In 1856, after a decade of pitched battles and skirmishes in southern Oregon and along the Columbia River, General Joel Palmer began removing the tribes of western Oregon to a permanent reservation called the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. That removal was the end of the world, and the beginning of another world for the tribes. This new world was full of enemy tribes, 27 or more in all, and everyone had to learn to share significantly less resources.
The tribes were from very different environments. SW Oregon is fairly high and arid in some areas. Very hot summers and more hunting and gathering than fishing. The Grand Ronde valley can be hot in the summer but its much more temperate and much closer to the coast and subject to coastal temperature changes. Then for the tribes they had left their resource areas, places they had know for many thousands of generations. They had developed technologies and knowledge of the landscape, they knew when certain plants were ready for harvesting by reading the land and following the seasons. This was their traditional ecological knowledge. This all changed.
The reservation was a bounded 60,000 acres next to the coast range. There was a flat valley floor and many tribal people began working in agriculture and ranching, but the valley proved to have thin clay soils and was not good for subsistence agriculture. So many people went hungry subsisting on the few allocations of beef and flour they could get from the government and what they could forage from the forest. They were not allowed to have weapons and so could not hunt. Many people grew hungry and ill from their dietary changes and forced living situations. They could not escape into the valley during the winter like they usually did and had to learn to live through the harsh winter in a coastal range climate.
There was extreme poverty, hunger, and over half of the population died of illnesses and trauma by 1900. From the original 1200 people at the reservation in 1857 there were about 400 remaining in 1900.
In 1887, the Federal government hatched a plan to give every tribal individual a piece of property and sell the rest to white settlers. This was the Dawes Act which inculcated the notion of blood quantum into our societies. In this one act the collective tribes of the United States lost millions of acres of land, about 29,000 at Grand Ronde alone. In addition, there was instituted a “virus” of blood quantum philosophy which continues to work its way through tribal societies eliminating tribal descendants. This combined with the notion that we had to have individual land ownership and were not part of a collective sharing of the land, further caused degradation of our tribal society. As a collective with community rights, tribes have a better ability to withstand the various pressures to sell parts of the reservations, but after 20 years of having allotments, when the individuals got their fee-simple titles to their allotments, they began selling off their properties piecemeal. By 1935 we had about 400 acres remaining of the original 60,000 acre reservation.
The government stepped in and instituted a series of rehabilitation programs, and these programs included Indian Conservation Corps, Cannery development, buying back land for allotments, building houses, building the governance hall, 4H programs to help children learn to raise animals, and some other assistance in agriculture for land owners. There is a film about the program Rebuilding Indian Country. Pay close attention to the sections on canneries and fishing in the Columbia, and cattle ranching, those are the Oregon Tribal industries that were instituted.
One hundred years after the reservation was formed, the federal government terminated the western Oregon tribes in 1954. The tribes at Grand Ronde lost all federal services and were forced to sell their allotments and the majority had to move away to Salem or Portland where they could find work. They received $35.00 each, for their share of the remaining portion of the lands and resources of the reservation.
That was another end to the world and the beginning of another world; the final act in the agenda of the United States to colonize all Indian lands in western Oregon. The new world the tribes endured was fraught with poverty, abuses and illness, as most people could not afford to live anywhere but the poorest areas of town. Indians in the 1950s and ’60s were subject to racism and discrimination just like other ethnic minorities.
In 1983, after a decade of hard work the tribe was restored and we underwent a rebirth. The tribe continues to work to restore itself in many ways, this too could be considered the end of one world and the beginning of another world. This began the reversal of the attempt of the government to eliminate the tribes forever and a new beginning of self-governance for the tribe.
This cycle is an agenda of colonization, and gradual takeover of the rights and resources of the worlds’ indigenous peoples. Every half century or so another event happens to take resources from the people and give it to the colonizers. The next event like this for indigenous peoples will likely be sometime around 2020. At that time we will be seen as not needing further federal aid and efforts will begin to eliminate that aid, and our protected status. They will come after our “special” rights to land, to fishing and hunting, to take away the protection of dependent sovereignty within the United States.
Indigenous people are used to their worlds’ ending, and beginning anew, this is why we were not surprised nor shocked when the recent economic decline occurred in 2008, and much of the wealth of the country was taken over by banks. The tribes are survivors and adapters. through our very long history on this land, a history that predates that of Europe, and most of western civilization, we have lived and adapted to all manner of changes. Still the ability to adapt does not make the situation any better, nor excuse those who work to eliminate us.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.