Tribal Oral Histories Are History

When the western Oregon tribes were terminated, the federal government reported that we had agreed to be terminated. This story is pervasive throughout the region with tribes, Oregonians and history books all professing the willingness of the western Oregon tribes to be terminated. This story affected people’s identities, where members of terminated tribes were not allowed to participate in reservation activities, as many non-terminated tribes assumed that the terminated tribes willingly agreed to stop being Indian. In fact terminated tribal people moved into cities and became “urban Indians”, a term many attributed in a negative way to be a racism pejorative.

Years later elders at the tribes began telling their own versions of what happened. Many stated that “they never heard that termination was happening” or “they never voted for termination” or ‘we were never told when the hearings were to be”.  Essentially, the tribes did not elect to be terminated.

United States Capitol Building 2014
United States Capitol Building 2014

This story then is a conundrum, which is the truth? It turns out that the tribal members were telling the truth. The Indian agent in Portland falsified agreements by the tribes, and reported to his superiors that the tribes agreed, which is not at all what they had done in the months preceding the termination vote by Congress.

Then in the agency’s own correspondence, they admitted the tribes did not agree.

It turns out that the tribal stories of what occurred were more accurate than the published history of termination.

Oral histories historically are not considered a reliable source of tribal history. They are relegated to the status of fictional tales, morality tales, or lessons about life.

In recent decades, this situation has begun changing. Now histories told be the tribes in the 19th century are being analyzed for historical content. We simply need to understand how to read the story. It takes someone with a native perspective to begin to understand what the stories are about. this may seem to be an unreasonable argument but for over 100 years most of these stories were not seen as legitimate – as mythological folklore by the very scientists tasked with analyzing them. So a native perspective is very valuable to understanding the symbols and metaphors that may exist in the stories.

De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground
De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground

We are now looking for the historical truth in oral histories that were previously dismissed. In Oregon, we have stories of how mountains would fight, usually over some maiden. Common are stories about Mt. Shasta and Mt. Mazama, or Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. In the Shasta and Mazama stories, the description is so vivid that it is apparent that native people were present at the event.

Eruption of Mt St Helens, Paul Kane 1840s.

The story describes how the cone of Mazama, the top of the mountain, collapsed down into the mountain during a volcanic event involving both Shasta and Mazama – what appeared to be a literal fight – creating what we today know as Crater lake – with Shasta being the winner. People, ancestors of the Klamath tribe were there at the event – around 7000 YBP – witnessed the ‘fight’ and reliably passed down the story to the present day.  With Hood and St. Helens, there is described a fight over a maiden – likely a huge volcanic event involving both mountains – which resulted in the collapse of the Bridge of the Gods, a natural rock bridge over the Columbia.

Public art, representation of Bridge of the Gods
Public art, representation of Bridge of the Gods

Finally for the Tolowa people on the Oregon and California coast- they have a story of a tsunami, a flood event. Their story discusses how some people escaped to the top of Mt. Emily – they call En-Mi – to survive the flood. All of the other people died, and three survivors had to begin anew.

Tolowa Tribal people and their plankhouse c. 1900
Tolowa Tribal people and their plank house c. 1900

Now with this new understanding a whole range of research is available to us. Areas of geo-mythology can reveal that native people were watching volcanic events seven thousand years ago.  Look for stories of how geological events influenced tribal stories in the next story you read.


Bush Park and Camas

I grew up in and around Salem, and never thought of the city as a place where native culture still exists. Some years ago I discovered that camas still exists inside the city limits at various parks and open spaces. For a few years now I have been visiting the Park in Salem in around May and taking photos of the camas there. The camas there is very well established and Salem parks makes sure to not mow until the camas has gone to seed. The adventure begins at the northside parking lot, under the oaks, and continues toward the baseball fields. beyond the stadium is another big patch. Last year I met a lady who had taken to volunteering at the park to clear up the hillside by the stadium. It had been overgrown with blackberries. Now its a camas mecca.


