The Siletz placename is something of a mystery. Leo J. Frachtenberg, the ethnologist assigned to collect native languages on the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations in about 1913, in about 1914 thought the word “Siletz” to be of Athapaskan origin and suggested that the origin is in the word “Si’is/Silet” meaning Black Bear. I have looked at Frachtenberg’s paper on the word numerous times over the years and normally have stated that the word was probably not Athabaskan but instead Salish as the Siletz Indians were said to be Salish/Tillamookans. They were perhaps the most southern of the Tillamookan tribes on the Oregon Coast. So in my thinking then, that as a native word, it could not be Athapaskan in origin as most of the Athapaskan tribes were from southwestern Oregon. Only recently when teaching about this, another notion occurred to me, mainly because I have now done a lot of work to understand the forced movements of the southern Oregon peoples northward, to the area of the Coast Reservation, beginning in 1856 (see other essays this blog).
About a year ago, I encountered a U.S. Coast Geodetic Coast Survey map of the Siletz area of the coast, and on the map are listed two different names for the Siletz River. The appearance of the many unique Tillamookan-Salish names on this draft map suggests that the survey gathered information from a Tillamookan informant, perhaps even taking a Tillamookan informant onto the schooner to help name the places on the coast as they slowly traveled northward.
The first name, Siletz, is clearly more well known and is the present official name for the river. The second name, Nachicocho, not known at all, yet appears to align with the place names we have seen for the Tillamookan territories, names like Nachesna, and Nehalem, where the prefix Ne- or Na- is a placename identifier. The name is actually listed in two places on the map, as the place name at the Bay, and as the river name Nachicolcho R.
If it is the case that the original name for the river is “Nachicolcho“, then the notion that the original name for the river is Siletz is inaccurate. How could this have occurred? Frachtenberg in his paper does not mention the historic removal of the southern Athabaskans to the Coast Reservation. In fact, this history in around 1914, when he is working at the Siletz reservation in Oregon, is not well known or remembered. The tribes in 1914, had just re-discovered their Coast treaty, in about 1908 (perhaps inspired by Frachtenberg- a subject for another story), and the tribes were working on a plan for filing a lawsuit against the U. S. Government for non-payment for their lands. The Coast Treaty was never ratified and so for some 80 to 150 years the tribes who came from the Southern Coast, in fact, tribes from the whole of the Oregon coast where never paid for their lands in their lifetimes. The Indian Claims lawsuits were not fully paid until about 1959, for most tribes.
Since, in 1914, and after, the history of the removal of the tribes, the details of what happened in the removals was not well known or remembered by elderly tribal peoples. Narratives and scholarly books did not really begin to appear until the 1970s. Even these sources do not necessarily follow the progress of individual tribes to their ultimate removal but instead followed the program of wars with few details of removal of individual tribes up the Coast, and instead drew broad brushes strokes of the history of removal.
In my research, there were found to be Athabaskan tribes removed to the Coast Reservation at the same time as the removal of such tribes to Grand Ronde. The tactic followed by Indian agents appears to be to spread out the tribes over a larger area so they could feed all 3000+ tribal peoples removed in 1856. A good number of “Rogue River” peoples and coastal Athapaskans were then removed to the region of the coast between the Nachesna and the Siletz River, and some to the south. These Athapascan people could have easily renamed the river because they were the overwhelming majority of peoples for a few years living in that area. In fact, the “Siletz” peoples, those Tillamookans we have always thought were names “Siletz” were a very small group, they appear to disappear altogether in a few years, and likely married into other tribes and disappeared as a separate culture. These Siletz people may have been called “Nachicolcho” people instead, similar to the Tillamookan placenames of their northern brethren, maybe there was even a “Nachicolcho” village.
It is actually very common for tribes to be renamed by white people based on the renamed rivers of their regions. It is also common for tribal names to have originated with what they were called by other tribes. It’s quite possible that the first resettled Athapaskans called the “Nachicolcho” peoples by the name meaning “Black bear” in the Athapaskan language, and this name was also applied to the river, and later applied to the Agency and Reservation and Tribe. In Oregon, there are several names of tribes who are renamed by white settlers, names like Mohawk, or Nez Perce, and are not names that originate from this region or language.
The amazing Coos researcher Patricia Whereat-Phillips, from her retreat in the foreign land of Sonoma- California wrote back about this placename issue.
“both Siletz and Nachicolcho are correct names for the river. They have different meanings in Tillamook, no surprise.
Reel 20 frame 615a – Louis Fuller – he gives nshlæch’ (with a short vowel a written above the line to indicate a short vowel between the sh and l; well it is the ‘alpha fish’ as I call it which sounds more like “uh”). The name means ‘coiled’, and in earlier frame 614 explains the river is like a rope gathered up, because it is so crooked. On that frame he also gives the name nshlæts. Then “Siletz River Indian” is nshlæts’ stiwat.
Then he also gives the name for Siletz River as nach’ikáltzu. Louis says it is another name for Siletz River, and refers to it being a quiet river, ‘as quiet as a pond’. Then he also calls the Siletz Indians nach’ikáltzustiwat, quiet river Indians.” (Whereat-Phillips)
This is indeed good news. This suggests that Frachtenberg’s assertion that Siletz relates to the Athapaskan word for Black bear is wrong. Frachtenberg likely did not know much about the Tillamook Indians and was very focused on Athapaskan, and this may have biased his vision with respect to this name.
The Frachtenberg microfilm records are freely available online. The problem with the online version is the NAA did not preserve the page numbers. So, I have to conduct a complicated calculation to find page 615. There are 12 images per grouping, and so if you divide 615 by 12 you get 51.25, So the page is in group 51. See for your self at John Peabody Harrington papers: Tillamook, 1942-1943, Reel 20.
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.