Aunt Pat in a low whispering voice was speaking to me before a Culture Committee meeting at Grand Ronde. Pat Allen was the chair and I was vice-chair, and I had learned not too much earlier that Pat and I are distantly related through the Tom family, probably called shirt-tail cousins among the rez folks.
Pat had become a close confidant and had grown up at the Warm Springs Reservation along with her sister Cheryle Kennedy, the tribal chair. Their mother and father had met during the WWII at the Kaiser shipyards, formed a bond and moved to Warm Springs to live. Later I was working with Cheryle, who is always very accepting of my work, and she had revealed that they would always come to visit the relatives in Grand Ronde when they were children in the 1950s, and they had listened in on the conversations had by adults in the Hudson and Mercier families when the family gathered. She heard that the reservation was going to be terminated and everyone was fearful of what that would mean. This was likely about 1952 or so.
Aunt Pat’s whispered conversation with me was very cryptic, in a dialect of English particular to reservations, “they always talk,” “they always talk about how we are all the same,” “that we got five reservations,” I ask “who is “they””, a perennial question I had for Pat. She said “”They” the elders, Our elders talk about these things.” “They say we are all the same people but got five reservations from the government.” “We tricked them.”
This conversation was a mystery to me. No scholarly text addressed this well, the interrelatedness of the people, but I recalled it as a more contemporary oral history of the tribe. Scholarly texts instead separate the tribes into individual cultures, who inhabit distinct culture areas. Interactions between tribes, their interrelatedness is known of but now well emphasized in many early texts. To me, tribal trade and relations has become a major aspect of the tribal cultures in the areas, more important than their supposed Hunter-gatherer culture.
Since then, I had an eight-year career at the Grand Ronde Tribe as manager of the Cultural Department where I was able to put in motion many of the plans began for the tribe in the 1980s. We completed the Plankhouse, opened a museum, and had a developed cultural archives. It has now been some five years since my employment at the tribe ended due to internal politics, and sixteen years since the Culture Committee for me to see what Pat was saying. It is not that I disbelieved her but I just had to find for myself the evidence of this. Too often we hear rumors from tribal folks on the rez and they are sometimes full of misinformation, some of which haunted me throughout my time there.
I continued to wonder what Pat had meant for years. Could we be one tribe? How could that be when the tribes are always fighting with one another? I have even had people of other tribes say to me, that we are not related. But what if it is true, that the tribes had tricked the Federal government, or at least the government tricked themselves. The implication that all the tribes are related and basically “one people” is very interesting. We can see that there are many intermarriages between the tribes since their removal to the reservations beginning in 1856. It was also common to have intermarriages between tribes, some with territories very far apart, before treaties and removal. In fact is was tribal law that people had to marry outside of their tribes, they were not allowed to marry inside. This common tribal law really created the peaceful region that is called the Oregon Territory. The tribes in this region widely intermarried and had intertribal trade throughout the whole region, much of it centered at the Columbia River and its trail centers, Celilo, Willamette Falls, and other fish rich towns. The region really stretched up into British Columbia, up and down the coastline, and as far as the American Plains in terms of trade and interaction, a significant territory of the North American continent.
The tribes of western Oregon and the lower Columbia seem to have very close relations. the best example of this is in Chief Kiesno’s biography. Kiesno, a Multnomah (Wappatoo Island) was a young Chief at the time of Lewis and Clark, and became the most powerful Chief on the Columbia at the time of his death in 1848. He is noted as having in-laws with the Cascades and Tualatin, he married a daughter of Chief Concomley, and as Paul Kane described him, could call 100 canoes into the Columbia at any time. Some travelers in the time suggested he was the Chief of the whole Willamette Valley, which really means that he held allegiances and the respect of the Kalapuyan chiefs and could count on their help if he needed it. That was tested in about 1812, when he asked for help to fend off a Cowlitz invasion on the Columbia, and was successful in pushing the Cowlitz back up their river.
In another example, an essay on this blog, recounts the genealogy of the Molallan tribe of the Upper Mackenzie, the Tufti family. They were noted to be Molalla, but had relations with the Upper Umpqua, Yoncalla Kalapuya, Santiam Kalapuya, Klamath, and Wasco. Their family was removed to two reservations in Oregon, The Warm Springs and Grand Ronde where even today there are relations. I also happen to be a descendant of the Santiam line, a distant shirt-tail cousin of the family.
So it was common before colonization, treaties, and removal for the tribes to intermarry in the region and participate in trade with one another. Political power would come from their relationships and the power exhibited by tribal leaders. Those leaders who exhibited the most spiritual power would be followed by other leaders. It was also common for people on the reservations to intermarry. The tribes were kept on their reservation and only allowed to leave to help with the harvesting of the crops of the American farmers in the summers. Some few were allowed to get to their traditional fishing sites, but they all had to return to the reservations or be arrested. On reservations, there was forced intermarriage. This is why many people at Grand Ronde and other reservations have five or more tribal ancestries. I can trace my bloodlines to Takelma, Chinook, Santiam, Yoncalla, Santiam Molalla, and distantly to Tufti Molalla.