One of the most interesting aspects of the camas in Bush Park is the incidence of white camas blooms. Normally we all know that white camas is poisonous. But the poisonous “white camas” is not a camas at all and only tangentally resembles camas. The bulb is quite a bit different too. This white camas at Bush Park is simply a very light variety of the blue camas which still has blue veins in the flower. There are about a dozen white camas plants in the park


The other part of camas that I am very interested in is the way the flowers orient not as a perfect star, but with one petal headed straight at the ground and the other petals faced more upwards. This is a very interesting bit of artistic information. It took several years for me to see this.  Not being a botanist, I did hear form a student that there is a name for this phenomenon. It is believed that the orientation of the petals helps bees orient to the pollen.


One other location in Salem also has a lot of camas, that is the State Fairgrounds. There in the parking lots by Sunnyview Rd. and 17th, there are thousands of camas on both sides of the street. This is an amazing field to exist still in Salem.


Finally the best part of camas is the fact that its a food. Native peoples have been eating it for many thousands of years. Properly prepared it is a wonderful source of starch.


Chifin Kalapuya Village

Before settlers to Oregon, before the imposition of the names of Springfield and Eugene on the land, there were native villages named by the Kalapuya peoples. Nearly all of these villages began with the syllable Cha- or Tsa-  and where spread throughout the Willamette valley.

The name Chifin (Chafin, Chiffin) is a Kalapuya village name at the junction of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Described as being about the site of Eugene City. Chifin Kalapuya Indians were a sub-village likely related to the Santiam Kalapuya Tribes. Their neighbors being the Pe-u (Mohawk), Chelamela, Winnefelly, Yoncalla and Calapooia at Brownsville. Chifin may have been a village of the Pe-u or Winnefelly. The Chifin signed the Treaty of the Willamette Valley in January of 1855 as the Chafin.

emmons party fording Yamhill river
Emmons Survey party Fording the Yamhill River, 1841


Kalapuya sub-villages were common throughout the Willamette Valley, each sub-village being its own autonomous political unit, somewhat associated with the neighboring Kalapuya tribes. Marriages between other Kalapuya tribes, bands and villages was common, with many marriages arranged for political and economic reasons. It was common for the Kalapuya to find marriage partners within other tribes, like the Chinook, Molalla, or Alsea. Marriage outside of the tribe was a tribal law with tribal headmen and chiefs making many arrangements based on desired political or economic situations.

The Kalapuya occupied key junctions of the rivers on an annual basis, normally having a permanent winter village in a secure location above the floodplain and seasonal fishing and gathering villages further down the rivers in key locations. Most villages were located right on the water’s edge so that canoe use was easy and efficient. The junction of the Willamette and McKenzie was one of these locations.

Smelt (ooligan) Fish, Lewis and Clark Journals 1806

The villages were situation along rivers allowing easy canoe access, and big enough waterways to float a canoe. Many villages would be situated next to important resources. Wapato growing areas would host 20 or more villages, while fishing location may have several villages nearby. Canoes served the tribes of the region as their efficient means of transportation and for carrying goods from the gathering fields to the main trading villages. The trading villages were downriver at the falls where other tribes had primary rights to salmon fishing. These key centers would attract goods from the coast, inland prairies and high desert in exchange for fresh, smoked or dried salmon, lamprey, sturgeon, or ooligan smelt. Kalapuya tribes would harvest vast amounts of camas and wapato, cook the tubers and bulbs in underground ovens and pack the cooked mass to Willamette Falls in exchange for exotic trade products or salmon.

Camas was a primary staple of the Kalapuya Indians. Camas is a lily relative with a nutritious bulb. The plant blooms in May throughout the Willamette Valley on the valley floor. The flowers colors range from deep purple to blue to white depending on the soil nutritional content. Two main varieties of camas grow in the Willamette Valley. White flower camas is normally associated with Death Camas. Death Camas is not a camas variety at all but instead looks like camas when in bloom, the bulbs and main stalks are different. There is a variety of white camas which is normal camas, with a white flower. Culturally the tribes would weed out the death camas from the fields during bloom so that no mistaken roots from the death camas would be ingested.

Camas meadow among Oak Trees, Bush Park, Salem Oregon, 2013
Camas meadow among Oak Trees, Bush Park, Salem Oregon, 2013

Camas is normally dug with digging sticks to a depth of usually 6 inches or less. The digging sticks would be made from hardened iron wood, with an antler handle. Camas fields which are regularly tended allow the camas bulbs to grow to a large size in a few years. People digging camas would only keep the biggest bulbs and throw the small ones back into the hole. Camas fields would be regularly burned, along with the regular field burning of the Kalapuya tribes.

