Indigenous Peoples’ Day op ed

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On October seventh, Portland joined a small but growing number of cities that have replaced Columbus Day, a federally-recognized holiday, with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in honor of our Native American citizens.  The movement to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day started in 1992 (the quincentenary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas), when Berkeley, California chose to adopt it.

The original intent of Indigenous Peoples’ Day was to recognize the incredible loss to Native Americans that came in the wake of Columbus–through disease, warfare, loss of land base and confinement to reservations, policies of acculturation and assimilation, boarding schools…on and on–a cascading series of events that led to massive loss of life and traditional culture.  The topic is huge in Western and World history, but few people know or understand much about it, since it has not been taught in schools.

By far the greatest loss came from introduced diseases, and I’ve covered that thoroughly for the Northwest in my early research and publications.  But there is another, more positive side to celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and that is recognizing and learning more about the diversity and complexity of Native American cultures and peoples that have both been lost and that remain with us.  There is a great lack of knowledge, especially at the local level, about Native American history and culture, and raising awareness about that for the Portland Basin is what my op ed, which appeared in the October 25 Sunday Oregonian, was meant to do.  I also floated several ideas–relatively easy-to-do if awareness of Native peoples is on one’s radar– that might increase visibility and understanding of local Native American culture in the Portland Basin.  Maybe by the time Indigenous Peoples’ Day rolls along again in 2016 some of these will be closer to becoming part of public awareness and urban policy.

Here the op ed is:


Indigenous Peoples Day is just a start; we can do more

Robert Boyd  IN MY OPINION


On Oct. 7, the Portland City council formally declared the second Monday in October “Indigenous peoples Day,” in honor of our Native American citizens.  A commendable step, and nice words, but now let’s back it up with some action, ‘walk the talk,” and bring Portland’s rich native American heritage and the descendants of its “first peoples’ back into civic affairs and city life where they belong.

In the early 1800s, there were upwards of 30 native villages recorded in the Portland Basin, clustered in three areas: around Sauvie Island and Lake River (Lewis and Clark’s “Wwappato nation”); along the Columbia river from Vancouver to Cascade Locks (the Cascades people); and below Willamette Falls and on the Clackamas River.  All spoke varieties of Kiksht, the Upper Chinook language.

The villages contained long and spacious red cedar plankhouses, usually ranged in a line along river banks.  Each was politically autonomous, though linked by networks of kin relations.  The people moved seasonally to fisheries, wetlands and wet and dry prairies to collect wild foods, when they lived in temporary structures.  They had a material culture based on woodworking and a distinctive regional art style; they made large dugout canoes and traded prestige objects over a wide area; they practiced a religion centered on animal and guardian spirits and celebrated first-salmon and winter spirit dances.  And they had a rich oral literature of myths and tales–a sample of which was preserved in the recorded traditions of Clackamas speaker Victoria Wishikin Howard, just before she died in 1930.

In addition, the living, breathing culture of the “people before Portland” was recorded on the spot by Lewis and Clark and many other observers before the fatal years of the early 1830s, when annual summer epidemics of “fever and ague” took most of the native people to their graves.

In the late 1830s non-Chinookan natives (Upper Cowlitz, Klikatat and Molala) moved closer to the rivers, and in the 1840s, white settlers immigrated en masse, overwhelming all first peoples.  In the mid-1850s native survivors were collected on four temporary reserves–near St. Helens, the Portland International Airport, Gladstone and Fort Vancouver, before removal to the Grand Ronde (Oregon) or Yakama (Washington) reservations.  Most descendants of the Portland Basin Upper Chinook people today belong to the Grand Ronde Tribe, but others are enrolled elsewhere, and many reside again in the greater Portland area.

In the past year, there have been several events that hint at a reawakening of interest in greater Portland’s native heritage.  On March 29, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield Wildlie Reserve celebrated its 190th anniversary; on May 16, Khunamokwst (“together”) park in the Cully neighborhood opened; on April 17, the Grand Ronde Tribe held a gifting ceremony at the new Tilikum (“people”) Crossing light-rail bridge, and on Sept. 12, the bridge formally opened.  And on Oct. 17, the Portland Art Museum opened its Center for Contemporary Native Art, highlighting the work of two Chinookan descendants whose art is grounded in the traditional regional style.

Studies of Portland native cultures are ongoing at both Portland State University and Grand Ronde, but Portland Basin governments and agencies can do much more in collaborating with the tribes and increasing native visibility.  Here are some thoughts: Expand the naming program to streets and buildings, using both Kiksht and Chinuk Wawa (the trade language) words, and honor notable figures such as Chief Kiesno and Victoria Howard; commission more public art works in the Chinook style such as already exist at Tilikum Crossing, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse and Blue Lake and Parker’s landing parks; concentrate on the restoration of not just rivers and fishes but wetlands and prairies and keystone native resource species: wapato, camas, and Oregon oak; and–really thinking big–build a plankhouse similar to that at Ridgefield on the Oregon side of the river.  An ideal location would be the newly reopened Willamette Falls, the site of a major fishery and close to three pre-removal villages.  Then during the annual summer intertribal “canoe journey,” native canoes could sail up the river to the falls like they did 200 years ago.  What a wonderful way to honor our native heritage and recognize Portland’s pre-settlement roots that would be.

Robert Boyd ( is affiliated research faculty in the anthropology department at Portland State University and lead editor of “Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia.”