Nonprofit leader: Willamette Falls history deserves attention
This publication's recent article "Oregon City delays memorial site to Native people hanged in 1800s" is the most definitive account and explanation of longstanding issues and current approaches regarding Willamette Falls, its Native peoples and the interaction of settlers and now modern policy makers and interested nonprofits.
Our government leaders in Oregon City, West Linn, and the many nonprofits working to showcase Willamette Falls and the region should not feel unduly criticized, because these issues now surfacing go back to the 1800s when none of us were here, except Native peoples. Few today understand the dynamic that was being imposed upon the many tribes around Willamette Falls or even those on the upper Columbia at Celilo Falls.
Raymond Rendleman, editor of the Oregon City News, needs to have more than "shoutouts" for this well-done and thoroughly researched discussion. The issues in and around Willamette Falls — and also Celilo Falls on the Columbia — are very complex, due to the nature of trading and commerce that early people enjoyed. Upper Columbia Native people, such as the Umatilla, Klickitat, and Yakima — certainly had interest in establishing their position at Willamette Falls when so many thousands of Native peoples died in that area during the pandemic of 1829 and before. Those natives, especially in the Willamette Valley, had little resistance to smallpox and later malaria.
David Douglas, the great botanist and explorer, witnessed the demise of Native peoples of the Willamette Valley and lower Columbia due to disease. He discussed, in his journals, the richness of all Northwest Native peoples in his early explorations of 1824/25. When he returned in 1828 and continued explorations in 1829, he saw the Native people's utter destruction.
In 1993, Oregon State Police and federal fisheries personnel were required to assist at Willamette Falls as upper-Columbia tribes sought to construct fishing platforms and other features at the falls. Most of these efforts were not particularly successful since the Willamette River spring runoff was extreme and difficult, far more so than the massive bluffs of basalt at Celilo. Thus, platforms and other efforts were mostly washed away.
All of us need to be aware that early Native peoples were ignored and sometimes in the way of 1800s-era settlement. They were then, by federal requirement, to be kept in defined areas as federal confederations. Confederation is an American invention of the 1800s and in many cases put Native peoples together in assemblages that they had never witnessed before. Those people, in less than one generation, were expected to assimilate into the new America. When they could not, they were targeted in the 1950s for "termination" of their previous federal status.
They then, and by themselves in most cases, had to seek to be reestablished. How could any of us with "roots to early settlement as families" go through that type of trauma and come out in peaceful coexistence? Being aware of the bigger picture is what counts.
Jerry Herrmann is a Gladstone resident and president of Rivers of Life, a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing opportunities for at-risk youth through environmental restoration in the Willamette Valley.
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