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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 14, 2001 - Issue 40


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New Wealth of History Helps Tribes Fill Gaps


 by GREG BOLT The Register-Guard-July 5, 2001


Photos: CHRIS PIETSCH / The Register-Guard

Studying DocumentsEUGENE, OR - Archivists at the Smithsonian Institution didn't give Jason Younker much hope when he and some fellow students went there six years ago in hopes of resurrecting the lost history of their Coquille ancestors.

It's too small a tribe, the University of Oregon graduate students were told; you're not going to find much. JoAllyn Archambault, the director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian, was so confident that she offered to pay the copying fees for anything the team found.

It turned out to be an expensive offer.

"We walked out of there that day with about 7,000 pages," Younker said of the 1995 visit. "Dr. Archambault's jaw just about dropped to the floor."

By the time he and the others left Washington, D.C., several weeks later, they had more than 60,000 pages of documents. That led to a second trip in 1999 and another 50,000 pages, so much that even today all the fragments have yet to be shaped into a complete telling of tribal history since Europeans first arrived on Oregon's southwest coast.

That rich vein of history is what feeds the Southwest Oregon Research Project, an effort launched by UO doctoral student and Coquille elder George Wasson.

Wasson had visited the Smithsonian 20 years earlier and knew there was more information than archivists realized, and he'd been waiting for a chance to go back and look.

Wasson had retired as the UO's assistant dean of students, and his lifelong search for his tribal roots led him to return to college for a doctorate in anthropology. It was Wasson who got the funding for the original research project grant and arranged for a team of Indian students to make the trip to Washington.

What came out of it were maps, military records, field notes, government reports and anthropological surveys documenting the turmoil, brutality and sweeping changes set off by white settlement beginning in the early 1800s through the 1950s.

More than that, the documents also record much of the language, culture, rituals and daily life of the region's first people, information that had been lost for generations by the forced breakup of the tribes. It's still filtering out to the tribes, although a few people have used it to recreate basketry, canoe making and other traditions of their ancestors once lost.

Photo CollageThe documentation is enough to fill 42 linear feet of shelf space in the UO's Knight Library. More important, though, it fills a void in time and in the psyche of native people.

"Generations have been told, `Forget anything you know about being Indian because it has no value,' " Younker said. "It's like being an adopted child and not knowing who your parents are."

Although the history hasn't been completely reassembled, the pieces are all there, and even the outline is compelling.

It's the story of not one tribe but many, of villages burned and people killed, of survivors forced from their ancestral lands and marched to a reservation more than a hundred miles north. There they were abandoned to disease and starvation when the treaties to be signed in Washington were lost, leaving the people to die or find their own way home.

It's the story of history erased, of tribes and families broken up, scattered across the country and told to forget - forget their history, forget their culture, forget they were Indians. It's a story that might have ended in 1954, when Congress stripped the Coquille and 61 other native peoples across the country, two-thirds of them in Oregon, of their tribal status in an effort to assimilate them into white culture.

But Wasson was one of those who would not forget. He listened to the stories told by his father and other elders and knew there was more. He was haunted by the question "Who am I?" and it hurt that he did not have an answer.

"For years it's been very shameful and frustrating, both at the same time," Wasson said. "It made me feel like I wasn't a legitimate Indian."

But the new wealth of history is helping tribes fill in the gaps and recreate their history. So much information is available that just cataloging it has taken up most of the effort so far; it will take many years to study and absorb it.

Already, though, a small revival has begun. From a cedar log canoe carved in the traditional way to camas bulbs gathered in the spring to baskets woven from native plants, people have begun to rediscover knowledge that was lost.

"There's a hole in our tribes' soul that has to be filled with our history and our culture, but we're filling that up slowly," Younker said.

Much of it is painful. Those who have looked through the records and studied the treatment of Pacific Coast Indians by the whites use words such as holocaust, atrocity and concentration camp, but Wasson said it is only by knowing what happened and coming to terms with it that the pain can ease.

"So little is known about the holocaust of southwest Oregon and Northern California. People don't know about it," he said, his voice going soft. "But if you don't tell a story, that kind of brutality might rise again. You have to tell a story so it won't happen again."

The collection will be permanently housed at the UO library and is available to anyone wishing to look.

Complete copies are being made for the southwest Oregon tribes, and excerpts will be prepared for 41 other tribes throughout the region.

The Coquille tribe has donated $10,000 to support research and access to the collection, and Wasson dreams of one day assembling all of the historical records from this region into a major research center.

He'd like to attract the interest of major donors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to help boost the idea.

Younker said it's impossible to overestimate the value of the collection.

"There are so many benefits that are coming out of this that people don't realize. It's hard to define one thing that really describes it," he said. "These papers tell the truths that history often forgets to tell, and they mean more to the Indian peoples than researchers can ever know."

Maps by Travel


Coquille Indian Tribe
This is the starting point for you to explore the dynamic facets of the Coquille Indian Tribe.


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