There is really only one project. Sometimes it seems like there are many projects, but really there is only one. Over the past 10-15 years I have worked to bring greater understanding of the tribes of Oregon to the public, to students, elders, communities, schools, university classes, to cities and counties and organizations. This all seems so insurmountable, a huge undertaking, but it really is only one project.
Some years ago was traveling in the Pacific. I had entered into graduate studies and begun my term abroad. I got caught up in an indigenous journey to New Zealand and Australia. This journey was led by teacher and adviser, Robert Proudfoot, a professor in the International Studies program at the University of Oregon. During this trip, in winter of 1998, we visited Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. We met indigenous educators and leaders. We met with New Zealand’s educational leaders, and attended their cultural festival in Wellington. While there I saw something odd about their public spaces, they had native art everywhere. Their streets were named with native words, their cities had native names, there were many people from many indigenous nations in the city streets, and many wore their own traditional clothing (including sandals with suits). There was Native graffiti on walls and construction projects. Everything seemed so much more right, with the Maori having a voice and presence in their society and in public places.
Then when visiting their polytechs, their community colleges, the Maori were turning them into Maori educational centers. They were teaching their language, arts and sovereignty. Every school had a Marae, a Maori longhouse, attached. The language classes were in a language nesting model, a method developed in New Zealand, which has set the world standard for relearning indigenous languages. The classrooms were filled with little post-it notes, they had created names for everything in their environment.
It helped that the Maori had won a huge court battle for half the resources of this commonwealth country in the 1980s. Their treaty, yes only one for all of the tribes, had guaranteed this, and they finally won the rights to the resources. So their society is now developing to include the Maori culture as part of the foundation of New Zealand. It also helped that they were one sixth of the population of the country. This is as it should be.
Returning to the United States, To Eugene, was then something of a disappointment. There is almost no native presence in our society. There are a few names, and a few pieces of art, but the world of Oregon has been washed of native presence, and replaced with that of the pioneers. For many tribes, their very existence in history has been cleansed, invisible, disappeared.
Having a renewed purpose, I entered the Anthropology program for graduate studies at UO. I then spent the next decade completing my graduate degrees. But the purpose now is to renew the native presence, to make visible what was invisible, to correct the histories and public perceptions of who we are as native people of this land. During this time I learned to give presentations, how to coordinate with other people, how to undertake projects and get results, and how to tread carefully and lightly to accomplish a goal.
As a cultural director at the tribe for five years, I sponsored many efforts to increase our depth of historical knowledge. I worked with every organization who asked to give presentations about our history. I gave freely of our history so that people would come to trust us and depend on us for information about the tribes. I began working on committees and representing the tribe in testimonies before the state. These efforts did not come without criticism. People would ask why we did this, and would say we are giving too much away, but I stayed the course in order to inspire a greater sense of community between the tribe and the larger surrounding communities. This was, after all how the tribe got restored in 1983, with broad support from the surrounding community and other tribes.
I saw the understanding and trust grow. In five short years, we went from being an upstart outsider tribe in Portland to a trusted partner to the inner community. Organizations and communities now trust us, we are the go-to organization to turn to for information about the tribe. I also saw these actions I took, over complaints by many, become the policy at the tribe. I then saw people forget where this all began, where everything was eight years ago, and how far we had come, and how much better it was. People could not see the trees for the leaves.
Only recently was I reminded of how well the foundation of our culture was set during the past eight years. A scholar visited with me, and showed me a presentation he had created. The presentation stated “Who are the people of the Willamette valley?” “Kalapuya” Confederated Tribes….”. . I asked, “Where did you learn these things because it is not common knowledge. In my experience in teaching for the last 10 years, maybe one percent of people know these facts.” He said, he took his kids to see the Tribal Walk of Flags at the state capital, then saw interpretive signs in parks, and also read about the new Kalapuya Elementary in Salem.
This to me was amazing, I had worked on all of these projects. I even proposed the original inspiration for the Tribal Walk of Flags – that the tribes needed a monument at the state capital to represent their sovereign relationship with the state. (The project was so successful, it was copied by the UO, my 3X alma mater.) This was exactly the project, the only project. To educate the public about the tribes and to bring their presence back into regular common knowledge. it was almost like coyote in the old stories, the coyote who taught with trickery, indirectly, artistically, and effectively.
I am now sure that everything I accomplished was exactly on point. I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I created a framework of public education that would inform people of our history, and then inspire them to research more deeply, which is what this scholar was doing by questioning me.
I feel I accomplished one of the primary goals the tribe had set so many years ago following restoration, to ingratiate ourselves so much within the Oregon community that termination would never again be a reality. I accomplished my part of the Project, the only Project.
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.