Renewing the World

Among the Athapaskan peoples of southern Oregon and northern California, there are world renewal ceremonies.  These ceremonies take place over 10 days and involve increasingly extravagant displays of wealth. Beginning with pine nut adorned regalia and necklaces, the progression is to dentalium adored regalia. The ceremonies are highly stylized involving dancing and songs that call on ancestors to help people in the new year, to bring a good smelt harvest and to balance and renew the world for the health and welfare of the people and their environment.

Tolowa Coastal town 19th century
Tolowa Coastal town 19th century

For over 100 years the traditional lifestyles for this area of the world were heavy colonized. In fact Indian agents made it illegal to practice native ceremonies and people had to go into a more secretive form of the ceremonies.  Some reports from Siletz and Grand Ronde have people clearing our a house to be used for a dance house. Other places people would dance in a bowling alley or movie theater. But the opposition to plank house and dance house  ceremonies was so extreme that for 100 years at least people did not build plank houses. In the 1970’s this all changed for this area of the California and Oregon coastal tribes.

Tolowa and Yurok dancers circa 1920s
Tolowa and Yurok dancers circa 1920s

Plankhouse traditions in western Oregon have seen incredible restorative work in the past 20 years. The origin is with the Smith River Rancheria in the 1970s and 80s. There, traditional dancemaker and scholar Loren Bommelyn created the foundation of the movement, with his work on creating the Tolowa language master apprentice technique, parallel restoration of the Feather Dance (Nee-dash) and the building of a dancehouse. Concurrently, the neighboring Yurok Nation has worked to build plankhouses at Requa, Siletz built their Plankhouse in the 1990s, and the Coquille Indian Tribe Siletz and Grand Ronde have now all restored and built their own plankhouses. These are the first such buildings of this type in at least 100 years, since they were burned and otherwise discouraged by the United States Government.

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Historic Plankhouse

The Grand Ronde Plankhouse was finished in 2010 after a decade of work by many people in the tribe. The Grand Ronde effort was initially lead by Grand Ronde elder and archaeologist Don Day, who worked to restore traditional planksplitting traditions. His early work began with the development of wooden splitting wedges and wooden mallets. Don worked with tribal members to split ten-foot cedar logs with only wooden tools. In the course of a decade of work Don has taught hundreds of tribal members throughout the Northwest to split cedar planks and developed advanced techniques for splitting planks from cedar logs of any length.

Grand Ronde Plankhouse, Achaf-hammi
Grand Ronde Plankhouse, Achafhammi

Don took his inspiration to the Grand Ronde Tribal Council and got the approval to begin work on developing and building a Plankhouse. Tribal members worked on the project over the years using many tons of old growth cedar logs donated by the Willamette National Forest. The project was completed in 2010 under leadership of Cultural Specialist Bobby Mercier and other tribal members and employees.

Building the Grand Ronde Plankhouse
Building the Grand Ronde Plankhouse

Additional projects have occurred off-reservation, at universities and colleges with developing Native Studies programs. Don has worked to create hand-split plankhouses for the Museum of Cultural and Natural History in Eugene, OR. Don then contributed to the University of Oregon Plankhouse, and the recently completed Lane Community College Plankhouse (2010).

Don Day Planksplitting
Don Day Planksplitting

The restoration of plankhouses has also spread to the Columbia River with the building of the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in the Chinook territory. This plankhouse is located at Ridgefield National Wildlife refuge in Washington.

Cathapotle Plankhouse
Cathapotle Plankhouse

These restoration activities parallel those of the restoration of canoe traditions as tribes seek to restore what was thought to have been lost through the colonization of our lands over 100 years ago. Tribes have discovered that they can effectively network and support one another to find the wisdom and knowledge to help one another in restoration of significant cultural art-forms. These collaborative projects include canoe journeys, carving traditions, language restoration and preservation, dance, song and ceremony restoration, ethnobotany and recovery of history.

David Lewis Planksplitting at the Mill Casino in Coos Bay Oregon 2005.
David Lewis and Don Day Planksplitting at the Mill Casino in Coos Bay Oregon, with Coquille Conference onlookers, c. 2005.
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