Tribal historian searching for elusive 1857 Executive Order

10.14.2014 Dean Rhodes History, Tribal employees

Tribal Historian David Lewis traveled to Washington, D.C., in August on a search for the original Executive Order establishing the Grand Ronde Reservation that was signed by President James Buchanan in 1857.

 Records of presidential Executive Orders were first organized and numbered in 1860, three years after Buchanan's Executive Order establishing the Tribe's reservation was signed.

In addition, back in those days Executive Orders were sometimes written on the reverse side of maps, increasing the chances that it might have been misplaced.

Buchanan's Executive Order, like other documents Lewis uncovers and brings back to the Chachalu Museum & Cultural Center, increases the size and stature of the Tribal facility.

"These documents are used," Lewis says, "as tools to show, or for further research on all kinds of things."

Federal documents, in general, are not always easy to track down, Lewis says. Whatever the intent of archivists, individual documents can wind up in any of dozens of repositories located across the country.

Complicating matters, documents can be misnamed or incorrectly filed. In addition, it can be a long while before younger archivists, like Lewis, have accumulated the expertise for navigating these sources.

Lewis has tracked down material at the National Archives in Seattle and in Washington, D.C., and environs -- Archives 2 at Suitland, Md., the National Anthropological Archives at College Park, Md., The Library of Congress and now the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

"I'm learning more about how these collections work," Lewis says. "Next time, I'll have a better idea of how to do this faster. It's a process of understanding what's in the guides and what's not."

In Oregon, Lewis has pursued Tribal history at the Oregon Historical Society's library, University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives, and other heritage collections throughout western Oregon.

Other trips in search of new historical acquisitions or further information about documents already in the Chachalu collection will include visits to repositories at the University of Washington, the University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

At the Oregon Historical Society in Portland a few years ago, Lewis uncovered a passbook naming long deceased Tribal members. The passbook noted and dated the comings and goings of Tribal members living under the command of the U.S. Army at what is now Fort Yamhill State Park, for a time represented in Grand Ronde by then-Lt. Phil Sheridan.

The August trip was the fourth time Lewis has been researching in Washington, D.C. His objectives now go beyond the search for Tribal documents like maps, correspondence, illustrations, land and water surveys, and anthropological studies.

"Another part of the job is figuring out what we have and what we don't have," he says. "We have been working on collecting documents of the Tribe since the 1990s. Finding the Executive Order establishing the Grand Ronde Reservation is primary on our list. I've been asking archivists and historians working the field if they know where it is and nobody yet has found it."

The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians found the Executive Order establishing its coastal Indian reservation in transfer documents being sent to Congress.

After many previous visits to repositories in the Washington, D.C., area, Lewis now has a base of professionals to share with and learn from.

The thrill of the process for Lewis is learning from archival experts in many fields. Advisers include Jo Allyn Archambault, curator at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, and Gina Rappaport, director of the National Anthropological Archives.

The Executive Order hasn't turned up yet; not at the Smithsonian, not among Buchanan's papers and not from any professional sources that he has asked about it along the way.

"It's just a matter of time," Lewis says.

He spent much time in Washington, D.C., going through microfilm. He says he hopes to still find letters related to the Grand Ronde Tribe discussing the Reservation.

"I pulled a reel from 1872 with correspondence and reports about the Grand Ronde Reservation," he says.

He went through the national anthropology records. He looked at surveys from the 1940s. "They were doing river surveys, some on the Columbia, some on the Willamette. I marked a good number for copying, which will come later on."

Paper materials are scanned to pdf files that are then delivered to Lewis or sent to the Tribe. Many three-dimensional objects, such as baskets and stone works, also come from Grand Ronde Tribal members and neighbors, and the Tribe occasionally buys items from Margaret Mathewson, a nationally known expert in Native baskets.

When documents arrive at the museum, says Veronica Montano, Cultural Collections coordinator, the process of cleaning and preserving the items made of natural compositions begins. Whether three-dimensional or paper-based, "All materials will be cleaned, scanned and put into computer programs where metadata is attached; we make sure it's filed right and then box it for archival storage."

The pieces come in packages large and small. "We've been pretty steady at one a week," Montano says. "There have been times when they come in five times a week. And sometimes 20 boxes of stuff."

To date, Montano says, the museum has about 5,500 items, 550 baskets and more than 2,500 stone pieces. The rest is paper-based, all filed away on laser-fiche. The collection is measured in lineal feet, but calculating those feet is an ongoing project, she says.

Lewis had other objectives for the visit, too.

He went as a Smithsonian Fellow and gave a talk at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and another at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, where he is a member.

He went with a mission to also find old maps of the Grand Ronde area, including its ceded lands. The repository in College Park, for example, holds cartographic maps.

"I went there looking for the maps of Oregon drawn up by the military and explorers," Lewis says. "I wanted to find if there were any maps we don't have here. I got four maps: a military map of the Oregon territory, two of the reservation that showed allotments, and one more, a map of the ratified treaty areas with ceded lands."

Other benefits accrue along the way.

"A lot of times I'll go to a museum," Lewis says. "This last trip, I went to the National Museum of American Indians. We look at how work is presented, the titles and the materials used, to see how they do it and bring it home. They're professionals and we're new at it.

"It's part of a learning process. It's an intuitive process; a learned experience. A lot of time it's a look, a font that combines new and old history, writing styles, how much text to put on a panel."

Much of the story of the Tribe's history is still out there, and Lewis and his staff are in search of it … especially one document signed by President James Buchanan.