Native Salem Exhibit

This summer (2021) I was approached by the Bush Art Museum to do something for Native American month. Over the period of several months of discussion, we centered the exhibit themes on a few Native stories directly related to Salem. I wrote out those themes over the course of a few days and then we began picking images for the exhibit. What emerged was a mostly narrative-driven exhibit with some images to support the narrative. This was decided even though the majority of exhibitions are light on words and image-heavy. But the nature of the early history of Salem, Oregon has been obscured for so long the museum staff decided it was fine to lead with accurate and compelling stories in this first exhibit of its type at the Bush Art Museum.

The exhibition joins two permanent exhibits currently up in the Willamette Valley, the Kalapuyans exhibit at the Willamette Heritage Center, at the Methodist Parsonage, and another Kalapuyan exhibit at the Linn County Historical Society Museum in Brownsville, both curated by me with co-curators Tom Connolly and Paul Baxter for the Linn county offers. The exhibits center the perspectives and histories of the Kalapuyans as much as possible.

Sample Handout at Sample handout at Bush Art Museum-

These exhibits, along with the Kalapuyans Land exhibit I contributed to, two years ago at the Five Oaks Museum in Washington County, curated by Stephanie Littlebird Fogel (Grand Ronde), have taught me a lot about the power of the Kalapuyans stories in this valley. I hope to address more oral histories and historical narratives through exhibits in the future, in places like Eugene, Cottage Grove, and Portland. Through these exhibits, I am helping to correct the history of my tribe.

The Native Salem exhibit seems to be more like a blueprint for how to do similar exhibits for towns in the region. It is built around stories of the native peoples in the local area and also constructed to travel afterward. I hope it travels to libraries and other museums in Marion county in the next few years. There are additional stories that can be written for Corvallis, Portland, Oregon City, Silverton, Newberg, Eugene, and other small and large towns in the region.



Essays that led to this exhibit can be read on the Quartux Journal.


I want to thank all of the Bush Staff for working with me, being open to uncomfortable discussions, and producing such professional quality images and products for the exhibit.

Themes and History on display at the exhibit:

Native Salem

Supplanting the Chemeketans

Jason Lee, with his Methodist Mission resettled to the Kalapuya village of Chemeketa in 1841. They built a sawmill, gristmill, Lee’s house, and the Indian Industrial School. The missionaries and teachers took land and built farms to support the mission. The settlement that became Salem was originally named Chemeketa and the creek, Chemeketa Creek.

The Chemeketans were a band of Native peoples aligned with the Santiam Kalapuya tribe centered on the south fork of the Santiam River. The Chemeketa summer village was along the riverside between Chemeketa Creek and Pringle Creek. They had gathering encampments at Lake Labish, and inland along Mill Creek where they could harvest camas and acorns. There was a village at South Salem High School where they had plankhouses built into the hillside above the seasonal floodplains. The Chemeketans were part of the extensive native trade network in the valley, being situated along a bend in the Willamette River. The Klamath Trail that began in the Cascades on the North Santiam, came directly to the village along what is now State Street, directly to the Chemeketa village. Chemeketa was known to Kalapuyan peoples in the area as a place rich in camas roots.

The Kalapuyans have origin stories which suggest they witnessed the Missoula floods inundate the whole valley 16,000 to 11,000 years ago. The floodwaters were so deep they had to escape to the top of the South Salem Hills, they called the Red Hills, to wait until the flood receded. Additional oral histories from the tribe mention having to escape to the top of Mary’s Peak to escape floodwaters and seeing the land change after the floodwaters receded. This story is part of the Kalapuyan origin stories. The Kalapuyan culture was likely very different before the floods because the water brought soils and seeds from the east, and therefore changed the environment in the valley forever. By 8000 years ago the Kalapuyans were setting fire to the land annually and building ovens to cook large qualities of camas.  The oldest archaeological dates for the valley are 9500 years ago, but there is likely a record of older habitation under the deep flood soils.

