Southwest Oregon Research Projects &
The Archival Collection
In 1995, I attended an event that would impact me for many years. The event was a potlatch held by the Coquille tribe and the University of Oregon. There was given away copies of some 50,000 pages of information collected from the Smithsonian Institution to the Tribes of Oregon. It was amazing to see all of these national figures in anthropology and the university and local tribes attend and receive their gifts. I did not known much about the project then, nor did I view the collection. It wasn’t until 1997 when I became involved as a researcher in the second SWORP project, that I became intensely interested in the collection, the information it contained, and its potential to help the tribes in Oregon.
The Southwest Oregon Research Project or SWORP began as a Project to help the Coquille Tribe collect the paper proof of their existence. They, along with some 60 tribes in Oregon had been terminated in 1954, and all of the tribes were fighting back for their people, and cultures, that had been degraded by over 100 years of colonization. After termination, the tribal people did not have any special rights to practice their cultures, and most of the languages and traditions were heavily impacted or disappeared. The promises of the treaties, to give permanent reservations to the tribes in exchange for all for the lands of Oregon, turned out to be a lie. When the politics changed, the tactics of the federal government changed several times during 100 years (1856-1956); from extermination, to treaty and removal (1853-1870s), to assimilation through religion and education (begin 1853), to individualism and the Dawes Act (1887), to self determination (1930s), and then to liquidation or termination (1954).
The tribes were heavily impacted, and they found themselves in the 1970s without a land-base, rights, or resources to keep their cultures alive. Tribes began organizing to become restored. Federal reports and state statistics showed everyone that the great experiment of termination had been a failure and Native people were the least apt to finish high school, go on to college, earn a living wage, survive past 45 years, and had horrible social problems (poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of employment). In short the fears of the late 19th century that Indians would disappear, appeared to be happening at a rapid pace, due to government neglect, systemic racism, and complete disempowerment.
To become restored, tribes had to prove to politicians and to Federal agencies that they continued to exist as an active government and had an intact culture. These happened to be the very things that the Federal government had been trying to eradicate in tribes for 120 years. One Oregon native George Wasson Jr. (Coquille) had some experience in Washington, D.C. and knew something about the ethnographic records in the Smithsonian Institution. In the 1990s, George began organizing with anthropologists at the University of Oregon to collect back the ethnographic records gathered from Oregon natives in the 19th and 20th centuries by a multitude of researchers.
The project as envisioned would bring copies of original ethnographic documents back to Oregon and make them available to local Tribes and researchers. The original off-hand assessment from the SI was that there was not many records there from Oregon so the SI offered to pay for all copies. That first project netted some 50,000 pages from the tribe of Southwestern Oregon, including maps, microfilm and photographs. The collection was brought back to the University of Oregon and stored in Special Collections of the Knight Library.
The timeline for the projects was thus;
1995: George Wasson (Coquille/Anthropology-UO) initiates SWORP field research in Washington, D.C. at National Anthropological Archives and National Archives
1997: SWORP collection is given by Potlatch to five western Oregon Tribes; Grand Ronde, Siletz, Cow Creek, Coos Lower Umpqua Siuslaw, and Coquille; and two Northern California Tribes; Smith River and Elk Valley.
1998: Mark Tveskov (Anthropology-UO) and Jason Younker (Coquille/Anthropology-UO) coordinate SWORP II field research in Washington, D.C. at the National Anthropological Archives, National Archives and National Archives, College Park.
1999-2001: SWORP I & II collections reorganization is completed by David Lewis (Grand Ronde/Anthropology-UO) and Inventory to the SWORP Archival Collection is published.
June 9, 2001: Coquille Tribe and University of Oregon initiate the 2nd Potlatch, giving 17 greater Oregon Tribes copies of SWORP manuscripts and 44 Tribes copies of the Inventory.
2006: SWORP III Initiated by and a led by David Lewis.
2009: SWORP III organized and 2 copies made
2013: Oregon Tribal Archives Institute (not part of the project yet related)
Supporters of the 3 projects were these organizations and institutions;
- Coquille Indian Tribe
- Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde
- Special Collections, Knight Library, UO
- Department of Anthropology, UO
- Museum of Natural and Cultural History, UO
- Graduate School, UO
- Smithsonian Institution
- National Anthropological Archives
- National Archives Records Administration
Advisors to the Project have been,
- Dr. Joallyn Archambault (SI, Natural History)
- Dr. Jon Erlandson (Director of UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History)
- Gina Rappaport (SI, National Anthropological Archives)
George Wasson had conceived of the project to create the paper proof of the tribe’s existence, but also to fill a notable void. He called this void the Cultural Black Hole. The void was a large area of cultural information, languages, that are integral to all tribal cultures, that appeared to be missing. Oregon society and education did not address tribal cultures of western Oregon. Tribal histories were non-existent, and Tribal people were like “Invisible men and women” in Oregon. In the 1980s, it appeared that culturally many Oregon Tribes had ceased to exist. George’s hope was that when the project returned the volumes of ethnographic documents to Oregon that they would be used to help the tribes restore, revive, and preserve their cultural traditions. That is what the collection did.
