'This IS Kalapuyan Land' exhibit comes to Forest Grove
As the Five Oaks Museum shifted its focus away from pioneer history to more diverse displays of local art and history, administrators asked Steph Littlebird to reimagine the section on the Kalapuya, the original inhabitants of large swaths of the Willamette Valley.
Instead of replacing ahistorical panels on her culture, Littlebird broke out her red pen to correct the record, leaving the museum's original mistakes visible as a lesson in historical erasure at the exhibit "This IS Kalapuyan Land."
"There were a lot of errors and some racist bias. They asked me, 'Should we throw this in the garbage?' I said, 'Let's not throw it away. Let's use this as an opportunity to teach them about how institutions can make errors,'" said Littlebird, who grew up in Banks and currently lives in Las Vegas.
She added: "Very often, Indigenous people — if we're depicted at all — are depicted in a way that aligns with a settler perspective."
The traveling exhibit is currently at the Tran Library at Pacific University through the end of the month.
On Wednesday, Nov. 16, the Forest Grove City Library is hosting a conversation with Littlebird streamed live on its YouTube page.
"This presentation is really built for a lot of people who don't know about Oregon's history," Littlebird said.
Littlebird also said the conversation will touch on examples of Indigenous peoples' ongoing struggle.
In the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Indian Child Welfare Act, which currently prevents Native American children from being adopted away from their extended families and tribes or forced into boarding schools. The case centers around adoptive parents in Texas who are looking to adopt a child against the will of the child's extended family and tribe.
In June 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to research and document the systemic and often forceful removal of Native American children from their families to be placed in boarding schools, a practice that was well-established in Oregon.
Last fall, Pacific University archivist and associate professor Eva Guggemos and volunteer historian SuAnn Reddick collaborated to document at least 270 students who died in custody at boarding schools in Forest Grove and Salem between 1880 and 1945. Their research is available online.
The Forest Grove boarding school first opened as the Forest Grove Indian Industrial Training School in 1880 between modern-day C and D streets and 22nd and 23rd avenues, then moved to its current location as the Chemawa Indian School in Salem in 1885.
Littlebird said the section of the original Five Oaks Museum exhibit, formerly the Washington County Museum, describing boarding schools was particularly ahistorical.
"It was written about almost as if it was something to be proud of, like, 'Look what we did with these schools,' when in reality, in those Indian training schools, children were abused and they died," Littlebird said. "Folks may not realize how this history is becoming relevant again because of the investigations into the former sites of those schools and the Supreme Court case."
Littlebird is preparing a tour in 2023 to promote a children's book she co-wrote with author Carole Lindstrom titled "My Powerful Hair," about the significance of hair in Indigenous cultures.
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