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THE PEOPLE & THE LAND
INDIANS of Oregon's South Coast
Before the Coming of White Settlers
copyright (c) 1977, 2006 by Marilee Miller
in S .W.
An adaptation from scripts of a local history series, written by Marilee Miller and narrated by Bill Bradbury, which aired on KCBY-TV, Coos Bay, Oregon, ca 1977.
While much information relates specifically to the Coos Indian tribe, all the Indians of Oregon's Southern Coast lived similarly.
Please note that at the date of the broadcasts, the word "Indian" -- or better, Indian people -- was customary, although later "Native American" became the preferred term.
Information is sketchy about the Indian tribes who used to live in Oregon coastal areas. There wasn't a reliable census of Native Americans living on the South Coast prior to 1855. For the Coos tribe alone, dwelling near the waters of the large estuary (and harbor) known as Coos Bay, estimates have varied from 250 to 1500 inhabitants.
Before the coming of white settlers, ten major tribes, and a number of lesser ones, made their homes in this part of Oregon. They chose village sites near rivers, and sometimes even on the beaches.
In talking with local descendents of the Coos people, one idea emerges. In contrast to the Hopi nation, or other large Indian nations, tribes along the South Coast were very small. Esther Stutzman, from the Indian Activities Center [at Empire], shared the reasons for this difference.
-- Bradbury: Why were they [the different tribes] spread out? Why
did they have separate languages? Why were they all independent
[from other groups]?
--Stutzman: Most tribes banded together to find food for their
survival. The tribes here had an abundance of food, so families
were likely to be independent, with small villages.
--Bradbury: Why different languages?
--Stutzman: Really, the different languages developed from living in
isolated areas for periods of time. And being independent families,
Unlike nomadic tribes, the peoples of the South Coast lived in permanent communities. Except for an occasional venture to Klamath for obsidian for arrowheads or spearpoints, or elsewhere in the Willamette Valley for trade, the coastal Indians stayed unusually close to their tribal villages.
The whole culture along the South Coast was tied to reverence for land and water, for animals and plants.
The tales of creation linked the Indian culture to the earth. An Indian creation tale ends: “This is your earth, this is your land. Respect it.”
And that’s exactly how today's descendents believe these peoples lived.
in a MISTY
For survival-sake, all peoples must adapt adequately to their environment.
Certain requisites had to be met in order to live in this coastal zone.
Rain came frequently to this Mist Country. And the Indians devised their own unique methods for keeping dry.
Tepees would have stretched or rotted in the rain. So along the Oregon Coast, we find the original version of the log cabin -- the plank slab house (called by more northerly tribes, the longhouse) -- each structure capable of housing 30 to 40 persons.
Cedar grew here abundantly. The Indians split planks (vertically) off of cedar logs, using wedges of stone or bone, and a hammer. Even today, cedar is utilized for shakes and shingles because of its easy splitting quality.
One end of each plank, set upright in the earth, could be buried in the ground to hold up the house. Overlapping the huge slabs of cedar waterproofed the structure and cut out the chill of winds sweeping in off the sea. Floors of Coos plank slab houses were usually dug several feet below ground level to employ the insulating properties of earth.
The shape of the door reflected on Indian religion, symbolizing that everything, including the world and nature’s cycles or seasons, was round.
Plank slab houses made cozy dwellings. But for the occasions when outside work became necessary, the Sea Peoples devised ways to shield their bodies from wet weather. Apparently they wove hats of split roots. Also, strips of cedar bark could be processed into an unusual raincoat.
Esther Stutzman explains.
--Stutzman:. They were made of cedar bark, the inner bark of the
cedar tree. They [the fibers] were woven very tightly. And
actually did serve as a raincoat.
--Bradbury: How did you transform what is rather scratchy tree
bark into something you could wear next to your skin?
--Stutzman: The tree bark was stripped off in very long strips from
the tree. The inner bark was taken and soaked for long periods
of time. And then it was beaten with a club while it was wet.
Beaten into very smooth fibers. Then it was taken and woven
together, or tied together. And it was not scratchy. It's very
--Bradbury: Now, this…making cedar clothing -- I gather it is
somewhat of a dying art….
--Stutzman: Yes, the art is lost except for a few individuals.
--Bradbury: You're one of them. You can make it?