There came to be in western Oregon two main reservations until their termination in 1954, the Grand Ronde and Siletz Reservations. On the edges of western Oregon, there are the Warm Springs and Klamath Reservations, Klamath being terminated in 1954, and Warm Springs never being terminated. There were also a number of off-reservation communities who were also terminated under the Western Oregon Termination Act (PL588), including Chinook, Clatsop, Tillamook, Coos, Coquille, Tolowa, and other small communities. For 25 years the terminated tribes took stock of their situations and found that their languages were disappearing and the tribal cultures were also being affected. Their people were still poor, and now were being mistreated horribly off the reservations, learning for the first time about having to pay taxes, having to go to college and survive without a community.
In the 1970s, fed up with their non-status the tribes sought restoration. Restored were Burns Paiute (1973), Siletz (1976), Cow Creek Umpqua (1982), Grand Ronde (1983), Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw (1984), Klamath (1986), and Coquille (1989). There became three new federally recognized tribes in western Oregon than originally. These new restorations came with a series of problems with other tribes, mainly because they have overlapping territorial claims.
Based on treaties only (ratified and unratified), Grand Ronde, Siletz and Cow Creek now claim many of the same treaties and lands. Coos, Coquille and Siletz have a different set of overlapping territorial claims. While now on the eastern side of the Willamette Valley there are now overlapping territorial claims between Grand Ronde, Siletz, Warm Springs, and Klamath, as well as other cultural-use claims from tribes further afield, Yakima and Cowlitz. The Columbia River to has a set of cultural-use treaty claims by Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, Siletz, Yakima, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Cowlitz. And finally, in southwestern Oregon, seemingly an outsider Tolowa Deeni Rancheria, based in California seven miles south of the Oregon border, claim the southern Oregon coast and inland areas of the Rogue river along with Siletz, Coquille, Cow Creek, and Grand Ronde. Too there are three other tribes that are yet to be recognized but are somewhat organized which will muddle the whole territory issue, the Chinook Nation, The Confederated tribes of Rower Rogue, and the Confederated tribes of Nehalem and Clatsop. Finally just to confuse everyone there are potential claims from the Klamath tribe into areas of the Rogue River.
Many of these tribes have now been fighting legal and political battles over territory for fishing, for casinos, for rights for over 20 years with one another. Millions of dollars have been spent fighting each other. Relationships between people and tribes have been soured now to the point that it’s becoming intergenerational. There is no end in sight of when the territorial fights will end.
The arguments are really about the territory that was allowed to tribes by the United States, Territories, and resources that were thought about and used differently than how the US thinks about and uses them.
But what if all this is a false paradigm? That the tribal territorial systems that every tribe seems to have bought into are part and parcel of the colonization of Indian country. What if we are actually all just one people? How can this be?
It’s very clear that the federal government worked to separate tribes to control them. We can see signs of this throughout US history. When the Rogue River Confederacy was trying to take back their lands from the whites from 1855-1856, the federal government began moving other tribes at the edge of the fight away from the region. The Coos were placed on a reservation, the Cow Creeks, Yoncallas and Umpquas were placed on reservations. The Tolowas were removed to Battery Point and imprisoned, all within a year of one another. Similarly, when there were attacks on the Columbia in March of 1856, and within a month tribes from the Columbia were being removed to Warm Springs and White Salmon, separate reservations. Later people were removed to Yakima and even though the treaties said they get fishing rights on the Columbia they were kept away from the Columbia for many years. Many folks have thought this was to make room for settlers, which is true, but it was also a way to divide the tribes and keep them from banding together for strength.
The continued fighting with one another continues to strengthen the divisions, which deepen the divides between our peoples. This makes no sense as we have so much more in common with each other than differences. Our true adversaries are not our neighboring tribes, but the federal government, the organization which created the federal Indian paradigm in the first place.
Today tribes have largely found ways to claim their treaty rights. Tribal lawyers have learned well the ways of federal Indian law and if a tribe brings suit for rights they generally win. Perhaps it is now time to rethink the federal territorial paradigm that has caused so many divisions among the tribes. It is time to revisit our collective tribal histories and find avenues to reclaim our culture of mutual trade and peaceful relations of the early 19th century. To reclaim our relatives, and form firm bonds of mutual support. There is space, like the tribes of the past for multiple tribes and bands to be separate but support one another in political and social and economic ways.
Ultimately, it would be decolonizing to the tribes and tribal peoples to act in these ways with one another. I think this is really what Pat was suggesting so many years ago, that we were at one time one people widely interrelated through all of the tribes, and that the government divided us, and now it is time to reclaim our ways of interacting with each other once again.