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Multnomah County aims to honor the large Indigenous population of Sauvie Island prior to colonization.

COURTESY PHOTO: GARY HALVORSON/OREGON STATE ARCHIVES - Sauvie Island BridgeMultnomah County is moving to rename Sauvie Island Bridge in honor of the Indigenous people who inhabited the island before European colonization.

The county's board of commissioners adopted a resolution unanimously Thursday, Nov. 17, recognizing the devastating impact white colonizers had on the island's Indigenous people and pledging to raise awareness of the island's Indigenous history and legacy.

To choose a new name for the bridge, the county's tribal affairs advisor will begin a community engagement process to work with Sauvie Island residents, community-based organizations, and tribal communities to identify culturally significant options.

"As white settlers forcibly stole the land and the waterways, they used the languages and names of their choices to reflect the story that they wanted told," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "But today, here in Multnomah County, we find ourselves with a historic opportunity to support Indigenous efforts to heal, to reflect the truth of the land and to reclaim both narrative and physical space for those who have always been here."

Multnomah County took ownership of the original Sauvie Island Bridge from the state in 1951. The county dedicated a new bridge, the only road link between the island and the mainland, in 2008, keeping the name the same.

The county's Advisory Committee on Sustainability & Innovation, whose 13 community volunteers advise the county on sustainability, environmental and economic issues, recommended the name change in a letter to the county board earlier this year to help the "decolonization of food sources and waterways."

Sauvie Island, known by the Native American name "Wapato Island," was named after Laurent Sauvé, a French Canadian man who helped colonize the island, profiting off it as a dairy producer.

The island was home to a large Indigenous population before colonizers settled in the area in the early 1800s, according to the National Park Service. Estimates suggest there were hundreds to more than 2,000 Chinook people living in four villages on the island.

The Indigenous people were decimated by diseases as British ships began to use the Columbia River for trade, traveling to and from Asia, the Pacific Islands and the North American coast. In 1829, a malaria outbreak infected the Chinook people on the island severely. Death rates were so high that the island was uninhabited by the mid-1830s, with only "emptied former settlements and burials remaining," according to the National Park Service.

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, an American who traveled to the area and constructed a trading post on Sauvie Island, observed the remains of villages. His writings conveyed the racist beliefs of many Americans at the time that the death toll among Indigenous people was divine intervention. Wyeth wrote: "a mortality has carried off to a man [Sauvie Island's] inhabitants and there is nothing to attest that they ever existed except their decaying houses… So you see as the righteous people of New England say, providence has made room for me."

Lukas Angus, a member of the Nez Perce tribe who serves on the county's sustainability advisory committee, told the board Thursday that Sauvie Island was an important food source for the Indigenous people in the area before colonization, with the island's population swelling during harvest times. Colonization has led to the environmental threats such as polluted waterways that Sauvie Island now faces, said Angus, who currently farms on the island.

"We need a new way of looking at things," Angus said. "Part of that is looking at how we perceive the land, how we interact with the land as humans and how we look at history.

"This island and the bridge are both named after a colonizer that did not respect the land or the people."

Changing the name of the bridge is "one small thing but it's a big perspective change," Angus said.

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson thanked Angus for prioritizing the renaming of the bridge as a member of ACSI.

She said "acknowledging history, acknowledging the participation of cultures that have been ignored and purposefully shut down as we look at how institutions are named is incredibly important."

Vega Pederson, who earlier this month won the race for Multnomah County chair, said she intends to prioritize such actions in her new role.


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