The Mission displaced native peoples in a process of settlement and the missionaries applied their own names to the town and creeks. This happened even though the whole valley had many indigenous villages and placenames. Chemeketa is renamed to Salem in 1842 and Chemeketa Creek changed to Mill Creek due to the many mills built along it. Plowing of the Chemeketa Plains for crops destroyed many of the root foods of the Chemeketans and settler hunting with guns causes game to become scarce. The Chemeketans worked for the settlers, helping them build farms, learning farming, and animal husbandry and serving as laborers for developing the early mission and town. The native peoples were made to adopt the wage labor economy because they had come to depend on settler foods for survival. Many of the children of the Kalapuyans would be taken into the Indian Industrial School, never to return to their families, as many died in the school from diseases they had no defenses against. So many Native students died that the school was forced to close. The property was eventually sold to the State of Oregon and became the grounds of the State Capital and Willamette University.

The Chemeketans signed the Willamette Valley Treaty in January 1855 as part of the Santiam Tribe and the people removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in March 1856. The last man identified as a Chemeketan, was Chief Quinaby, and he was known to all in Salem. He had a house at Grand Ronde but would come stay in Salem for months at a time and erected a shanty on the railroad property near Judge Waldo’s house. There he would hold loud all-night gambling parties. When Judge Waldo told Quinaby to quiet down, Quinaby told him “He was there first, and could do anything he wanted!” Quinaby would do odd jobs around town for payment and trade, even though he was a chief and normally in tribal culture, they did not work.

Quinaby would ride a horse in full regalia carrying the American Flag for the Fourth of July parade to prove his nationalism and right to citizenship. The tribes were not given citizenship by signing treaties, and only gained citizenship through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Quinaby was reported buried in Salem under the oak tree at the old Bush Elementary School.

The placename Chemeketa is preserved in a parkade, a street, and a community college, but the people have been largely forgotten to the people of Salem. The Chemeketans lived in this area for thousands of years with numerous signs of their habitation at the I-5 -Santiam Hwy interchange, South Salem High School, the camas fields at Bush Park and the State Fairgrounds, and at the many resource areas around town. Lake Labish, a long low marshy area north of Salem had extensive resources for the tribes but was drained by settlers in the early 20th century to make more farmlands. The lakebeds are bordered by Chemawa Indian School, the second Indian Boarding school created in the United States, 1880, and still operated today as an off-reservation Indian Boarding School and health clinic. Much of the legacy of the Chemeketa Kalapuyans has been forgotten for generations, and their lands significantly altered by more than 160 years of settler changes.


Native Rights Lost


Native peoples are largely living in their post-apocalyptic era. Native people have died by the thousands, their rights to land and resources taken away, their ability to live according to their traditional culture severely compromised, and their ability to better themselves difficult to achieve.

In 1830 some 85% to 97% of the native people of Oregon died from diseases newly introduced to them. The Kalapuyans faced mainly malaria spread by the anopheles mosquitoes brought to this area by fur traders. Where there had been ten villages, they were reduced to one. The people confederated into smaller settlements on the major rivers to survive the epidemic. Many smaller tribes disappeared forever, and the resulting wake changed the tribes forever.

After the diseases, with less people, most of the lands of the Willamette Valley were unsettled and appeared open for anyone to take. Early settlers like Jason Lee, spread the news of the character of the Willamette Valley as a pristine and open prairie ready for settlement and farming. By 1844 Americans in the east hearing of this vast and open land with good soils, open prairies, sunshine, and good water sources began coming to Oregon and developed the Oregon Trail. The settlers took land that belonged to and was occupied by the Kalapuyans before any of this land was purchased from them. The settlers ignored tribal rights to their lands to live undisturbed as promised by the Northwest Ordinance and settled the whole valley.

