Reservations We Choose to Live Inside


This essay is inspired by the title of the book, “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside” by Doris Lessing, I read some years ago. I have to confess I did not read the whole book, but I did not really have to, the title alone is the inspiration.

Since the beginning of contact, Europeans and later Americans began to move into our lands and sought ways to manage and control the indigenous peoples. This management has taken the form of treaties, removal, and reservations. Tribal peoples learned to live within a number of reservations, many of them imposed upon us and many we have chosen to accept as part of our culture.

Oregon Territory

By the time the Oregon territory was established, the American knew that they did not want to live next to Indians, and in many ways sought the ultimate extermination of our people. Volunteer militias were formed to protect American settlements and retribution was enacted on our people by these militias. Very slight offenses caused exterminating acts; For a theft of a cow may come the extermination of a whole village by the volunteers. The tribes in southern Oregon were fighting for their very existence, and when the U.S. Army arrived, it was acknowledged by General Wool that it was the Americans who were at fault.


At the same time, the United States sought the removal of all the native people to reservations. The objective was to make all of the best land available to the Americans, and to remove the Indians to the land that was not wanted. Treaties were negotiated with the tribes. the tribes knew that they could not stem the tide of settlement that they had given away their land and their numbers were decreasing. Most tribes wanted to live in peace and so chose to sign the treaties so that their people would survive. Some 27 tribes were removed to Grand Ronde, and about 25 to the Coast Reservation. Some people have suggested that the tribes were forced onto the reservation. In the larger picture this is true because the alternative was that if they remained near the settlers they would have been killed in a series of raids. The tribes instead accepted the reservation because of assurances that there would be some measure of safety. Some tribes, like the Kalapuyans, were allowed to visit the reserve a month before removal. Joel Palmer, the Indian Superintendent of Oregon, wanted their agreement to remove their people. So there was some choice for removal, but in the end it was only way to get away from the volunteer militias who wanted nothing more than complete extermination of the tribes.

The Reservation

Once on the reservation, the tribal people had to integrate together, learn agriculture, build their own houses, send their children to American schools, and accept imprisonment on the reservation. The people could not leave the reservation without a pass. Children were forcefully taken from their homes to attend boarding schools. American culture was forced onto the children, including clothing styles, language, culture, and working habits. The people on the reservation had to accept whatever food they were given from the Indian agents. The agents were in charge of the money from the federal government, and much was stolen by individual agents. There was constant poverty and starvation on the reservation. people were made to live on what they could find in the forest. This was not so bad during the early reservation, but later people had already changed their culture, and older people and those who could not hunt or fish, would starve without regular handouts.


Disease was at epidemic levels on the reservation. Some 90-95% of the people had died from diseases before the reservation. In the first ten years a large percentage of the original people died. Later on the reservation, each monthly sanitation (health) report had a long list of ailments. People were writing in letters that the medicines on the reservation were old and would not work; so people were forced to gather together what money they could and ask for a pass to travel to Salem to buy medicines. The population at Grand Ronde in 1900 was some 400 individuals from the original population of 1200 in 1857.

Dawes Act

In 1887 began the Dawes Act, a process of giving Indian allotments on the reservations. The Dawes act required that the allotted have 1/2 Indian blood quantum to gain an allotment of 260 acres for a man. Men, women and children all got allotments. The children’s was usually about 60 acres. Through this process the government hoped to instill individualist thinking in the Indians, and they would no longer live on communal lands. In addition, the ultimate goal, since the beginnings of Indian management was elimination of tribes. The reservations cost the federal government money and the elimination of treaty responsibilities would fulfill that goal. The Dawes Act would not allow allotments for people who had less that 1/2 Indian blood, and so they would effectively be non-Indians. They were forced to leave the reservation to find temporary work and the means of survival. The Dawes Act did what boarding schools could not, begin the elimination of Indian people as in each generation, there are a certain number who marry no tribal people,  and so there would be less people who could claim 1/2 Indian blood. This provision, by the way, is not a part of our treaties. Nowhere in the treaties does it state that all members of the confederation have to maintain 1/2 Indian blood or better to maintain their rights. Treaties do not have an end date, they are to persist forever and they promise a reservation forever for the tribes and people that ceded some 14 million acres to the federal government. After all allotments were given out on the reservation, a little less than half of the original 60,000+ reservation was sold to the public as surplus.

Annual Census

The confederated tribes were subject to heavy management by the Indian agent. The annual censuses were conducted by the agents until 1936 when the Business Committee for the tribe took over the duties after enacting the tribal constitution. In about 1910, the Indian agent began removing people from the annual census, those who no longer lived ion the reservation. This appears to be a policy that they adopted as there was no rule or law passed to allow this to take place. There were less than 100 people enrolled on the tribal census from ~1910-1914 because of the subtractions. Then the agent was ordered to add the people back on to the census in later years. How many errors were made during this time we may never know.


In this time period, from ~1909-1918 there were a series of heir-ship investigations. Special agents took testimony to determine who would have a right to inherit the allotments of the allotted people who had passed between allotment and the present. After determining this, the lands were sold and the proceeds were divided among the descendants. In this manner thousands of acres passed from tribal hands.


It was not until 1924 that the American Indian Citizenship Act was passed. But even after the act was signed, Indians in Oregon could not marry whites under Oregon Law, or buy alcohol. Many Indians nationwide, even after they served in the military, could not get Social Security, auto insurance, or welfare payments even though they were full Americans under the law. Indian people in many areas were subject to extreme racism, with Indians in northern California forced to go to the back door of restaurants, to order at the back window, to eat outside, and the women to wear head-coverings. Indian people lived a shorter life span than any other ethnic group, and they still do today in all measurements.


