The Trail of Broken Histories


The exhibit “Their Hearts are in this Land: Native Resilience In Western Oregon” at Lane County Historical Society will be up for the remainder of the year. The following is the original text for my statement for the exhibit. Dr. Deana Dartt (professor/curator) informed me on several occasions that her students in museum studies, Spring Term 2017  (UO) were greatly inspired by my writings on ndnhistoryresearch and this informed a good part of the exhibit and exhibit panels. In fact, the title of the exhibit is inspired by one of my OHS talks “Our Hearts are on this Land,” which is also an essay in my blog. The students literally created the exhibit within one term. As a former curator for Chachalu Museum at Grand Ronde, I know how hard that is, even if helped by an already written narrative. I was honored to help open the exhibit in June 2017.

That presentation  was rewritten and became the essay “Four Deaths: The Near Destruction of Western Oregon Tribes and Native Lifeways, Removal to the Reservation, and Erasure from History” (Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 115, No. 3 (Fall 2014), pp. 414-437). That original statement “Our Hearts are upon this land” was inspired by a statement by the Santiam chiefs when negotiating the 1851 Santiam treaty. The chiefs did not like the proposal to remove them to the Umatilla area and held out for days to force Anson Dart to write into their treaty a reservation in their homelands between the forks of the Santiam.

Deana edited my text in the panel, but in the process made it sounds much better for the purposes of the exhibit. The original text from “The Trail of Broken Histories” follows. That title is also my original title and is inspired by the book by Vine Deloria Jr. “The Trial of Broken Treaties” which was a seminal publication for Native Peoples in the 1970s.  The metaphorical change to “histories” fits very well.

The Trail of Broken Histories

For Native peoples, our history has not been told. For centuries Native peoples were not consulted and their oral histories were denigrated as not valid histories. Histories of Oregon, the Northwest Coast and the Tribes were for the past 150 years written primarily from a non-native perspective. Those histories written about the tribes privileged narratives of wars, treaties, the start of the reservations, and perhaps an occasional chief. Historians, for generations, appeared to have ignored the contemporary tribes, and if they did include them, wrote about them as if they were vestiges of the past.
In many instances, the journals of White American explorers served as “Native” history. For decades now in school districts of Oregon, the experiences of Lewis and Clark collected in their journals has sufficed for the fourth grade education units of Native history. In the majority of all written histories, the non-native perspective is always privileged, and there are few or no Native or minority perspectives offered. Considering this, in the 1840s, there was, for much of the decade, more Native people in Oregon than settlers, yet Native perspectives are not represented, suggesting that we are missing the majority of perspectives of what occurred in that decade. What is written in the earliest histories, are stories of the virtuous explorers and pioneers who sacrificed much to save Natives from their own savagery by taking away their lands, placing them on reservations and forcing Tribal peoples to assimilate.
What is clear from my research, is that the published histories of the tribes are completely inaccurate. I have found numerous inconsistencies in these accounts, and many of the assumptions about tribes and tribal histories made by historians are wrong. In addition, key issues in Native history, like the invasion of their lands by Americans, genocides committed upon them, lack of health care, starvations imposed on reservations, and policies of forced assimilation, are largely ignored by non-native historians.
Tribal scholars are now working to recover Tribal histories. Scholars are working to understand oral histories of 12,000 year-old cataclysmic events, and more recent events in the history of American colonization of Tribal lands captured in archival collections. And, while Tribes are now engaged in helping Oregon’s public schools to teach Native history, scholars still need to construct accurate and detailed versions of many tribal histories.
In the future, Tribal histories will include much more fine detail than ever before. Using federal archives and local heritage collections, Tribal scholars are finding that we can now track many tribes and Native people from their original village before removal to reservations, through their treaties, onto their reservations, through assimilation in boarding schools, and into the 20th century. These newly recovered histories are revealing that Native experience and agency in the United States is every bit a “Trail of Broken Treaties,” as suggested by scholar Vine Deloria Jr. in the 1970s.
David G. Lewis, PhD Santiam Kalapuya, Molalla, Yoncalla, Chinook, Takelma
Salem, Oregon May 12, 2017
Hayu Masi to Dartt’s class and Deana for honoring me and my work in this manner. I known now that my work, as unconventional as it is, is still a major contribution to the cultural studies of western Oregon tribes. This is the goal of any practicing anthropologist, and the life’s mission of many of us in the Native community.

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