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Giving thanks for the wisdom of the elders

Blue Heron Beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project -


Of all the varied and interconnected aspects of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP), one stands out in my mind as particularly significant and deserving of thanks this holiday season: namely, the outreach effort to the Native American community that holds the Falls sacred and that has gathered there for millennia.

Lead WLFP consultant Walker Macy’s initial proposal stood out from its competitors for several reasons, including its strong emphasis on such outreach. Some proposals did not mention it at all; others made only passing reference. Not only did Walker Macy make it a central focus, the firm listed five specific Tribal Nations with historical association to Willamette Falls as invitees for project consultation and engagement: the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Siletz, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakama. Furthermore, the firm noted its track record, and the relationships it had developed with tribal nations, on similar past projects.

Here’s hoping that this conversation will develop into something fruitful and long lasting.

In my professional life I have had the privilege of coming to know three recognized Elders of their respective Native American communities. Johnny Jackson is a hereditary chief of the Cascade Tribe. Wilbur Slockish is a hereditary chief of the Klickitat/Cascade Tribe. These tribes and 13 others came together to negotiate and sign a treaty with the United States in 1855, and formed what is now known as the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Indian Nation. Chiefs Slockish and Jackson are both descendants of Hereditary Chief Sla-kish, one of the signatories of the 1855 Treaty. Carol Logan, a native traditional cultural practitioner, traces her lineage to several Indian Nations, including the Clackamas, Kalapuya and Chinook, and served for years on the Cultural Committee of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

They have shared with an eager listener stories from centuries of oral tradition. For example, how present day U.S. 26, the Mount Hood Highway, traced the route of the pioneer Barlow Trail, which, in turn, traced the route of an age-old Indian trail. That trail connected places like that lost major native trading center and gathering place of Tribal Nations, Celilo Falls, with that other trading and gathering place of Tribal Nations, Willamette Falls, which we fortunately still have. The trail further continued down into the Willamette Valley and its abundance of the food staple camas. Traveling such great distances by foot meant that not only campgrounds but also burial grounds dotted the length of the trail: As people died, their families would bury them in trailside graves marked nearby by identifying cairns, stone markers and stone monuments.

Knowing them has provided me brief glimpses of the extremely rich cultural life of their communities. The Yakama have annual First Salmon, Root and Huckleberry Feasts. Tribal members first gather in a longhouse to participate in ceremonies of chants in the Sahaptin language accompanied by the Seven Bells of the Washat religion. An outdoor community-wide salmon feast follows the ceremonies. Along a river in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range, I once witnessed Carol and some of her fellow tribal members participate in a Sacred Waters ceremony, in which people would silently release into the water palm-sized rafts laden with symbolic offerings. In the contemplative silence, the little rafts would drift peacefully down the stream, some catching after only a short distance on branch clusters, others dipping over ripples and drifting on and on until they slowly disappeared out of sight around a bend in the stream. Both of these ceremonies gave me a deep, profound sense of how these cultures view the earth, the air, the water — and the creatures that inhabit them — as sacred, and worthy of human stewardship.

The sacredness and interconnectedness of nature are themes explored by authors David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson in their book “Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Stories of Nature.” Suzuki, a geneticist who once hosted a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series on science called “The Nature of Things,” recounts how over the span of his career he became disillusioned that while traditional Western, Newtonian science could reduce nature to its atomic and genetic basics, and create powerful technologic and economic achievements, it could not by itself address the ecological consequences of these achievements.

Then he got involved in campaigns with First Nations peoples in British Columbia who were fighting clearcut logging on their traditional lands, because it would destroy the ecology that was the base of their culture and economy. “The land and all the creatures that inhabit it represent their history, their culture, their meaning, their very identity.” He began over time to learn how native cultures around the world have developed sophisticated, holistic understandings of ecosystems, based on millennia of observation, and passed down through the generations. This is the “Wisdom of the Elders” that Suzuki and Knudtson argue must complement Western “reductionist” science to achieve an ecologically stable planet.

Western, Newtonian science led to the Industrial Revolution, then Imperialism, which in its American form of Manifest Destiny marched out the Oregon Trail, down the Barlow Road, and ended up right here, at Willamette Falls; culminating in the massive industrial complexes that bookended the Falls. These complexes yielded extraordinary achievements like the first long-distance transmission of electricity, from Oregon City to Portland. But they also generated environmentally consequential impacts such as the untreated discharges of sulphite pulp processing during the early and middle decades of the 20th century. These discharges, along with others up and down the Willamette, almost killed the river off, and led to Oregon’s landmark water-quality laws in the 1960s, prior even to the federal Clean Water Act of the 1970s.

The industrial development at the Falls over the past 150 years, though, is not even a blink of an eye when compared to the timeless presence of Native American communities at the Falls. The industrial complexes also severely impaired — to put it mildly — the access to the Falls of the Native American communities, who have nevertheless with resilience and tenacity asserted their rightful claim to a presence at the Falls: for example, the effort in the early 1990s of the Yakama to erect traditional fishing platforms at Willamette Falls pursuant to their 1855 Treaty rights to fish in their “usual and accustomed places,” or the annual lamprey harvest still undertaken at the Falls by members of numerous tribes.

The significance of WFLP’s outreach to Native American tribes lies in its providing even the possibility of a long-term dialogue and reconciliation of these two powerful historical forces that have met at Willamette Falls. Perhaps attaining Suzuki and Knudston’s ideal of a grand synthesis is a lofty ambition. But even the tentative initial steps at trust, confidence, and vision-building plant the seeds of hope. Willamette Falls and the Blue Heron site could be a place for a restored physical and cultural presence of Native Americans as part of our community, which will profoundly enrich our community. A place to impart the wisdom of the Elders.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.



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