By 1851 the whole of the Willamette Valley was claimed by settlers, aided by the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, passed by the U.S. Congress, giving married couples a mile square parcel (640 acres) for free if they stayed on the claim for five years. These farmers built large agricultural fields, fenced them in, and in doing so destroyed many native foods. The Kalapuyans still lived in the valley, and they were adjusting to not having all the traditional foods they needed to survive the winters. They were forced to work for trade and money, and when they ran out of options they had to beg for food at the farms. Some of the Kalapuyans began acquiring their own herds of horses and cattle and began farming, but they did so without a U.S. land title, which “Indians” were disallowed from having, and eventually white settlers took their lands and possessions away, causing dispossession and homelessness.  Even though the Kalapuyans had helped many settlers feed themselves from native foods, and build and establish their farms, many of the farmers did not want to help feed the “savage” and “vagrant” Indians and they became looked upon as a nuisance.

In 1855 Joel Palmer, Indian Superintendent of Oregon, negotiated a treaty with the Willamette Valley Indians and moved them all to small encampments to protect them. There was in Oregon several wars raging with tribes, in the north with the Yakima, in the east with the Klamath, Modoc, and Paiute, and in the south with the Rogue River Indians. Many settlers called for the extermination of all Indians because they were a nuisance. The Oregon Territorial government raised volunteer militias to protect white settlements from the Indians, and many of these companies began campaigns of extermination against the tribes. In 1856 the Kalapuyans were removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation so to preserve them from white settlers and militia bent on revenge and extermination. There they joined some thirty-five tribes from throughout western Oregon forced to remain on the reservation. The tribes no longer had freedom to leave the reservation because they were not deemed Christian and civilized enough to be citizens.

At the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation, the tribes lived very poorly, many people dying in the first few years from poor care, scarce supplies, and inconsistent food. The promises of land, food, housing, and services of the treaties did not come in sufficient quantity for nearly 20 years as the tribes survived as best they could with poor federal management. In the 1870s, the tribes gained some land and enough federal services and aid that they were able to develop farms and become self-sufficient. They ran the mills on the reservation, helped one another develop their small allotments, and learned to live without counting on federal assistance. In 1875 most of the payments from the treaties ended.

The tribes at the reservation were not allowed to leave, and the promises of citizenship that became federal policy in 1869 under President Ulysses S. Grant did not happen until 1924. To become citizens, the tribes were forced to become properly civilized through assimilation to American culture. The pressures of assimilation came from three areas. First, the tribes were exposed to Christian missionaries who sought to convert them, which was successful over time. Children were forced to attend schools. But education plans were poorly implemented in the 1850s and 1860s as many children would die in schools. Then in the 1870s a Catholic boarding school was established at Grand Ronde and this became successful. Many young men and women became immersed in Catholic American culture and education and had to assimilate. Then in 1880 the federal government began off-reservation boarding schools – the first in Oregon at Forest Grove, and five years later moved to an area north of Salem and called Chemawa – and many children were sent far away from home to live in immersive environments. This was largely successful, and many children never returned home, either having died in school, or remaining in far-away cities to find work.

In the 1950s tribes in Oregon had to fight for rights to survive as the federal government sought to terminate the treaties and liquidate the reservations. In 1954 sixty-three tribes in Oregon were terminated in two bills. By 1956 the Grand Ronde Reservation was fully terminated, and the people had to move away to cities to find work. Many people became the poorest in the cities, without any rights to land even though they were the original people of this land. In the 1960s and 1970s natives from terminated tribes tried to fish as they normally would, because termination never addressed their rights to fish. The cases went to trial and Native peoples won the rights to fish in their usual ways, and rights to half of the catch in their respective areas in the Belloni and Boldt cases of 1969 and 1974.  The “Fishing Wars” settled that tribes had rights to fishing and living in the usual ways and that it was a sovereign right never taken away by the federal government.

