Tribal historian David Lewis is first Sips ‘n’ Science speaker

10.31.2022 Danielle Harrison Education
David Lewis (contributed photo)


By Danielle Harrison

Smoke Signals assistant editor/staff writer

Tribal historian and Oregon State University Professor David Lewis discussed Kalapuya Tribes and their legacy in the Willamette Valley as the first featured speaker for a nonprofit Sips ‘n’ Science series.

Approximately 93 people logged into Zoom to attend the virtual event, while another 30 gathered at the Brew Coffee and Tap House in Independence for a watch party on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Lewis began the webinar by jokingly lamenting over one aspect that wasn’t possible with him presenting over a virtual platform. “I’d really prefer to be talking with you all in person and drinking a beer,” he said.

Lewis is a descendant of the Santiam Kalapuya, Chinook, Molalla, Takelma and Yoncalla Kalapuya peoples. He has served as manager of the Grand Ronde Cultural Resources Department and past Chachalu Museum curator and Tribal historian. He has a doctorate degree in anthropology from the University of Oregon and directed the Southwest Oregon Research Project. He is currently an assistant professor of anthropology and ethnic studies at Oregon State and lives in Salem.

The webinar was hosted by the nonprofit Luckiamute Watershed Council, which is based in Independence. It includes a volunteer group of neighbors from diverse backgrounds working to “improve local water quality and habitat conditions.”

Luckiamute Watershed Council Outreach Coordinator Suzanne Teller introduced Lewis to the virtual and in-person audiences.

“His website is one of the most comprehensive resources on Indigenous Oregon culture that I have ever seen,” she said. 

Lewis provided attendees with an overview of the Kalapuya’s pre-contact original culture, how they lived off the land and the adjustments made when settlers arrived. He also discussed the removal to reservations, treaties, cultural changes and how Tribal members adjusted to life on the Grand Ronde Reservation as farmers during the first 20 years after it was established in 1855 and 1856.

“The Kalapuyas were all a part of the Columbia River trade network and had their own specialized products that they would trade with other Tribes,” Lewis said. “The Kalapuya area was in the Willamette Valley and Umpqua Valley. They were very welcoming to other people on their lands, and weren’t particularly protective of their valleys and prairies.”

Lewis said that although the oldest uncovered Kalapuya sites date back 9,500 years, oral tradition puts their existence at before the Missoula Floods, which cut a swath through what is now the Columbia River Gorge and Willamette Valley 15,000 to 18,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

“There are stories of people escaping by running up a mountain to get away from a giant flood, probably the Missoula Floods, upwards of 18,000 years ago,” Lewis said. “Now we look at those oral histories as actual history. They weren’t respected before because they were thought to be too fantastic to be real. But during the last 30 to 40 years, people have confirmed these geological, volcanic and tsunami events did happen. Perhaps these stories are eyewitness accounts of seeing history happen around them.

“The Kalapuyas are not a recent people. We are one of the oldest Tribes of the area and the language is one of the oldest if not the oldest.”

Next, Lewis showed attendees a “seasonal round” Kalapuya calendar, which included different seasons for gathering first foods such as camas, acorns and wapato.

“There wasn’t any fishing listed, and only a hint of hunting,” he said. “The Kalapuyas were more centered around the plants. At least three times a year, they would dig and cook camas in underground ovens. It was a common winter food, along with wapato, acorns and other root plants. Drying it out made it easier to pack and take with them to trade for other items or to bring it back to a village. … Camas ovens have been found that are more than 7,000 years old in the Willamette Valley.”

In the winter, the Kalapuyas stayed indoors as much as possible because they typically didn’t wear clothing and needed to keep warm.

During the summer, when the village women would leave to gather camas and wapato, they would put their tents on raised ground that they built up to avoid seasonal flooding.

“Since Western Oregon had a lot of rain, flooding was a common sight,” Lewis said. “It was a common cycle that has been interrupted the past few hundred years by humans. … The Kalapuyas were likely used to and adapted to an area that was a wetland most of the year. They knew to plan around a rainstorm.”

Most Kalapuyas had permanent winter villages above the floodplain and seasonal gathering villages further down the rivers in locations that were easy for canoes to access.   

Lewis said that after settlers began arriving en masse to Oregon in the 1840s, they laid claim to the land and wanted to farm it, resulting in draining the wetlands and destroying Native food sources like camas and wapato.

This, along with the diseases settlers brought, like malaria and smallpox, destroyed entire Native communities.

“It destroyed 97 percent of some Tribes,” Lewis said. “Where there had been 10 villages, now there was one. Some Tribes disappeared altogether.”

With food sources scarce and most settlers unwilling to share, the Tribes resorted to taking food and cattle.

“Then they were called vagrants and thieves,” Lewis said. “They tried to subsist on their own, but couldn’t get enough food. The settlers wanted to get rid of the Tribes and genocide was proposed as one solution.”

During this time, rape, murder and indentured servitude of Native people was common in Oregon, Lewis said, and none of the white men who perpetrated the crimes were brought to justice. Native people couldn’t even take them to court because they were not yet considered U.S. citizens.  

 The Indian agents of the Northwest decided to put the Tribes on a reservation in exchange for providing medical care, education, food and safety. All of the Willamette Valley Tribes were remanded to the Grand Ronde Reservation after signing treaties that were never ultimately honored.

On the Reservation, Tribal people were expected to become farmers, but weren’t given the tools or land to do so. Their children were often forced to attend boarding schools far from home and missionaries were brought to the Reservations, which made attending church mandatory.

Lewis said that these activities were done with the purpose of “civilizing” the Indigenous Tribes by stripping them of the culture, language and customs, and replacing it with a colonial version.

That purposeful erasure has continuing reverberations in modern society, where most people know little to nothing about the history and culture of Tribes, and have many assumptions. Lewis said that anthropology has been complicit in creating theories of Native peoples that were found later to be incorrect, but still persist in society today.

Lewis ended his 80-minute presentation by taking several questions from the online and in-person audience.

For more information on Lewis’s anthropology research, visit