Tribal Oral Histories Are History

When the western Oregon tribes were terminated, the federal government reported that we had agreed to be terminated. This story is pervasive throughout the region with tribes, Oregonians and history books all professing the willingness of the western Oregon tribes to be terminated. This story affected people’s identities, where members of terminated tribes were not allowed to participate in reservation activities, as many non-terminated tribes assumed that the terminated tribes willingly agreed to stop being Indian. In fact terminated tribal people moved into cities and became “urban Indians”, a term many attributed in a negative way to be a racism pejorative.

Years later elders at the tribes began telling their own versions of what happened. Many stated that “they never heard that termination was happening” or “they never voted for termination” or ‘we were never told when the hearings were to be”.  Essentially, the tribes did not elect to be terminated.

United States Capitol Building 2014
United States Capitol Building 2014

This story then is a conundrum, which is the truth? It turns out that the tribal members were telling the truth. The Indian agent in Portland falsified agreements by the tribes, and reported to his superiors that the tribes agreed, which is not at all what they had done in the months preceding the termination vote by Congress.

Then in the agency’s own correspondence, they admitted the tribes did not agree.

It turns out that the tribal stories of what occurred were more accurate than the published history of termination. Many written histories are altered by politicians and rulers to fit their own version of reality. But many oral historians are taught from early age to recall the stories as exactly as possible. While it’s not possible over thousands of years not to have changed, the stories in many ways are seen to be more accurate.

Oral histories historically are not considered a reliable source of tribal history by historians and other scholars. Anthropologists and linguists in particular collected Oral histories as part of their salvage anthropology, a way to preserve a part of the culture of tribes in case they should die. The collections were made first to save the philosophy and culture of the tribes for further research. There were few attempts by scholars to save the tribes.  The research did happen but mainly on the language structure of each tribe. Few studies tried to understand the stories as history lessons. They were instead relegated to the status of fictional tales, morality tales, or lessons about life. As such very few oral histories were studied as perhaps containing valuable information about our world.

In recent decades, this situation has begun changing. Now histories told by the tribes in the 19th century are being analyzed for historical content. We simply need to understand how to read the story. It takes someone with a native perspective to begin to understand what the stories are about. this may seem to be an unreasonable argument but for over 100 years most of these stories were not seen as legitimate – as mythological folklore by the very scientists tasked with analyzing them. So a native perspective is very valuable to understanding the symbols and metaphors that may exist in the stories.

The incidences of a catastrophic fire in our communities and climate change have made the administrative agencies look for answers. One answer to extreme fires is in the ways that native peoples managed their lands. They set fires annually to control the excess vegetation and help it regrow in the next season. These lessons were discounted for years, generations of native people, but they hold philosophies of our world which are answers to how to effectively manage our environment. And, as we know many tribes lived through climate change, the ice age of a little more than 10,000 years ago, their stories may hold clues as to how we may survive climate change.

De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground
De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground

We are also now looking for the historical truth in oral histories that were previously dismissed. In Oregon, we have stories of how mountains would fight, usually over some maiden. Common are stories about Mt. Shasta and Mt. Mazama, or Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. In the Shasta and Mazama stories, the description is so vivid that it is apparent that native people were present at the event.

Eruption of Mt St Helens, Paul Kane 1840s.

The story describes how the cone of Mazama, the top of the mountain, collapsed down into the mountain during a volcanic event involving both Shasta and Mazama – what appeared to be a literal fight – creating what we today know as Crater lake – with Shasta being the winner. People, ancestors of the Klamath tribe were there at the event – around 7000 YBP – witnessed the ‘fight’ and reliably passed down the story to the present day.  With Hood and St. Helens, there is described a fight over a maiden – likely a huge volcanic event involving both mountains – which resulted in the collapse of the Bridge of the Gods, a natural rock bridge over the Columbia.

Public art, representation of Bridge of the Gods
Public art, representation of Bridge of the Gods

Finally, for the Tolowa people on the Oregon and California coast- they have a story of a tsunami, a flood event. Their story discusses how some people escaped to the top of Mt. Emily (Oregon)- they call En-Mi – to survive the flood. All of the other people died, and three survivors had to begin anew.

Tolowa Tribal people and their plankhouse c. 1900
Tolowa Tribal people and their plank house c. 1900

It turns out that tsunami stories are common for tribes on the coast. The Coos have stories of Inland whales and how mountain tops would float on waves to another location. This seems important and interesting puzzles. If a whale is found inland, it is perhaps conveyed there by high waters. If a mountaintop floats, then perhaps a metaphor for the people being forced to move, or large landforms being moved by the tsunami? Understanding the symbolism of the people of the past is an interesting research project.

Now with these new understandings, a whole range of research is available to us. Areas of geo-mythology can reveal that native people were watching volcanic events seven thousand and more years ago.  We need to look for stories of how geological events influenced tribal stories in the next stories we read.

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