Tribe holds third annual History & Culture Summit

11.12.2015 Brent Merrill Culture, History, Events, Tribal Employees

The question on everyone’s mind was “What is culture?” as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde held its third annual History and Culture Summit on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 28-29, with the theme of “Bridging Practices with Interdisciplinary Thinking.”

Topics covered over the two-day summit included subjects like Tribal language programs, health and wellness, cultural education, archaeology, sacred sites and spaces, repatriation, Columbia River art, storytelling, educational curriculum, environmental resources, land conservation and the eternal question of what determines one’s culture.

The first day began with Tribal Council member Jon A. George welcoming more than 200 audience members – including Tribal members, Tribal Elders, Tribal staff members, visiting Tribal members, scholars, educators, nonprofit representatives and a multitude of government agency staff from organizations like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Transportation, Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers.

“It is such an honor to be able to stand before you to talk to people who care for this land,” said George. “We’re here today to talk about culture and to talk about history. What is culture? We say it is the beliefs, the customs and the arts of a particular society, group, place or time. And we look at history as a study of our past events.

“I’m here today to talk to you about who we are as a Native people. That is why you’re here today. I think a lot of the culture defines who we are – who we are as a Native people, it defines where we come from and it defines our values. We care for our surroundings. We are the original stewards of the land.”

George said it was efforts to get the Tribe restored to federal recognition that began an important time for him and all Tribal members.

“When we were restored in 1983 through the efforts of our Elders, we got to begin to learn our culture again,” said George. “We’re speaking our language. Today, I get to weave baskets. Today, I get to carve. I’m so thankful that our culture has returned to us. Our history is here to teach our younger generations not to forget our Elders and our past.

“It also allows us to educate; educate others not to forget our past. Today, I look forward to you all being able to remember the people who are helping to teach us who we are. Every day I grow in who we are. So I welcome you all today.”

Summit organizer and moderator David Harrelson, who is a Tribal member and the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Office manager, followed George’s welcoming with his own opening comments.

“We get the wonderful opportunity to intersect between living culture and practice, academia, government agencies and policy – these are all things that we as a staff get to do,” said Harrelson. “The goal of this summit is to try and provide that to Tribal members as well as those individual people that we interact with all the time. We put on this summit to inform and connect people.

“I’m excited to share what’s going on in Grand Ronde and have you all reflect about that with each other and maybe take some of our ideas and bring them home. Or maybe you have ideas that you can share with us that we can start to bring into our community.”

Harrelson said that the depth of the work that goes on in Grand Ronde is “immense.”

“The Tribe is a nation and we are running all aspects and facets of a nation,” said Harrelson.

The summit’s opening day consisted of 12 concurrent sessions covering language, building communities through culture, archaeology and Tribal perspectives. Presenters included Tribal member and Cultural Education and Outreach Program Manager Kathy Cole and a group of her students ranging from preschool to high school ages. The children performed a demonstration of their knowledge of Chinuk Wawa and they sang a couple of songs in the language with the guidance of Tribal members Ali Holsclaw and Jeff Mercier. Holsclaw is the Tribe’s Chinuk Immersion teacher and Mercier is a Chinuk assistant.

Presenters Jedd Schrock and Dr. Henry Zenk concluded the morning language session with presentations on the nearly extinct Tualatin (also known as Northern Kalapuya) language and the Umpqua Athapaskan languages.

Schrock and Zenk detailed their knowledge of Tribal ancestors Louis Kenoyer and John Warren. Kenoyer spoke the Tualatin language and Warren spoke the Umpqua language and was also the father of late Tribal Elder Nora Kimsey, who walked on in 2011 at the age of 102.

Warren, who was born in 1863, was the last known speaker of the Umpqua language. He also spoke Chinuk Wawa as well as English.

After the first day of concurrent sessions, summit attendees gathered at achaf-hammi, the Tribal plankhouse, for a salmon dinner and socializing with Tribal members and the Tribe’s Canoe Family.

“Those people got to witness our people being who we are in a way that is deeply meaningful to a lot of Tribal members,” said Tribal member Jordan Mercier, who is the Tribe’s Cultural Protection coordinator and was an integral part of the History and Culture Summit.

“Having those people in there (achaf-hammi) to hear it and see it just communicates at a completely different level that is just impossible to reach with words or pictures or graphs or charts or however we normally communicate with those people. We’re always trying to communicate meaning to people about Grand Ronde and our history and our culture. We do that on a day-to-day basis, but nothing can bring that point home stronger than them just coming and just being around us and witnessing our songs and dances and the things we do.”

