Place-naming in the Takelma Homelands

This essay came about due to the present project to rename Dead Indian Memorial Road to something less overtly racist in the eyes of native peoples. There have been efforts for some 30 years to rename the road and thus far the efforts are met with resistance. In part the tribal peoples of the region are not of the same opinion about how to go about this project, nor what they should name the road. It is my assertion that naming is second to gaining the agreement to rename the road, a process which is been met with serious disapproval from the resident majority white people in the area. But so far the names proposed do not honor the original tribes in my estimation. See my previous essay for more context.

Place naming or renaming of the landscape back to native names is not a new concept. There have been renamings and returning to native names for some time. But today the action has become highly political in areas where tribes were fully removed and the resident population has either forgotten or never learned in the first place of the original native peoples. There are broad expanses of the United States where native peoples were fully removed to reservations. A good example of this is much of the southeastern U.S. where tribes were removed to Oklahoma Indian country. This created vast expanses of no native peoples living in their home territories except a few who married into white families, or those who escaped and found ways to fit into the new society. Fitting in usually involved becoming a useful laborer for the white people in some manner, doing odd jobs that no one else wanted to do. This is the case really across the West and on the west coast and Northwest Coast, each town seemed to have its own Indian laborer who did all of the odd jobs about town. They were the “good Indians” who found a way to survive despite rampant racism and discrimination.

But then many urban and rural areas, regions, river valleys, and plains have now had 150 or more years of no presence of a tribe to help them understand who the original people of that land were. Tribes at reservations were also not allowed to legally leave the reservations for some 80 years, so returning was rare, even though it did happen in a few areas. Places like Roseburg and Canyonville in Oregon saw the return of native peoples, escapees from the reservations who found ways to marry in and remain in the area. They became the ancestors in part of the Cow Creek tribe and many other tribes today. For another example the northern Molalla returned to their homelands, after about half of their people left the Grand Ronde Reservation to go back and live in Dickey Prairie outside of the town of Molalla. They were upset when they did not get what they were promised when they got to the reservation in 1856. These people became the laborers around Molalla and many went to Oregon City and Portland to get jobs.

For the Rogue River valley, there were many returnees after the initial removal of the tribes to Grand Ronde and the Coast reservations, but most were round up and returned to the reservations. Chief John famously advocated for all of his people to leave Siletz, and for this he was arrested and jailed at the Presidio for many years. Yet still a few tribal people in the Rogue River area either have returned or never left in the first place. There are today some formal and informal native organizations, one an unaffiliated Shasta group, who claimed residency in the Ashland area north to perhaps Table Rock in some accounts. There is also a unrecognized Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue group of people who either did not stay on a reservation or who were never taken in the first place. these people have records going back generations. Kay Atwood famously recorded some of their family history in her book Illahee, and there are federal records of the families trying to enroll in the Klamath tribe after Klamath termination (NARA, Seattle).

Finally, there are two other groups who have an interest in the Rogue River Valley one are the federally recognized tribes, Grand Ronde, Siletz, Klamath, and Cow Creek. The Coquille tribe has tried to enter the area to conduct business and buying property. Cow Creek now owns the Rogue River Ranch since some 15 years ago they began learning Takelma language as the Cow Creek were speakers of (northern) Takelma. Grand Ronde and Siletz had significant numbers of Takelma peoples, as well as Shasta, Cow Creek, and Athapaskan peoples removed to these reservations in 1856, and some groups later. And today there is a significant population of native people living in the area with no original traditional affiliation to that as their homelands. A Cherokee group famously tried to gain federal recognition based in Ashland, The Cherokee Nation of Ashland, and was denied. There is a non-federally recognized group called the Shasta Indian Nation, and one other group may have an interest in the area, there are Shasta people in the federally recognized Quartz Valley Rancheria.

Still today the history of the valley is not well known to most people who live there including most native peoples. The history of the Rogue River Indian wars is a very prominent history, with at least four major books, and numerous pamphlets and chapters documenting it for the public and scholars. The war history overshadows the history of the Takelma peoples and their associated tribes. The war caused a lot of generational harsh feelings between settlers and natives and some of that is still felt today in the valley. Jacksonville a town in the valley was the epicenter of the white militia attacks on the tribes, and Jacksonville is famously named after President Andrew Jackson who defied the Supreme Court in his removal of the Cherokees, people who had helped him against the French in Louisiana.

The wartime relationship of the confederation of tribes who banded with Chief John to drive the Americans from southern Oregon has seen biased treatment in most history books, always the tribes are seen as the aggressors. Rarely do we hear the tribal side of the issues, like how the whites kept attacking the tribes living peacefully on or very near the Table Rock Reservation and how a whole tribal village was destroyed by volunteer militia.( I have written about this search my blog.) Previous to the reservation there were continuous skirmishes and attacks on the tribes from gold miners due to their encroachment in the region beginning in the 1840s and the installation of gold mining economy like towns and supply routes. And, regardless of the national and state boundaries imposed by Americans and Spaniards, the gold mining effects in northern California easily rolled over into Oregon, and tribes heard what was happening on the coast and in the interior throughout the region and when such activities entered Oregon in the 1850s, the tribes were more prepared. This gold mining development and its effects of sandpapering the tribes through numerous acts of violence even while on the supposedly protected reservation, caused the tribes to band together, assuming that the treaties were empty documents and that the Americans had reneged on the agreements. (Yes this is my assertion but it follows that if they are being attacked on the reservation they would feel that the Treaties were worthless. We could probably debate the details of this for some time.)