In 1935-1936 the tribe accepted a constitution and changed their government to gain some self sufficiency. They adopted an elected Business Committee who administered the tribe. Then in 1940s word of liquidation came to the tribe. They began to prepare for liquidation/Termination. In 1954 after years of meeting and promises by the Indian agents that life would be better after termination, and they would gain they lands, the tribes of western Oregon were terminated. In 1956 the final termination was signed and we lost all rights under the treaties. The termination bill was signed without the tribe’s agreement, and the agent in Portland presenting our original agreements for the “Early termination” bill with the 2nd termination bill. The 2nd bill was never agreed on by the tribe before termination yet was still enacted despite conditions set by Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the tribes had to agree. Most of the tribal lands were sold and each person at Grand Ronde received $35 for their share in the reservation.

Loss of Rights at Restoration

In the 1970s and 80s when the tribe was working towards restoration there was a lot of discrimination in their treatment by area politicians. The politicians would not allow the restoration bills to be introduced without the tribe agreeing to terminate hunting and fishing rights. Both the Siletz (1977) and Grand Ronde (1983) bills included this stipulation. Sports fishermen organizations stated that the tribes, when they were restored, would “destroy fishing in Oregon.” So these terminations were added to the bill. Then Grand Ronde had to address fears by the timber industry that the restoration of the tribe would “destroy logging in Oregon.” Grand Ronde met with the logging outfits in the Grand Ronde School and effectively addressed their fears. But when the Reservation bill was introduced (1988) the tribe had to agree that the BIA would manage timber sales for 20 years and the tribe could not sell timber internationally. Its clear today that over 30 years later neither of these industries were destroyed.

Inculcation (Post Colonial)

This is a summary of the worst of Indian management of the tribes in Oregon. These situations exist for many tribes across the United States. Today, the tribes have inculcated a number of cultural and political realities to survive.  Introduced notions of Indian management and elimination like blood quantum are part of the “reservations” that many people accept for their tribe and reservation. Its hard to think of tribal membership and citizenship without thinking about blood quantum. But it remains a quasi-scientific theory of Indian purity that has no basis in tribal traditional culture. Tribes normally would expect people from their tribe to marry outside of the tribe. This was the cultural way with the vast majority of tribes in the region.  Therefore all tribal people by definition were mixed blooded, there were very few who were pure of any one tribe. When white people arrived it was seen as desirable to arrange to marry your sisters and daughters to these men. Such marriages would be arranged by the chiefs, and then if the offspring desired they may join the tribe as members. There was not the discrimination we have today over blood quantum, and tribes who have adopted that as one standard for membership are the only nations on earth that require some blood-quantum affiliation. The notion of blood quantum is a way for self-termination for tribes. Tribal people accept blood quantum because its a safe place for knowing who is tribal and who is not. Its a safe political position because the people that believe in blood quantum today outnumber those who do not. But it is a reservation, a federally imposed prison where our people were removed.  We are the descendants of the original people who chose to sign the treaties so that their people would survive and continue forever.


People have noted that the reservation is the homeland of the tribes. The reservation in its initial iteration was a haven for the tribes, because otherwise we would be extinct. Our true homelands are the valleys of western Oregon. The Kalapuyas come from the Willamette and Umpqua valleys, The “Rogue River ” tribes, actually Athapaskan, Takelma and Shasta tribes,  are from the Rogue and Illinois river valleys and mountain ranges of Southern Oregon, the upper Umpqua are from the Umpqua valley, the Molalla are from the Cascade Range, with three tribes separated as North Santiam and Southern Molalla, the Chinookan peoples are from the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Finally the Tillamook tribes are late arrivals but are from the northern Oregon coast. We have chosen to live with the notion that the reservation is our homeland because that is the only place that was allowed for us for 150 years. For several generations the reservation is home and we all look to the reservation as a special place to the people of Grand Ronde, but it is not our only homelands. I am a descendant of five tribes (that I know), Santiam, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla and Yoncalla, and the homelands of those people  are my homelands.

Termination itself is a prison. Its hard to get away from the notion that someday the federal government might terminate us again. We spend a lot of attention on this and we are very fearful that it may occur again. So much of our strategy is to make enough money so that we can defend ourselves in the future.

27 tribes / 7 treaties

Some people in the tribe believe that we were only originally five tribes. This notion eliminates the very deep and complex history of the tribes, where at least 27 tribes came to the reservation. This is a fact, because if one were to write down the tribal names on all 7 of the ratified treaties you would get very close to this number. The remaining tribal names are consolidated within the last remaining tribes that confederated together just before treaties to defend themselves from settler and other tribal encroachments.

Trans-Generational Stress Disorders?

The tribe has a number of ailments that are unique to the membership. I think some studies have been conducted. But I am sure there is quite a bit of PTSD related to termination. In fact, a colleague of mine from Klamath has researched another disorder, a form of PTSD that crossed generation of tribal membership. Trans-Generational Traumatic Disorder may infect a good number of members. With this disorder we may be experiencing trauma that is passed on to each  new generation of trauma that relates to the time of genocide, epidemics, and removal to the reservation. So many of our “reservations” relate to federal management practices in the early period and we may be seeing psychological signs of these traumatic events in our population today.


There is much more to be said of other “reservations” in culture, our languages, our rights under treaties, the tribal finances etc. We have accepted the reservation as the homeland of the people, we have accepted alien/foreign concepts of membership that will eventually reduce the tribe, we have learned to live with federal government management in case they want to terminate us again. When do we begin to address these colonizing concepts and begin finding who we really are as tribal people of western Oregon? When do we reject the colonial management and begin a process of de-colonization and reverse a century and a half of cultural destruction? And in the end when will we demand acknowledgement of what the United States has done to us over the last two centuries.


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