Tribal Oral Histories Are History

When the western Oregon tribes were terminated, the federal government reported that we had agreed to be terminated. This story is pervasive throughout the region with tribes, Oregonians and history books all professing the willingness of the western Oregon tribes to be terminated. This story affected people’s identities, where members of terminated tribes were not allowed to participate in reservation activities, as many non-terminated tribes assumed that the terminated tribes willingly agreed to stop being Indian. In fact terminated tribal people moved into cities and became “urban Indians”, a term many attributed in a negative way to be a racism pejorative.

Years later elders at the tribes began telling their own versions of what happened. Many stated that “they never heard that termination was happening” or “they never voted for termination” or ‘we were never told when the hearings were to be”.  Essentially, the tribes did not elect to be terminated.

United States Capitol Building 2014
United States Capitol Building 2014

This story then is a conundrum, which is the truth? It turns out that the tribal members were telling the truth. The Indian agent in Portland falsified agreements by the tribes, and reported to his superiors that the tribes agreed, which is not at all what they had done in the months preceding the termination vote by Congress.

Then in the agency’s own correspondence, they admitted the tribes did not agree.

It turns out that the tribal stories of what occurred were more accurate than the published history of termination.

Oral histories historically are not considered a reliable source of tribal history. They are relegated to the status of fictional tales, morality tales, or lessons about life.

In recent decades, this situation has begun changing. Now histories told be the tribes in the 19th century are being analyzed for historical content. We simply need to understand how to read the story. It takes someone with a native perspective to begin to understand what the stories are about. this may seem to be an unreasonable argument but for over 100 years most of these stories were not seen as legitimate – as mythological folklore by the very scientists tasked with analyzing them. So a native perspective is very valuable to understanding the symbols and metaphors that may exist in the stories.

De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground
De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground

We are now looking for the historical truth in oral histories that were previously dismissed. In Oregon, we have stories of how mountains would fight, usually over some maiden. Common are stories about Mt. Shasta and Mt. Mazama, or Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. In the Shasta and Mazama stories, the description is so vivid that it is apparent that native people were present at the event.

mount_st_helens_erupting_at_night_by_paul_kane
Eruption of Mt St Helens, Paul Kane 1840s.

The story describes how the cone of Mazama, the top of the mountain, collapsed down into the mountain during a volcanic event involving both Shasta and Mazama – what appeared to be a literal fight – creating what we today know as Crater lake – with Shasta being the winner. People, ancestors of the Klamath tribe were there at the event – around 7000 YBP – witnessed the ‘fight’ and reliably passed down the story to the present day.  With Hood and St. Helens, there is described a fight over a maiden – likely a huge volcanic event involving both mountains – which resulted in the collapse of the Bridge of the Gods, a natural rock bridge over the Columbia.

Public art, representation of Bridge of the Gods
Public art, representation of Bridge of the Gods

Finally for the Tolowa people on the Oregon and California coast- they have a story of a tsunami, a flood event. Their story discusses how some people escaped to the top of Mt. Emily – they call En-Mi – to survive the flood. All of the other people died, and three survivors had to begin anew.

Tolowa Tribal people and their plankhouse c. 1900
Tolowa Tribal people and their plank house c. 1900

Now with this new understanding a whole range of research is available to us. Areas of geo-mythology can reveal that native people were watching volcanic events seven thousand years ago.  Look for stories of how geological events influenced tribal stories in the next story you read.

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