It was a while ago when I began my teaching career at Gaston High School, located about 45 minutes west of Portland. Forested hills, the slow-winding Tualatin River, and low-lying onion fields surrounded the small rural town. Most of my students came from families who logged and farmed, and many of them fished, hunted and spent their summers helping neighbors and families with outdoor work.
Since most students had accumulated plenty of first-hand experience on the land, it worked well when I initiated our ecology unit with lessons about the Kalapuya people, who were the first to call Gaston their home. By learning what life was like before European contact, we were able to discover which plants and animals were native to the landscape. Irises, tarweed, camas and yew, willows, wapato and elderberries, deer, trout, and grasshoppers populated our class discussions. We also talked about the challenges and ingenuity required for living with the seasons. And we studied the shelters, clothing, and tools that were derived from the land, trees, and animals.
I’ve since had similar chances to teach Corvallis students about the Kalapuya bands who lived in the Marys River watershed. And over the years, my students and I have managed to plant camas bulbs (with trowels, not digging sticks), create cordage (from pre-gathered plant fibers), and prepare tasty wildfood dishes (some untraditionally sweetened with sugar). All in all, these overviews of Kalapuya lifestyles offered a satisfying foundation for studying place-based ecosystems. But in retrospect, I understand that my overviews were a bit over simplified and certainly over sweetened.
David Harrelson’s Lecture: “The Kalapuya Then and Now”
Three nights ago, the Marys Peak Group of the Sierra Club and the Spring Creek Project co-sponsored a lecture at the Majestic Theater entitled “The Kalapuya Then and Now” in honor of our area’s indigenous Chepenefu Kalapuya people. (Chepenefu, which refers to the place of the elderberry, was the native name for the Marys River and its valley, which encompasses present-day Wren, Philomath, and Corvallis.) David Harrelson, who is Kalapuya, was the evening’s guest speaker. He serves as the Cultural Resources Department Manager and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and he spoke eloquently on behalf of his heritage, which reaches back 500 generations.
Harrelson began his talk by pointing out that it’s critical for us to know and respect history, because it keeps people from being marginalized and their stories from being fabricated. Before sharing a traditional creation legend with us, he admitted we were a lucky audience. He explained, “You don’t tell stories till the first frost, and you don’t stop till the frogs croak.” And since Grand Ronde saw its first frost early that very morning, we got to hear a Kalapuya story about spirit power, dancing rain, mist, camas and clouds. Soon afterwards, we heard the legend of rising waters and people who were carried on the backs of birds, an indigenous account of the Missoula Flood of 15,000 years ago. Harrelson emphasized that each of the stories talks about place, and each telling helps bring back knowledge and traditions.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons traditional knowledge could have vanished from our contemporary lives. When settlers arrived between 1750 and 1850, they brought disease and conflict that wiped out most of the Kalapuya population. In addition, a series of treaties in the 1850’s forced western indigenous tribes to cede 14 million acres to the federal government. Eventually, over 27 bands were relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation, amounting to less than one-thousandth of their original land. The move also resulted in lack of food and shelter, and the incongruity of native people becoming agricultural “migrant workers” in their own homeland. Ultimately, the federal government essentially erased indigenous people: tribes were no longer acknowledged and native communities began to lose their continuity, language, and culture.
According to Harrelson, it was during the Civil Rights Era that a restorative path opened up for his ancestors. Locally, after decades of difficulty, some good and fundamental changes have finally brought improved housing and health care to the Grand Ronde Community. And, at last, authentic indigenous history has become part of Oregon’s public school curricula. Harrelson also noted how traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is becoming respected among natural resource managers as a viable approach toward sustaining all people and all life.
In closing, Harrelson described a few collaborative projects that are fueling hope for his people. There’s the “Plants for People” project with the Institute for Applied Ecology to propagate culturally important plant species. Likewise, the US Forest Service is partnering with native people to improve huckleberry and camas habitat. He’s especially excited about an ongoing project near Gaston, the little town where I first learned about Kalapuya lifeways. That low-lying onion field near the high school? It’s being restored back to its natural state as a shallow lake—Wapato Lake—so the wapato and knowledge of Kalapuya heritage can thrive once again.