Today David Harrelson started off his Salem City Club talk about the Kalapuya tribe by asking how many people in the audience considered themselves native Oregonians.
A bunch of hands went up from those, I assume, who were born in this state. Harrelson then pointed out the difference between the First People, genuine native Americans, and native Oregonians.
The former, he said, could count at least 500 generations in their family history. So when people talk about being a 5th generation Oregonian, that doesn't impress him.
Harrelson is the Cultural Resources Department Manager for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. He's a Grand Ronde tribal member. His talk, "The Life and Times of the Kalapuya: First Peoples of the Willamette Valley," was highly informative and entertaining.
I liked Harrelson's style.
He was firm about the entirely justified claim that the Native American people who were living in the Willamette Valley before the settlers arrived are the true Oregonians, and were treated horribly unjustly.
But Harrelson wasn't into guilt-tripping. He didn't need to, because the facts he presented made us non-native City Club attendees feel bad about what happened to the Kalapuya and other western Oregon tribes without any extra dose of chastising.
As hard as it is to believe, he told us that in 1750 an estimated 30,000 Native Americans were living in the Willamette Valley. But by 1850 about 98% of them had been lost, largely to diseases, I'm guessing. So by the time settlers arrived in large numbers, there weren't many tribe members left to resettle.
Early on in his talk Harrelson showed a slide with a "natural" image of the Willamette Valley next to an image showing how it looks now, with crops being raised in tidy square parcels of farmland.
He then said that actually the Kalapuya managed the land for abundance in their own fashion. For example, they set cold burn fires that weren't hot enough to sterilize the soil, but killed fungus, bugs, dead parts of plants, and such. Fresh grasses then would shoot up that attracted deer and elk, who prefer "baby grass."
It also was interesting to hear that lighting a fire under an oak tree at the proper time would burn up the buggy acorns that fall first from the tree. Then the acorns that fell afterward could be harvested without having to sort out the good acorns from those that had bugs in them.
Camas bulbs were another example of how Native Americans managed for abundance.
Harrelson said that the big bulbs would be dug up and kept, while the smaller ones would be left to spread out, producing a denser patch of Camas in future years. Deer and elk would eat the flowers, helping to spread Camas since the seeds were more likely to germinate after being passed through an animal's digestive tract.
He objected to the common notion that Native Americans had some sort of mystical relationship with nature. No, he told us, it was science, figuring out the best ways to manage nature for long-term human requirements. There's no need to romanticize Indians, Harrelson said.
I'm fascinated by the Missoula Floods that inundated the Willamette Valley between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. Harrelson said that the lake formed by the floods was up to 400 feet deep. Until the history of the floods was determined fairly recently, tribal legends about gigantic flooding were considered to be fiction.
But stories of how Native Americans found shelter on Mary's Peak near Corvallis and other high ground now are considered to have grounding in reality.
The image on the right side of this slide shows where different tribes were located in the Willamette Valley. There were five different language families, with the differences between them being as great as the difference between French and Chinese, Harrelson told us.
This slide explained the origins of the word, Chemawa, which is a "place of low-lying, frequently overflowed ground."
Harrelson gave us some of the history of treaties that forced the removal of Native Americans to steadily shrinking territory in western Oregon. A forced march to Grande Ronde from Medford was one of the atrocities inflicted on tribe members. He gave us a link to a web site, www.ndnhistoryresearch.com, which has documents and other information relating to the history of Oregon tribes.
Here's a link to descriptions of treaties with the Kalapuya and other tribes in the 1850's. Disturbing reading, for sure.
Lastly, Harrelson gave us a new word, "Landcestor." This is contrasted with "Ancestor." Most of us aren't ancestors of the Native Americans who inhabited Oregon before the settlers arrived. But Harrelson said we are part of the story of the land that is Oregon at this point in time.
Hopefully we'll live up to our responsibility to take care of the land that now is almost entirely under the control of non-Native Americans.