For most of the 20th century tribes have had to fight for rights within the United States. They have had to gain rights for religious freedom, rights to repatriate their buried people and their artifacts, and rights over how they are depicted by sports teams as mascots. These rights today seem like basic human rights, but tribes have had to fight the federal government and sometimes private industry to gain them. Tribal peoples have had to confront the theft of their culture by non-native appropriators, while native peoples were disallowed practicing their own culture and religions for much of the 20th century. Anthropologists have placed tribal remains and artifacts in museums and only in the past 35 years have tribes had the right to reclaim their ancestors under NAGPRA. Tribes also have had to find a way to have an economy on their reservations and have developed casinos to pay for their governments and services. Casinos were approved for all tribes by federal law in 1990 because tribes cannot sell products beyond their reservation borders without changes to the Federal Trade and Intercourse laws, changes which can take decades to make. Most recently in Oregon, tribes have worked to create Native curriculum for public schools because for all the previous 160 years there has been little or no appropriate education about native peoples, their history, and cultures, in our public schools.

Tribes continue to fight for the rights they enjoyed before they were colonized by American settlers. Tribal rights in the United States have suffered in innumerable ways and tribes continue to fight for getting Land Back, for control of their images, arts, and artifacts of their cultures, and for better services to Native peoples who have suffered without privileges in society and basic sovereign rights even though Native peoples are the original peoples of this land.


Native Art


Studies of Native people have focused on tribes who have exhibited high artistic styles. Tribes from the Southwest, the Great Plains, and the Northwest Coast have received the most attention from scholars and art collectors. Oregon’s tribes had culture arts as well even though they are not well known. Around Oregon today there are few public art displays that relate to the tribal cultures of Oregon. The majority are Totem poles which were not created by Oregon tribes at any time previously and are instead an art form from the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast. There are also the well-known dreamcatchers many people place on their rearview mirrors, from tribes of the Eastern parts of North America.  These popular art forms are not from Oregon tribes but are instead appropriated forms created mainly by non-native peoples. One of the most well-known native symbols is the tipi. There were tipis made and lived in by some Oregon tribes, those who lived on the eastern side of the state and those who travelled into the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. But tipis are not part of the culture of the western Oregon tribes.

These are some of the issues scholars have now to address because education about native culture has been very poor throughout the United States. Many people assume that “Indian” culture is only one culture, when it is actually hundreds if not thousands of different cultures. Native cultures developed in specific areas of the land over a period of many thousands of years. The cultures reflect in many ways the philosophies of how native people related to the land and to each other as they sought to continue to thrive. The land and its resources are also reflected in the individual tribal cultures.

Chinookan peoples of the Columbia River lived all their lives alongside the rivers in villages. They situated most of their activities on resources from the river, especially the numerous salmon runs each year. They also clustered many villages in the vicinity of the best fishing areas for salmon, at fishing falls, like Celilo and Willamette Falls, and rapids, like Cascades rapids and the rapids on the Clackamas River. They then occupied large heavily productive fishing villages where they caught, processed, and stored salmon and other fish products for trade with other tribal peoples. Smoked and dried-and-ground salmon were very desirable products that other tribes sought to trade for. They would also travel into the mountains to pick huckleberries and had winter villages in the Wapato Basin (Portland) where they would gather wapato and fish for sturgeon and smelt. But most of their activities were around the many salmon runs that came to their main villages throughout the year.

The Kalapuyans inhabited the majority of the Willamette Valley. They did not have fishing falls but still could fish for salmon using traps and weirs. They were most productive digging and gathering camas, wapato, acorns, berries, and hazelnuts. The valley is a perfect place for all these foods to grow naturally. There was never a need to have agriculture in the valley because the tribes lived off the wealth of the land, what was available annually. They would travel and establish encampments for root camps, and berry camps, and hunting camps throughout the spring, summer and fall, and would store enough of the foods to survive the winters. If they wanted salmon, they would take some of the extra foods they had gathered to Willamette Falls to trade with the Clackamas and Clowewalla peoples.