Camas would be gathered in great quantities in the mid-summer. Once gathered a long shallow pit would be dug in the ground. Rocks would be well heated over a fire then placed in the bottom of the pit. The pit would be layered with leaves, bows and camas bulbs, then covered with dirt to create a reduction oven. The camas would bake in the pit for 3 or 4 days, then uncovered. The sweet caramelized camas bulbs would be gathered, the starches in the bulbs now turned to a protein useable by humans. Uncooked camas was not eaten, as it will cause extreme gastric pain and gas.

In other times camas could be boiled in a water filled cooking basket, and then available for eating in about a half hour. The bulbs would turn to a spongy consistency similar to potatoes or pasta. The prairies around Chifin were full of camas, and much camas still grow in the region today.

Kalapuya Man, South of Eugene area, Wilkes expedition, 1841
Kalapuyan Man, South of Eugene area, Wilkes expedition, 1841

The Kalapuyans also hunted and fished and traded for other foods. They would make regular, annual excursions into the Cascades to meet with other tribes for trading and to pick berries and gather weaving materials. The Pe-u, Winefelly and Santiam had vast homelands in the Cascade foothills which are well represented on maps created in the 1850s.

The Kalapuya in the Eugene area would be subject to raids from the Molalla and Klamath for slaves and wives. The other tribes would come down from the Casacades on the Klamath trail and raid the villages, then attempt to escape into the Cascades again. The Yoncalla were subject to such raids and one is documented in Jesse Applegate’s book “The Yangoliers”. Chief Halo of the Yoncallas woke one day to such a raid. Men of the Yoncalla followed the kidnappers, and caught them in the Cascades, returning the girl to the tribe.

In 1856 all of the Kalapuya tribes were removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. There they settled in with some 27-35 tribes of western Oregon.




RG75 M234 Now Discovered ONLINE!

RG75 M2, M234

Yes these are historian-archival resources that many of us in the research business know as the source for much of the information about Indian Affairs in the 19th century. If you don’t know what I am talking about, I envy your ignorance, as there must be a lot less stress, strain, and anguish in your life. These are microfilm series that contain correspondence from Indian Agents and others about the administration of tribes and reservations in the United States. There are two different series related to Oregon for RG (Record Group) 75:

NARA  Series M234- Letters received, 1824-1881; registers of letters received, 1824-1880:Oregon Superintendency, 1842-1880 Oregon Superintendency 1842-1852

The Finding aid.


NARA Series M2- Records of the Oregon Superintendency of Indian Affairs, 1848-1873

and index is here: Index to M2

Thus far we have always had to access these microfilm series in libraries. Many large university libraries have the series. The process of looking through the microfilm has been labor intensive, only in the past 8 years or so have digital readers and digital printouts become readily available to the public. This has made saving and printing from the films of letters and reports very easy and helpful. A process that at one time took hundreds of hours to now tens of hours.

But I recently discovered that the M234 films for the Oregon Superintendency are now online at the Montana Memory project. Yes they have all of the Oregon and Washington rolls completely digitized. I don’t know the full extent of the project, but I’ll bet its of a broad spectrum of the west.

We are still searching for access to the M2 series, perhaps they are digitizing the series now?

I also found the records for the Washington Superintendency:

Dakota Superintendency;

Idaho Superintendency;

Montana Superintendency;

Central Superintendency;

St. Louis Superintendency

Wyoming Superintendency

So research away!


On a Whim, Upper Table Rock

croppedDown in Southwestern Oregon, along the Rogue River are not just one Table Rock, but two. They are Upper and Lower Table Rocks, horseshoe shaped buttes that were part of the Table Rock Reservation. We have spent quite of bit of time with Lower Table Rock as this butte was fully contained within the reservation, and the tribes saw this butte as a sacred place. The butte served as a natural fort, to protect against invaders, and was used by the tribes during the signing of the Rogue River Reservation in 1853 as a safe place for the people while negotiations took place.

