Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
January 8, 2000

Tribal Museum/Education Center Shows the Pioneer Era from an Indian Perspective
adapted by Garnet1654 from an article by Stanton H. Patty Seattle Times:

Once, more than 8,000 Native Americans of the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes roamed a wonderland here on the Columbia River Plateau.

There were abundant stocks of fish and game for the people. Hillsides were wrapped with lush grasses for their horse herds. Rivers and creeks were cold and clean.

"Life was very good," says Cecelia Bearchum, 75, a Walla Walla tribal elder.

And then, in 1843, the first wagon trains came over what would be known as the Oregon Trail.

It was the most devastating event in the history of the three tribes, joined now as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Their original homeland of 6.4 million acres - in what now are northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington - has been cut to 172,000 acres by broken treaties and land grabs. Their numbers have dwindled to 2,156.

"So here we tell our story, our way," says Bearchum as she leads visitors through the year-old Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.

Tamastslikt (tah-MUST-slicked) is the centerpiece of a Confederated Tribes venture four miles east of Pendleton that includes the Wildhorse Casino, a 100-room hotel, a 100-space RV park and an 18-hole golf course.

Casino? Golf course?

"Economic development is part of our survival story," says Debra Croswell, public-affairs manager for the tribes.

Tamastslikt - part museum for visitors, part educational center for tribal members - covers the other chapters of that story.

A chain of Oregon Trail interpretive centers stretches along a 350-mile-long corridor through Oregon: the National Historic Oregon Trail Center on the summit of Flagstaff Hill near Baker City, the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center/Wasco County Historical Museum in The Dalles, and the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City.

But only the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute tells the oft-told Oregon Trail story from the Native-Americans' point of view.

"We insisted that this would be the case," says Croswell, who is of the Cayuse and Umatilla tribes.

Visitors to Tamastslikt journey through time as they pass through a circle of galleries labeled "We Were," then "We Are," and "We Will Be."

Recorded voices of elders, native artworks, ancient artifacts and sometimes startling displays are cues along the way.

Tamastslikt is not about anger or bitterness, say Confederated Tribes leaders.

"A lot of this is about healing," says Bobbie Conner, the institute's director. Conner is of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes.

"We focus on what happened, but with pride in our survival," Conner explains.

"It is said that history is written by the victor. Well, we were never vanquished - we are still here."

Tamastslikt is a powerful experience for visitors.

It begins as travelers turn off the Interstate 84 freeway near Pendleton to enter the reservation. They pass the busy Wildhorse Casino, then continue along a meandering country road that points toward the Blue Mountains. Tamastslikt is at the end of the road, a low-profile stone and wood building blending into a landscape of grasslands and wheat fields.

Tamastslikt's site is intended to set a tempo.

"Slow down, take a breath," says Debra Croswell.

"Then go see things with an open mind."

In the background, as part of the exhibit, you hear the voices of tribal storytellers and the cry of a coyote.

Coyote. He is a trickster, they say. He can be brave or foolhardy, considerate or conceited. He is like us.

"Listen. Learn," is the message.

The "We Were" zone depicts the pre-contact period.

Later, there was a Hudson's Bay Co. fur-trading fort at Wallula Gap. Then came missionaries.

Visitors hear a church bell ringing - and it continues to ring. Exhibits tell of clashes between clergymen bent on saving the souls of the Native Americans.

Around a corner is a trench with an assortment of what at first looks to be museum pieces from the Oregon Trail. Broken pots, a water pitcher, a rag doll, a couch, a luggage trunk.

The story line tells visitors weary pioneers decided to lighten their loads as they toiled toward the Promised Land.

The objects are what the Indians called "trail trash," garbage that littered their precious land.

The exhibit journey continues.

The bell still rings.

But Tamastslikt's story ends on an upbeat.

"We are here," the tribes declare. "We will be here. We will never fade."

Cecelia Bearchum, the Walla Walla elder, beams as the tour ends.

"I am very glad for what we have here," she says.

Learn More about the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

OCTA -- Tamastslikt Cultural Institute

Cultural Center

Trails Project: Educational Resources

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