The tribes held ceremonies on the solstice that honored the land and the animals for giving of themselves so that humans could thrive. The ceremony helped to earth to renew itself each year, and many believe, without the renewal ceremonies, the earth would be out of balance and life would be very hard for people, animals, and plants.

The artworks of many Oregon tribes are centered around the cultures of the Oregon tribes. They would weave baskets for gathering roots, or winnowing wild grains, or gathering clams. They needed to store large amounts of dried and smoked salmon, so they have baskets for holding these products. They needed to grind grains, roots, and dried salmon so they carved wooden bowls, and stone bowls and grinding stones, or mortars, for processing foods. They needed to carve spoons of sheep horns or wood for eating. They also lived in a tribal culture that utilized rivers as highways of trade and travel. They would canoe nearly everywhere to trade their products. The Chinookans carved elaborate canoe styles and created power poles they placed on the riverside to announce to visitors that the place was claimed by a tribe. Tribal peoples knew that much of the land could be claimed by a tribe so they respected other tribes and would ask for permission to land at a strange village. They practiced protocols of honoring the residents and professing peaceful intentions for their visit, to trade, or that they were just passing through. This was the diplomacy of the tribes and the respect they gave one another. This culture is currently being revitalized and practiced in the annual Canoe Journeys where hundreds of tribes travel by canoe to one location each year in the northwest and practice protocols and ceremonies.

Normally weavers will collect their weaving materials in the spring every year and allow them to dry out for one year before reusing them. The dried materials will be rehydrated and then have better elasticity than when they are green and newly cut. Common materials are juncus, willow, native hazel, spruce roots, and the inner bark of the western red cedar. They would make all manner of baskets, clothing, hats, fish weirs, traps, and snares from their weavings.

The baskets displayed here are three examples, one, a traditional style, second, a style from the Grand Ronde Reservation, and third, a contemporary basket.

The traditional basket style dates from before the reservations period and is made from traditional materials like juncus and native hazel. The dyes used for the designs are natural or vegetal dyes from naturally gotten materials. The basket would be used to hold foods and trinkets in a household.

The Grand Ronde Basket is made from hazel. The style of basket making changed at the reservation because traditional baskets had been somewhat replaced by the needs of settlers for household containers. They discovered that Americans wanted big container baskets for holding things, for shopping for laundry and the fastest to weave was an open frame made from willow. The style approximates that of British culture called English randing and was sturdy and double handled for strength and longevity. Tribal people needed to sell baskets that Americans wanted, to make money because there were few jobs at the reservation. Eventually, these Grand Ronde baskets became popular and sold in Portland for about $3 each. It was one-way tribal people could be busy in a cottage industry through the winters weaving basketry with materials freely gathered from the nearby forests. The photo is John Hudson, and his wife Hattie Sands, their children and dog Bounce, and their pile of baskets they made through the winter in about 1900.  Many of these baskets still exist today and are in museum collections throughout the region.

(to see a basket by Connie Graves see this Oregon Folklife Network image)

The contemporary basket is made by Connie Graves who was a basket weaver from Grand Ronde. It is a small, tightly woven basket with straight sides and a horizontal pattern. The primary material is a light greenish color grass; there are two lines of white material that visually divide the piece into thirds. It is made from twined juncus and bear grass. This is a very contemporary design but with traditional materials. Connie was very innovative, creating woven products for the Canoe Journeys, woven seat cushions, woven bailers, and even woven duck decoys. She taught many classes on weaving at the Grand Ronde tribe and trained many of the present generations of basket weavers. Connie passed in 2019.

You can see a video about Connie Graves at the QR code below (point your camera on your phone at the square)


Weaving arts are now being restored at Grand Ronde and other tribes in Oregon. Many artisans are teaching and weaving and relearning traditional techniques and adopting new techniques. In Native arts it’s common to borrow techniques from other tribes based on who trained the weaver. Many weaving artisans now sell their baskets and woven hats for hundreds of dollars apiece.






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