The people of this valley, primarily the Takelma tribe, are my people, one of my ancestral tribes. So this trip was very thought provoking. I wonder about the peoples and their use of this place. The relative natural setting without any apparent clearings for native structures, meaning to me that this place was rarely used, it was a sacred place, perhaps a place for defense, or to escape from natural disasters. Otherwise there were few signs of native use. Some rocks on the landscape were arranged in interesting ways, probably placed there by someone. The circular patterns most probably meant something to the tribes. I was immersed in the environment of the tribes of the past, and because I seem to come back here each year, there may be some meaning to these experiences.

View of Upper Table Rock from Lower Table Rock, viewing West face. Sam’s Valley is in between. 2013

Upper Table Rock does not get the same attention. Half of the butte was within the reservation, and today there is a trail to the top, from the trail head off Modoc Road. Upper Table Rock gives great views of the surrounding valley and ranges, and there are some unique ecosystems at the top.

First, I was not feeling like a climb that day, but I decided on a whim to take the trail. I had been  invited on several other hikes but had not brought the right shoes or clothing. But I decided to circumnavigate Upper Table Rock on Modoc road and saw the trial head and decided to go for it.  I only had my slip on shoes that I normally wear to work and shorts and a t-shirt. I found one water bottle in my car and took off.

View of Upper Table Rock from Summit of Lower Table Rock, 2013
Circe of Rocks, 2014
Madrone with curling bark 2014
Hazy Lower Table Rock, 2014

The trail was easy going. I felt OK most of the way up, took my time and was not overly winded. I had spent a good part of the summer hiking miles around New York and Washington DC so I think I had built up some stamina. It was not too hot, and the horizon was hazy, a result of the fires in Northern California, so this helped. I did not drink a lot, and actually found a full water bottle on the side of the trail half way up. I took some to fill my bottle and left the rest.  I fell in among a madrone forest sprinkled with pine and  other trees. The madrone is so interesting with its curling bark  and red inner layer. My great uncle Frank Forster used to use the wood for his carpentry. Its a very beautiful wood. Reaching the top, I knew that I was there because the trees ended. It was also perfectly flat with a rolling prairie on top. The whole area is sprinkled with lava rock. The pattern is so random it must have been this way for a very long time. But following the trails on the top I found several rock shapes that looked mad-made, whether of native culture or otherwise I don’t know. I went straight to the other side of this leg of the butte and was able to see Lower Table rock in a haze. I wished for a better camera, but the other had no power. So I was limited to my phone, which takes good photos. Checking the meter on the phone I only had less than half power so I knew my photography time would be limited.  On the way I found a few other plants of interest. A form of juncus which dries a shade of yellow,  wild roses and the madrone.

I walked north along the inner seam of the south leg  and so buzzards drifting and catching the updrafts at this edge. They were fast so I could not catch them with my camera. I walk north until the trail seemed to end. I wanted to get closer to Lower Table rock to take better photos of that butte from the North leg of Upper Table

Rock, so I set out westward, trying to get across the lava strewn fields. I found walking through the tall grasses was more difficult because the stickers would get into my socks and I could not see the lava so I would stumble a lot. So I adopted a pattern of following the edge of the round lava boulder fields. This helped me progress better but after about a half hour of this and I realized that I would not make it all the way west and then back to the car in time to get home at a decent hour.


So I headed north, found a recently driven road and followed that for a bit. I saw a white 20140919_124454airplane warning tower peaking over the top of the butte, as I think there is a small airport on the valley floor and after a time turned back.  On the way back I found an empty plastic water bottle and picked it up and a roll of toilet paper, just laying in a middle of the lava field. I picked these up to clear the area of this litter. I wish people would pack out their litter.

One area of lava was sticking straight in the air,  there were several fields of this and I would love to hear why the lava formed this20140919_122916 way.

An excellent trip and learned  lot about the butte. The haze was very apparent. I wonder what the Takelmans of long ago did when there were fires. The Table rocks may have been a hiding place from the fires.

I found the trail head down and headed back. I took a side trial which descended quickly, and when getting back to the trail, I found walking down is incredibly strenuous on the joints. When I got back to the car I had been on the hike for about 3 hours. I had at least one blister on a toe and for four days I was in muscle pain for this excursion. My shoes held up well but needed to be tighter and stiffer to deal with the lava shards.

Panaramic to the East, 2014
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