I have made a career researching the native peoples of western Oregon. For the past 20 years, I have spent thousands of hours each year researching the tribes. I do this because when I was growing up, for the vast majority of people, no one knew the history of the tribes of Oregon. I knew I was native and Grand Ronde tribe was restored when I was in high school, but very many of my family and tribal relations knew nothing of our history. Few people knew anything of the culture, due to successful attempts of the federal government to assimilate us to be Americans. Then to completely eliminate us, the feds decided we were no longer Natives, us now being assimilated, and they terminated the tribe in the 1950s. So the majority of My tribal members, my family had no opportunity to grow up surrounded by Native culture and family. People left the reservation and integrated with American society and many forgot who their tribes were and what their cultures were, or never knew in the first place.
Now the Grand Ronde tribe is 35 years into restoration and those who have wanted and needed to have worked to restore their knowledge of the tribe, its history, and many of the cultural traditions. The families who were able to preserve traditions through termination taught us all these things. Still, there is needed work in tribal languages and tribal histories and understandings of the tribal traditions of 27 to 35 tribes who came to Grand Ronde in the first place. Yes, this is the fact, we have a huge number of traditions from tribes from as far south at the California border and north to the Columbia, all gathered at the tribe. Now understand we are the descendants of these original tribal peoples, so most of us are descendants of three of four tribes or more. In light of this, today it is nearly impossible to separate our cultural traditions in how we live our lives. There are no pure Kalapuyan cultures being practiced today, or Takelma or Clackamas.
Then, our histories are a relative mystery. We have good histories of the Chinookans and the Kalapuyans, but what about the Umpquas and Takelmans? There may be individuals who are good with their histories of individual tribes but trying to capture the totality is a huge effort. It has not been done yet. Every month or so some scholar finds new information to add to our collective knowledge of the tribes, family histories, details about federal actions, explorers reports, and the like. I would argue that this is the case with most tribes today.
I have attempted huge strides to uncover details not previously published about the tribes of western Oregon, and have worked with several other scholars to publish details as the opportunities arise. But its still a huge and daunting task as there are thousands of records and millions of pages of collected ethnohistory, some of which is inaccessible unless we travel to eastern archives.
Recently, I encountered some big issues with renaming of placenames in Oregon. I have done some renaming of streams, creeks and buildings, and there are at least 2 dozen other placename sites needing renaming for pejorative words. My thoughts when renaming is to honor the original tribes, but so many of the languages of the tribes are extinct. So this means I need to gain a smattering of an understanding of many different languages to do renamings. This all takes time as I read through hundreds of pages and hunting new and or not yet collected manuscripts and published materials. There are several of us doing this, and it’s all quite doable but it takes a lot of time, time I could probably utilize making money in some fashion. I have grant requests out but everything is so uncertain in the age of non-scientific government and covid19 closures.
The worst is trying to explain the enormity of the problem to people who have a project and simply want the answer to some tribal language or culture question. I can find such answers but that all takes time and effort. Tribes sometimes will answer these questions, but many times they are reluctant for many reasons. I am glad to do it normally but people are really put off when I have to say no because to answer the question I would have to work dozens of hours and compile an ethnographic report to make sure I am right and have covered all of the bases.
Many requests come to me where people just want a quick answer and are not offering any compensation for my work at all. It just seems odd to expect me to supply an answer for a question no scholar has addressed yet and to not offer compensation for my time. Such is the depth of the state of our histories and the level of assimilation and historical erasure we experienced as native people. And this is not an appeal for money at all, its an appeal for an understanding of our context.
People, students, allies, participants in my many presentations ask what they can do to help. I am normally at a loss because its taken some 20 years for me to get to this level of knowledge and understanding of my own tribes and I cannot just ask people to go do their own research, or even help with research because, it would take some few years for people to get up to speed, if ever. I don’t think even my tribe really understood this, they let me go in 2014, laid off and I guess assuming that any other less well-paid widget could fill my shoes. They were very much mistaken as I think they have discovered,
Again I am not asking for a job or more money unless you care to donate to this site so I can pay the bills to keep it open. But I am thinking about ways that people can support the efforts of scholars. Perhaps aiding the replacement of pejorative placenames. Helping fund history recovery projects. Attending presentations to learn more and taking responsibility to learn even more about native peoples in your own time. If you have a cultural and or historic question expect there to be a consultation charge for the time those of us who do this work take to answer the question. Lead with “and I have funds to pay you for your time” rather than forcing us to ask if you have funds. Perhaps if you have some research skills ask how can you help us with research, as I can reel off a series of needed projects. Aid any projects, activations which seek to bring equity to tribal peoples in society. Natives suffer the same issues like many other minority ethnic groups and usually, our statistics are worse than other groups. For example; clean water issues, land issues, fishing issues, missing and murdered women issues, and equity issues in law and justice. There are some serious problems in our society that I equate to colonization, we don’t call it colonization any longer but if you look at what prejudice and racism does to Native peoples it has the same or similar effects as colonization. Seriously do we need to live with road names like Dead Indian Memorial road, or the Redskins mascots any longer as Americans seek to hold onto their racist history?
What can you do? Support us in all that we are doing. Help us do what we think is necessary. Don’t seek to speak for us or take over our projects, but support and ally in any way you can. Read up on our histories, learn more about us before asking a lot of questions. Understand our contexts and histories better. Challenge the stereotypes, question your own upbringing, and please get your educational organizations to offer real Native history and cultural education. It may take a few uncomfortable moments to understand the box you have been brought up in your society and find ways to question those realities in positive and progressive ways. We, Native people, do that every day, culture shift and code shift to fit into American culture all the time. maybe time for others to think about this and take your own actions.
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.