‘Oregon’s First People’ film premieres

12.14.2021 Danielle Harrison Events
Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy is prominently featured in the new film “Oregon’s First People” that will eventually be shown to visitors at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive & Visitor Center once the COVID-19 pandemic abates. Here, Kennedy welcomes viewers to the Grand Ronde Tribe’s homelands in a trailer for the film. Other Tribal members featured in the movie are Jon A. George, Denise Harvey, Kathleen George and Secretary Michael Langley. (Photo contributed by the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive & Visitor Center)


OREGON CITY -- The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive & Visitor Information Center’s new film has credits that read like a “Who’s Who in Grand Ronde?” with several Tribal Council members and Cultural Resources employees featured.

Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy is featured as a hologram in “Oregon’s First People,” where she welcomes film viewers to Willamette Falls, which is located near the center.

“My ancestors are from this place,” Kennedy says. “They lived in villages on these lands, fished at these falls and regulated commerce in the region for thousands and thousands of years. My great-grandfather was Chief Wacheno. He was a chief at Willamette Falls when the settlers arrived in Oregon.”

Kennedy talks about how Native people became ill after the settlers arrived and eventually had their villages destroyed, plankhouses burned and were removed from their homelands.

“Today, we are rebuilding our community and our homelands,” she says. “We are a thankful people, even in hardship. For we know it has made us stronger and has given us the ability to succeed.”

 The 37-minute film was financed through grants, matching funds and in-kind donations.

Interpretive Center Director Gail Yazzolino, a driving force behind the film’s creation, is hopeful the center will reopen in the spring of 2022 so that visitors can view it, along with a featured exhibit about the Grand Ronde Tribe’s long history in the area as keepers of the falls. The center has been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The dream (for this film) started in 2011,” Yazzolino said. “I thought we needed to have a movie which told people the whole story of the history here.”

Yazzolino met with then-Public Affairs Director Siobhan Taylor, whom she knew from working together on other projects. Taylor was accompanied by Tribal Council member Jon A. George, Kennedy, Cultural Policy Analyst Greg Archuleta and others, and planning began. George serves on the Clackamas Heritage Partners Board of Directors, which operates the museum, and worked closely with Yazzolino on the film premiere, along with other projects.

“It was an absolute honor to work on the film team. … It was a collective venture from individuals to create this 30-minute film that will be shown at the center,” George said. “I would especially like to thank Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham for his cultural and historic input for accuracy content. The movie does not Hollywoodize the short film, but instead tells the truth that is educational for the busloads of kids and the public from all around the world that will come and see the film.”

George added that the most important aspect of the film for him is its accuracy.

“The movie shows we are still here as Native peoples living and integrated into today’s society and as a living culture and sovereign government, and for young ones to learn of the past and (who) will hopefully stand up as to not repeat the past, especially with today’s issues with equity and inclusion. … This was a two-year venture due to COVID, but is now completed and ready for public viewing when the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center gets ready to reopen soon.”

Tribal Council member Kathleen George said that the film marks a “foundational change” in how the museum tells the story.

“This museum, focused on the Oregon Trail, is choosing to tell a more true and just history of Oregon’s first people,” she said. “It also shows the continuing challenges faced by Tribal people, not just in the state’s history, but in our lifetime and today. It is an honor to help correct the record and share the perseverance of our Elders.”    

Yazzolino first became interested in including more Tribal history at the museum after joining the staff in 2004. The museum temporarily closed in 2009 due to the recession and low visitor numbers. With the help of grants, it was able to reopen, and Yazzolino subsequently revised the business plan and pored through consultant reports to see where it could improve.

“One thing we needed to change was the programming,” Yazzolino said. “We needed to tell the whole story. We made major changes and also reached out to the Tribe, and to the Oregon Black Pioneers.”

The Tribe has partnered with the museum on different projects over the years, including signage describing the Tribe’s ceded lands and the effects of westward migration. Archuleta, Tribal Historian David Lewis and Ceded Lands Manager Michael Karnosh led those efforts.

“It is historical signage that depicts the Native experience,” Yazzolino said. “We wanted to enhance that again. Jon and I discussed future exhibit opportunities with the Tribe, and Cheryle and Greg talked about how cool it would be to have their story told. That dream never left us.”

In early 2019, Yazzolino applied for and received a Metro Enhancement Grant for the film. Between the $40,000 received from Metro, $78,000 in matching funds from the Clackamas Heritage Partners general fund and $15,015 of in-kind donations from the Tribe, the Interpretive Center had enough funds to begin production of the film, which was completed in late 2020.

Yazzolino was hoping to open the Interpretive Center last spring and show the film to visitors, but the pandemic had other plans. A premiere was held on Friday, Nov. 12, for approximately 40 invited guests, which included several representatives from the Grand Ronde Tribe.

“It is a dream come true ... a milestone to be at a point where we can share this project with the (Grand Ronde) community,” Yazzolino said.

In addition to Kennedy, Tribal Council members featured in the film include Jon A. George, Denise Harvey, Kathleen George and Secretary Michael Langley.

Lands Department Manager Jan Michael Reibach provided music for the production. Beckham, Tribal Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier, Communications Director Sara Thompson and Chief of Staff Stacia Hernandez also contributed.

“We all worked really well together and I was so glad they were pleased with it,” Yazzolino said. “It means a lot to me that they trusted what we would do with the information.”

Future plans for the Interpretive Center are to build an interactive plankhouse with a Tribal consultant and continue to develop the Abernathy-Green Land Claim exhibit to more accurately portray the history of the people who have been in Oregon since time immemorial. Although the pandemic has complicated matters, Tribal artisan Brian Krehbiel carved a canoe and paddles that are featured in the exhibit to accompany historically accurate signage created by Archuleta. 

“We want to be able to have the kids come here and build small plankhouses, learn about traditional foods and plant those first foods in our garden,” Yazzolino said. 

When it opens to the public, the film will be shown on the big screen in the Interpretive Center. It was produced by Cinemagic Studios of Portland.

“Every step of the way brought me to more of an understanding of the Tribal culture and how it works,” Yazzolino said. “This is sometimes a difficult story to tell because of all the negative things that happened in the past. But when Cheryle was here, we worked through all of that. We went full circle with it. At one point, I was beginning to wonder if it was too hard a story to tell, but now I feel really good about all of it.”