falling tree knocked the statue out of alignment with its concrete base and took a chunk out of its forehead. When city work crews examined the damage, they found the statue was infested with wood-chewing carpenter ants and had been rotting on the inside for some time before the storm. City officials concluded there was a very real possibility that the next weather event could topple the statue altogether — or that it would simply collapse on its own.
"Because of the great care taken to maintain it, the Chief Kno-Tah sculpture has had a long life," said Valerie Otani, Hillsboro's public art supervisor, at the time. "But something made out of Douglas fir — sitting outside for 30 years — has a life expectancy."
Community members revolted. Longtime resident Dirk Knudsen started a Facebook page and a GoFundMe online fundraiser, both named, simply, "Save Chief Kno-Tah." City officials had to step in and ask people to stop making donations, as the statue's future hadn't been decided yet.
"It's amazing how many people care about something as innocuous as a wooden Indian head," Knudsen marveled in an interview with the News-Times days after the storm.
Toth, the Hungarian-born artist who carved Chief Kno-Tah and other "Whispering Giant" statues depicting Native American heads, got involved as well. He offered to fly to Portland from his home in Florida and repair the statue pro bono.
The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic.
"The Shute Park carving does not look like our ancestors or represent our artistic traditions," said David Harrelson, cultural arts manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Tribal authorities weren't interested in restoring Chief Kno-Tah, he said, but they would gladly work with Hillsboro officials "to find historically accurate and culturally appropriate ways to portray knowledge and accurate representations of Hillsboro's indigenous people."
In early June, city officials finally acknowledged what had become apparent: Chief Kno-Tah was doomed. Cost estimates for restoring the statue topped $50,000, and with no support from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the city wasn't inclined to pony up.
On June 15, 2017, the Chief met its final end at the hands of city work crews. Even as the rotten wooden statue was being removed, it began to disintegrate. When workers pushed it over, it fell apart completely.
While Hillsboro officials said at the time that Chief Kno-Tah would be replaced by something new — perhaps a more culturally sensitive piece of artwork honoring Native people — the statue's old place in wooded Shute Park remains empty, at least for now.
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