But because of the war, the perceived tribal aggression, and the biased treatment in history books, few people have tried to understand the original tribal cultures. On top of all of this is now a history of anthropologists and linguists doing research and creating maps of where tribes resided in the valley. Anthropologists and other scholars cared about their effects and the people to a degree, but these early anthropologists are now heavily criticized for only caring enough to “save” the languages, and doing nothing to save the people.

There are numerous different maps of the highly debated northern Shasta in the valley. Some maps show Shastas ending their territory at the Oregon-California border as if the tribes knew where that border was going to be in the future. Other maps show a presence in Ashland, and still, others show a presence as far as Lower Table Rock or the whole of the Rogue River valley and beyond ( see the Shasta Indian Nation map). The maps themselves are static a-historical evidence of tribal peoples because many of the movements of the tribes in the 19th century were a result of many outside factors like disease spread, the press of Spanish settlement, American settlers, and gold-rushers, genocide, and other factors. The linguistic maps are only evidence of a specific period of time, in the west normally about 1830 and soon after, basically the time-periods in the memory of their informants and not much beyond that. There are also maps created by federal agencies and other nations in their exploratory activities. The maps themselves are the product of people who did not understand the tribal culture and really did not care to understand it. Federal Indian agents had a job to buy the land from the tribes and remove them from the land. Accuracy was not very important as they only wanted to be able to get a tribe, (any tribal leader in some cases) to agree to sell their land to fulfill their duties to the nation. But such maps now have been interpreted politically and legally for generations as the de-facto truth of tribal land claims. More analysis of this needs to take place. Tribes have taken to making their own maps of usual and accustomed places. These maps more accurately interpret the places the tribes traveled and conducted cultural activities.

Tribes did not have firm boundaries on their land claims. Yet maps were created showing borders. The borders reflect the culture of the mapmakers, mostly men whose culture relies on firm nationalized boundaries like those in Europe (a Cartesian framework). Therefore many maps show borders that did not even exist, and that type of modeling is completely inaccurate for the ways in which the tribes claimed land and knew their territory. Tribes did claim specific lands, usually a river valley to the crest of a mountain range, but there were areas were many tribes would go and hunt, fish, and gather in common as well. High mountainous areas were generally common areas, but fish falls with a village or two next to the falls is not a common area, but claimed with protocols about who can get the fish there. Some tribes claimed oak groves (Tolowa), some claimed coastal sea mammal hunting sites (Yurok).

So the issues are very complex and overshadowed with layers of misinformation from scholars (historians mainly who did not consult with native people about their history) and amateur scholars of all types. But few people have sought to find the actual tribal cultural information mainly because many do not know how to do this. There are records from the tribes of the valley that are relevant to the projects of the renaming of areas of the valley that are accessible today. Linguists and anthropologists did create such records. Getting the records is a process in itself. It can be difficult, but today much of this is now available online. Then scholars need to interpret them. The interpretation is very important. There are groups of native amateur researchers and scholars today that will say that the records are biased accounts of the tribes, as they are created by white people and that record then becomes a biased record. As a tribal scholar, I have encountered this issue many times. At tribes for many cultures, there are few people who recall the original culture or language, and so the records become sometimes the only record available. But this is also not enough. It really takes an interpretation based on hundreds and thousands of hours finding and interpreting records in a broad area to be able to spot records that are biased and which are not. Still, others will say that they only trust the information from elders. That is a difficult prospect when few elders live today who truly recall the culture 180 years ago. All elders today learned from their parents and grandparents so their information is not first person. This does not mean its wrong, only not complete. The record after several generations becomes for some, local folklore in which some details may be partially or fully changed.

Many of the linguistic records however have been gathered from people who had first-person encounters with their culture and language and the land of the areas in question. These records were willingly given to the anthropologists when the people were elders themselves. It seems to me we need to respect their reasons for giving the information as much as those reasons of any elder today and therefore that record may be the most important record we have of a cultural landscape of the past. Clearly, it would be better if we can use a present person who knows the culture to help us interpret it, and perhaps a few exist who do know things but these people are few and far between. Sometimes it just takes a lot of experience “living in the records” to truly interpret the validity of a record.