The collection as given to at least 17 tribes in 2 potlatches. Many of the tribes did not have the resources to manage archival collections. So tribes began working in this direction. The model of SWORP resonated with many and it inspired the Umatilla tribe to begin a large archival project, now a part of their Tamaskiliskt Museum. Grand Ronde got serious with its archival collections and started to scan their collection. Smith River Rancheria had a project at Humboldt State to scan their portion of the collection, and all their tribal government records. Then, UO Special Collections hosted a project to make the SWORP finding aid one of the first available on the Archives West website. Many of the researchers who had been part of SWORP went on to contribute greatly to their Tribes, especially in the cultural programs. In 2013, Oregon State University Library sponsored an Oregon Tribal Archives Institute to train archivists from all area tribes in archival procedures.
In the summer of 1999, David Lewis began an inventory of the collection. That year the SWORP 2 collection was turned over to the UO. The collections (SWORP I & SWORP II) existed as separate collections and were difficult to access, to find documents, and basically unknown to researchers. After the Fall term spent inventorying the collection in some spare time, a report was handed over to Jon Erlandson the project advisor at UO. Erlandson began looking for money to fund an archival organization project. From that effort, and subsequent efforts by Jon, with support from the Knight Library and the Graduate School, Lewis was able to gain funding for some seven years to organize the collection, make copies of it for the 2nd potlatch, and represent the collection. The whole of 2000 was spend organizing the collection, and creating a publishable finding aid. Special Collections at UO trained Lewis in archival techniques and the original two collections were married to become one concentric collection. The next year was spend making 17 copies of the collection to be given away at the 2001 potlatch. This project was not completed until 2002, organized and arranged by Lewis.
The third project changed tactics a bit. The project expanded the scope from only western Oregon to include all of eastern Oregon. The Klamath records were earmarked for copies as, they had undergone termination at the same time as the western Oregon tribes. In addition, there are spectacular Klamath collections at the UO libraries, that would parallel the ethnographic documents at the SI.
As well, for the correspondence series at the National Archives Records Administration, the team noted that the original letter indexes, created by the National Archives missed many letters during the year. The strategy was altered to ignore the indexes and cull through the letters of one year individually. In this new method, the team found 7x the letters for Oregon than we found by using the microfilm index. The SWORP III collection is not at the UO and two physical copies exist, at Grand Ronde and at the Coquille Tribe.
The Project was also subsequently written about in the Journal of Western Archives, Special Issue on Tribal Archives. And was well reviewed in this article, Anthropology in and of Museums—Class Review Journal of Western Archives Special Issue on Native American Archives (2015).
The SWORP basics (as of 2013).
- Three projects 1995, 1998, 2006
- Two Potlatches 1997, 2001
- 17 tribes received copies of documents
- All Oregon tribes received full collections
- ~150,000 pages of documents recovered
- Main archive is at the University of Oregon
- Members of 5 Oregon tribes were researchers
- 49 acid free archival boxes, 32.25 linear feet, (some adds have been reported).
- Records date from 1850s to 1950s.
- The collection covers the Tribes of southwestern Washington, western Oregon, northern California, about 44 federally recognized Tribes.
- Linguistic manuscripts contain information from 80+ Native languages from throughout the Americas.
- The collection contains a unique combination of ethnographic and government manuscripts.
- The Primary collection (most accessible) is at the University of Oregon Knight Library Special Collections and University Archives.
The project has helped a number of tribes in the region restore parts of their culture. For example, canoe engineers have learned from the collection how the local Tribes hollowed out logs by burning them out. Other tribes have benefited by having the linguistic information readily available as they work to restore languages. Still others have nothing in common with the project, but have found that the model is something they can employ when searching for information about their particular tribe. Perhaps the greatest benefits is having this information locally available to inspire more research by scholars on tribal histories and cultures. The SWORP collection continues to be the most accessed collection in the Special Collections at UO, and has been since its reorganization.
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.