The summit’s second day began with six more concurrent sessions in the Tribe’s Community Center.

Tribal member and Tribal Artisan Travis Stewart started with a presentation about Columbia River art titled “Chasing Shadows: The Revitalization of Traditional Design.”

Stewart showed examples of his work in the Columbia River style and his presentation covered the challenges of retaining an art form that has been dormant for generations and how it has become relevant again through current use.

Tribal Fish and Wildlife Coordinator Kelly Dirksen and Umatilla Tribal member Gabe Sheoships concluded the morning sessions talking about Pacific lamprey and the species’ traditional importance to Tribes and their culture. They each detailed the current state of lamprey and went into detail of its past relevance to Tribes.

Sheoships, who worked for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission for 15 years, is an adjunct professor at Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash., a private university owned and operated by the Yakama Indian Nation.

“Gabe is a model example of an up-and-coming leader in Indian Country who knows how to work with Tribal communities,” said Harrelson when he introduced Sheoships.

Sheoships began his presentation by explaining that Pacific lamprey as a species are older than the dinosaurs and that he gathered much of the information for his studies from talking to 32 Elders from the Grand Ronde, Siletz and Umatilla Tribes about their experiences with lamprey.

“Lamprey are the oldest living fish species,” said Sheoships. “They are 450 million to 500 million years old. They actually predate and outlived the dinosaurs. They are far older than sturgeon.”

Sheoships said it was the Tribes that first noticed that Pacific lamprey were in decline. He added that Willamette Falls near Oregon City is the last abundant harvest area for lamprey.

One of the Elders he worked with while gathering information on lamprey was Grand Ronde Tribal Elder Carol Logan. Logan took Sheoships up to Rose Lodge Falls on the nearby Salmon River to show him one of the traditional harvesting locations that can no longer support a harvest.

“Carol is an amazing person,” said Sheoships. “It was wonderful to work with her and all the other Grand Ronde Elders.”

Sheoships showed a video that he and Logan shot of a lone lamprey that spent four hours that day trying to breach the falls.

“I want to thank you for doing this,” said Logan during the question-and-answer period following Sheoships’ presentation. “The healing that comes from our eels and our salmon, the impact is so strong. We need to help all of our people to help these to come back and to have the opportunity to go on. I look at that place (Rose Lodge Falls) as a very sacred place.”

After the morning session concluded, the summit moved to Chachalu, the Tribe’s museum complex, for several breakout sessions.

The breakout sessions covered indigenous archaeology, health and wellness, repatriation and collections and a session titled “What is Culture?” by Oregon Humanities Executive Director Dr. Adam Davis.

Tribal Council members Tonya Gleason-Shepek and Chris Mercier attended Davis’ session and each said they learned something.

“It was a lot of great information,” said Gleason-Shepek. “It was cool to see that we are telling our side of the story, our side of the history and creating that balance and accuracy. We are constantly trying to teach people who we are and what it means to be sovereign. People want to understand the true history.”

Gleason-Shepek said she felt the summit was important because it gave the Tribe an opportunity to show people that we are unique.

“We want people to know we are good partners and we want to show people who we are,” said Gleason-Shepek.

Mercier said he was happy that he attended the session.

“I liked it. It definitely got me thinking,” said Mercier. “One of the things I took from it was where you live and how much you love where you live makes a big difference in who you are. Being part of this Tribe, we are exposed to this world and culture that a lot of people are not.”

Mercier said he agreed with Gleason-Shepek about the importance of the summit.

“I think it is important that people know who we are,” said Mercier. “I think with Termination it would have been tempting for a lot of people to think that the Tribal communities didn’t exist anymore.

“And I think people need to understand that there was a lot of history and there was a completely different group of people living lives out in this area hundreds of years ago of which little is known. We try to learn what we can and pass that along.” 

Harrelson and Jordan Mercier summed up the summit by saying it was a valuable experience and that they were proud of the Tribal community for coming together to make it happen.

“It was a success,” said Harrelson. “It was more than we wanted it to be. Our lives are immensely rich because we get to do this as a career.”

“People got a chance to hear ideas that they are not normally exposed to,” said Jordan Mercier.

Harrelson thanked all of the presenters, the kitchen staff, the Facilities Department, Information Systems, the Culture Department, Public Affairs and Tribal government staff for helping make the summit so successful.  

“Culture is really good for the health of the community,” said Harrelson. “The sense of belonging can be healing.”