Thus far in the present project to rename Dead Indian Road in the Rogue River valley I have encountered no people who have sought out the original records. The name proposals being debated are based on generalized knowledge of the tribes, with many assumptions of what is the truth. Few people seem to want to honor the original peoples of the land, choosing instead to raise up historical figures or being swayed by other people who also do not appear to know the original history of the tribes on the land. In my years of working to understand the tribes of western Oregon, I have come to an undeniable fact, that our peoples, my ancestors, lived here in this land for more than 10,000 years, and there are hundreds of generations of my people buried here. I feel that the very earth itself is the reconstituted matter of my people. This is a common interpretation and many tribes today feel that burials are sacred and even the earth around a burial grounds is sacred because it is the reconstituted bodies of their ancestors. For me, anything less than full acknowledgement of this would be sacrilege to the history and memory of my ancestors. This sensibility is not strange or odd, but a common feeling among indigenous peoples worldwide

The Takelma peoples for thousands of years lived in this location and travelled around as they lived their lives. They would fish, hunt, and gather in their valley and sometimes would visit neighbors to trade with them or just to sit and talk stories. Their neighbors were from different tribes, some different languages yet marriages were arranged and kinship relationships grew between tribes. It was quite common for people to have parents who originally came from two different tribes and grandparents who came from four different tribes. Therefore on the Rogue River Valley, tribal territories break down over long-term kinship relationships. Yes, the Shasta likely had a village at Bear Creek in Ashland, but this does not preclude the Latgawa or Upland Takelmas also using the same area for their annual activities. So then place-naming becomes complicated, and each major landmark may have two or three names if there are three tribes and three languages in the vicinity. Picking which to be an official name is difficult, but the real value to this is uncovering history that has never before been gathered in this manner. Many non-native scholars have looked at the same records that I am looking at and overlooked important details because their projects did not require them.

Thus far, in the Ashland area, I have looked at the available records and found that there are a good number of Latgawa place names in the area. The most detailed information comes from a Latgawa elder Molly Orton who in the 1930s shared placenames and information with John P. Harrington and went on a trip with him down to her tribal lands and told about many place names while in the valley. The fact that she was able to elicit so many place names in and around Ashland, to as far as the ridges delineating the valley from the land south suggests that Ashland was not only a Shasta place but also used and occupied by the Latgawa as well.

section page 802, Harrington reel 28

The map above reveals a few place names in the vicinity of Dead Indian Memorial Road. The notes from J.P. Harrington are quite difficult to read and so it will take some time to place the names on the map. There are additional pages of placenames in the reel including more details about these particular names. But at least three or four placenames reveal themselves as primary to the present subject of Dead Indian Memorial Road and the project over the past 30 some years to rename it.

First, Ti-nth a place to the south side of Dead Indian Road or right in the path of the road. (802)

Then, Tsiyaw perhaps in two places to the north of Dead Indian Road north of Grizzly Mt. and south of DIMR. (802)

Then, Latkawak or Grizzly Mountain (802)

and, Pa-kaytkam a place to the south of the road (802)

South of this is ‘alke-takh a ridge to the south (802)

Then lastly there are some associations of the road to cultural activities of the tribes. The road was well known as the way to Klamath Lake. So it likely that the road is on the same path as the original trade trail of the Takelmans and the Klamaths. Klamaths were noted as having come into the mountain range to hunt to the south and east of the Rogue Valley and so they were likely known as trading partners too.

There are noted lakes, camas gathering places, and cottonwood places in the vicinity of the road suggesting a number of activities for the tribes.

All of these names and activities are suggestions of what the road may be renamed to, in order to honor the original tribes of this place.


There are many dozens of additional names in and around Ashland directly from Molly Orton a Latgawa native woman from the Siletz Reservation. She lived in the area much of her childhood and personally visited and learned the place names throughout the valley. The Latgawas lived in the Upper Takelma area, which is in Molly’s description, from Table Rock to Ashland. South of Ashland and she knew few names. It is very clear that Ashland was a place where Latgawa lived. This does not mean that there was not a Shasta village in Ashland as well. I will be searching for additional Shasta evidence in the coming weeks. The northern Shastas as I have written about previously, also came to Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations, they signed onto a treaty in southern Oregon and had many of the same rights as the Takelma/Rogue rivers. Language texts of the Shasta/Sasti Indians were gathered from Grand Ronde by Albert Gatschet an anthropologist in around 1877 and so they deserve fair treatment in the research on their territorial claims in the Rogue River valley.

source- primarily J.P. Harrington’s Reel 28 over 1000 pages of notes from 1933.

2 thoughts on “Place-naming in the Takelma Homelands

  1. “Shasta Ethnography” by Catharine Holt in 1946, she interviewed a Shasta man named Sargent Sambo. She wrote that the Rogue River Valley was called in Shasta ikirŭk meaning ‘back behind’ referring to being “the high mountain between the Klamath and Rogue rivers over which the old trail led. The Shasta of the Rogue River Valley were, accordingly, called Ikirŭká’tsu.”

    Harrington’s orthography in his Takelma notes is slightly different than what he was using a few years later in 1942 when he worked on Coosan, Alsea, etc. I recognize part of ti•nth, I think. the i• would be the long ‘ee’ sound. I am not sure what the th is, my BEST guess is it might be a t with a puff of air (aspiration). Usually one would expect the sound English uses to write ‘th’ as in thin is the theta symbol. And indeed in 1942 Harrington did use the theta symbol for that sound. I am not sure what he meant here tho’.

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