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Miniature replicas of tule-mat teepes, photographs of fishers and fruit-gatherers — this is a tribute to other worldviews, other lifestyles, playing out in what once was called “Kup Kup-pa,” the “place of the cottonwoods.”
Not that it’s all consigned to the annals of the history.
The Union area, and the Grande Ronde Valley in general, continue to hold great significance to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla nations — and the Nez Perce.
Armand Minthorn, a member of the board of trustees of the CTUIR and the chair of the tribes’ cultural resources committee, said the annual runs of anadromous fish in the Grande Ronde River watershed helped define the Indians’ year.
“Catherine Creek in particular was a prime fishing stream for salmon,” Minthorn said.
The creek, tumbling out of the Wallowas and onto the valley floor, was called, in Cayuse/Nez Perce, “Sox-sox-hin-ma,” or “place of the fish-hawk.”
The valley’s plentiful camas beds were another great attraction. So were the bunchgrass pastures of the uplands, prime forage for the Indians’ great horse herds.
Jerry Gildemeister’s “Watershed History: Middle and Upper Grande Ronde River Sub-basins of Northeast Oregon” quotes early Euro-American impressions of the valley, many of which naturally mention the thriving indigenous culture.
“It appeared to be the most beautiful valley I had ever looked upon,” wrote John Johnson on July 30, 1851. “The hills dressed in green, with springs of water running from the sides, with groves of willows and cottonwood, and thousands of ponies grazing, and Indians driving in all directions.”
“The Grande Ronde Valley was not only used by the Umatilla tribes for seasonal food use, but it was also a traditional gathering area for other tribes,” he said.
Inter-tribal councils were regularly convened there — the last, according to Minthorn, occurring shortly before the controversial treaty negotiations at the 1855 Walla Walla Council.
He explained, “The main purpose for gathering there (that final time) was to talk about the white man, and the treaties that were being signed, mainly out on the Plains.”
Minthorn noted, “As far as archaeological sites, they’re everywhere over there in the valley.”
So are the names that betray them: Union’s Buffalo Peak Golf Course references evidence of an ancient hunting tradition — the driving of bison over the eponymous butte’s precipice.
“This is not well-documented, but the general thought is that this was a buffalo jump,” said Catherine Dickson, an archaeologist with the CTUIR.
Bison did historically inhabit Northeast Oregon, although never in the densities found on the shortgrass plains east of the Rocky Mountains.
Dickson said archaeological sites in this region cover a wide swath of time — from prehistory to the last century. One of the oldest documented is the Pilcher Creek Site, some 8,000 years old, in southern Union County.
The eruption of Mount Mazama — which created Crater Lake — about 7,000 years ago spread volcanic ash over a broad area, Dickson noted, including present-day Northeast Oregon. That layer of Cascade exhaust provides a useful dating tool.
“When you find that ash level,” she said, “you know it’s about 7,000 years old. So you know anything beneath it is older than 7,000 years.”
The discovery of archaeological materials is regulated by a number of state and federal laws. American Indian burial sites are protected in Oregon by the Indian Graves and Protected Objects statutes, and on federal and tribal lands by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (central to the ongoing controversy over the 9,300-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, or the “Ancient One,” discovered in southern Washington in 1996).
Other cultural resources fall under laws like the state Archaeological Objects and Sites statute, or the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act. (An overview of the relevant rules and regulations may be accessed at www.oregon.gov/OPRD/HCD/ARCH/arch_laws.shtmml.)
Minthorn and Dickson urge anyone who discovers remnants of the Grande Ronde Valley’s heritage to contact the appropriate authorities. Police should be immediately notified of any human remains — even those appearing antiquated — while the CTUIR or the State Historic Preservation Office are the best bets for other artifacts.
CELEBRATING CULTURAL HERITAGE: Louise Weeks of the Union County Museum Society stand before replicas of tipis similar to the type used by some of the tribes in the Grande Ronde Valley. The models were built for the museum by Bill and Annie Atwood using historical photographs â€” such as those on the wall behind the diorama â€” for reference. - The Observer/ETHAN SCHOWALTER-HAY
The looting of archaeological sites continues to be a problem, Minthorn said, although increased awareness of native culture is making a difference.
“Things are beginning to change, because people are becoming familiar with the law, but also because they’re becoming familiar with the tribes’ position,” he said. “That change is very slow, but it is happening ... The significance (of sites) is beginning to be acknowledged.”
The CTUIR, for example, has in its possession a very large collection of cultural artifacts donated by a resident of the Grande Ronde Valley who had continued a family tradition of amassing found relics.
The mingled histories of Euro-Americans and American Indians in the Grande Ronde shed light upon both cultural traditions. Minthorn urges valley residents with personal or inherited memories of Indian activity in the area to contact the CTUIR and share them.
Stories like these, he explained, expand traditional knowledge.
“We always try to repeat those oral histories as best we can,” he said. “As the old people say, ‘If you don’t repeat, you forget.’”
After all, as Dickson pointed out, there has been dialogue and cultural exchange between tribes and Euro-Americans for centuries.
“People think that stopped a long, long time ago, and it really didn’t.”
For more information about American Indian traditions in the Grande Ronde Valley and surrounding region, visit the CTUIR’s Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, off I-84 at Exit 216 (http://www.tamastslikt.com).
Or check out the Union County Museum, 331 S. Main St. in Union. The museum opens for its regular season on Mother’s Day, but special appointments may be arranged during the off-season by calling 562-6003.