If you ask an American where they are from often you will be presented with stories of ancestors coming from far-away lands in an effort to better the lives of themselves and the decedents. What you don’t usually hear is any acknowledgment made to the peoples who have historically lived in the area that would one day be known as the United States. At Oregon State University many people work tirelessly to remind students, faculty, and staff of the history of the land that Oregon State University has been erected upon. This history is so important that I feel it is important to acknowledge that Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR is located on the traditional territory of the Champinefu (‘Marys River’) band of the Kalapuya People. After the Kalapuya Treaty (Treaty of Dayton) in 1855, the Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations that are now members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. As a part of the Champinefu Lecture Series this year linguist Henry Zenk, member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, spoke on Kalapuya Names for the Land, People, Animals, and Plants, at the Majesty Theatre. This event occurred on November 7th and was co-sponsored by the Marys Peak Group of the Sierra Club and the Spring Creek Project.
Zenk’s lecture focused on learning about place and land-cestry after so much of the Kalapuya culture has been erased. One way that Zenk was able to show the ability to understand multiple sources was by illustrating four different historical translations of the word Champinefu itself. By looking at these four different references Zenk complicated what it means to know something thoroughly, showing that most of what we know of different cultures is not as clear-cut as we may have understood in the past. Zenk specifically focused on how linguists have been able to learn about the pronunciation of Kalapuya culture by focusing on two men who devoted time to uncovering lost linguistic understandings, Leo J Frachtenberg, and William Hartless. Frachtenberg, trained in the phonetics of Native American languages, utilized old maps and other materials to help uncover historical translations as far back as 1855. Hartless was himself a Kalapuyan speaker and storyteller. Hartless helped uncover Kalapuya narratives and stories including the mountain peak that would one day be known as Mary’s Peak. Though Frachtenberg was a white anthropologist who studied Native American language at university, Hartless had Kalapuyan ancestors
and was able to focus on continuing the traditions of his ancestors. Frachtenberg’s work can in some ways be seen as salvage anthropology, where his work in some ways focused on preservation of native language with less of a focus on the highlighting issues facing the Indigenous peoples. The debate over the merits of salvage anthropology is still being questioned today.
What I found most interesting about Zenk’s lecture was not the many words that we are able to know now, but just how many words we have no real reference for interpreting, words that may never again be said correctly, let alone by native speakers. There is so much lost in the way the U.S specifically has not respected the cultures of the native people of the land we hold so dear. Often when people think of the violence done to native peoples they think of the desolation in forcibly removing people from their homes, but it’s not just this blatant violence that has left its mark on history. After listening to Zenk’s lecture it is apparent that another part of the violence against native people is the erasing of the native language. This cultural violence is just as important to recognize as the violence that we know so much about.
What is the power of a name? What is the importance of hearing a name in its native language? Why is it important to acknowledge all of the wrongs done against native peoples? These questions may not have clear answers but if we are to respect the land, we must start by respecting the people who have known this land longer than ourselves. It is imperative that linguists keep looking through archives, uncovering lost documents and recovering language and culture lost to time. In some way, I felt Zenk’s lecture as somewhat inspiring. Using documents like treaties, narrative stories passed down generations, and cross-referencing different historical accounts it became not only possible to understand the names given to the land all those years ago, but it became apparent that it is in some cases possible to recover aspects of culture that may seem lost to time. I hope that in the same way that Zenk showed how complex an issue as understanding a culture through time can be, that when considering where one lives now, one might also consider the history of the land and the people who were there in the past.