Not just any cedar tree can be used in the process of making cedar bark clothing. The inner bark must be taken from a large, very old growth tree. Almost all of the suitable cedar has now been logged off. Of the remaining, a little earlier, at least, the drought had dried out the bark too much to make a demonstration possible.
for Ritual and
Overflowing natural supplies fed natives of the South Coast. To the Indian, nature’s larder was more than mere survival. Its abundance played a part even in religious practice.
In our day, descendents of local Native Americans have revived an ancient tribal custom of saying “Thank you”. They hold an annual event called a Salmon Ceremony. One year , Chief Edgar Bowen of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw Federation honored the traditional role of the fish.
[from Salmon Ceremony clip:]
--Bowen: We're welcoming the salmon back today from its home
beneath the sea, that it will again feed the Coos, the Siuslaw, the
Lower Umpqua Indians for another year. So with this, we will
return the bones of the fish back from whence it comes, so that we
will have another feast and meet again here in another year.
A prayer to Wakontonka, leader of the spirits, expressed the respect of the Indians for their own greatness given them by this spirit.
[Prayer: from Salmon Ceremony clip]
--Brenda Brainard: ...As with the tree of life and the four seasons, you
were ever changing, ever watching, ever keeping us. Please, in
your keeping, give us guidance.
According to Brenda Brainard, who attended this event, everything --
rock and water, tree and animal, had a spirit. The Salmon Ceremony paid tribute to the salmon spirit for the return of the fish each year.
[from Salmon Ceremony clip:]
-- Brainard: We practiced ecology way before anybody else did. We
thanked the animals we used to eat, in returning for us. …You've
got to pay tribute to them in some way. They've done you a favor.
Those fish have to go back to their home. And that spirit that we
put over it, part of his bones have to go back. It'll be back next year for us.
In addition to thanking the spirits of nature, ultimate thanks went to Wakontonka – that is, World-Maker. He was the governing spirit. All things went back to him.
[from Salmon Ceremony clip:]
-- Brainard: They [spirits] all guide. But he's the one that watches the
people, he's the one that helps us survive. He's going to get the
other spirits to teach us.
Eating meant enjoyment, as well as ritual or survival. Our Native Americans appreciated variety. Berries and tender shoots, smoked meats and fishes, and pemmican, were staples. But that was just the beginning.
Esther Stutzman, who taught Indian history classes at Southwestern Oregon Community College, pointed out resources most of us haven’t thought about.
--Stutzman: The root of the pond lily is eaten raw. Camas root -- a
bulb very much like sweet potato, you can roast it. ---Don’t harvest
camas on your own. Some species are poisonous.
Tea and tobacco, tonics and poultices all emerged from preparations of kinnikinnick, or bear-berry, a low ground cover plant. Flour for bread came from roasted, ground cattail root. Or, eaten raw, the swampy root tastes rather like celery.
One plant, now unknown, acted as a baking powder. And finally, consider an unlikely vegetable:
--Stutzman: This is skunk cabbage. [The] very, very bottom part of
plant, upwards of root. It’s boiled, eaten as a vegetable. Doesn't
have skunk cabbage or regular cabbage taste. A taste all its own.
Indian peoples in this area never developed a written language. But Esther Stutzman tells how the rich tribal past could be preserved.
-- Stutzman: The Indian people had no books. In order to pass
history along, to tell stories to the children, moral stories, rights,
wrongs,…there must have been some guide to follow. And the form
was oral literature, or the stories.
Tales told by the Coos Indians fell into 3 categories. First were the creation tales, often featuring one called World-Maker. He had a very human nature, and shortcomings. But he also owned special magical powers.
--Stutzman: We have tales of creation, which in our estimation is a
way that the world did begin. So I would imagine that these [tales]
have been passed down since the Coos peoples were here.
And what more likely place for “beginnings” than right here at home? For instance, at a lake near Barview. [Ed. note: a small village within view of the bar entering Coos Bay.].
[from World-Maker, Tales clip:]
--Stutzman: Now where the earth began, is at Tarheel, because the
mud is blue. [Ed note: see "if you want to know more".]
In the next kind of tales, Coyote had a prominent place. Coyote was World-Maker’s helper.
In one story Esther tells, the animals were always quarreling. Coyote suggested they take their anger out on the moon instead of each other. So the people flung their clubs and rocks into the air. The missiles hit -- and that’s why the moon is pockmarked.
Coyote could also be a mischief-maker. The Coos people blamed him for everything that went wrong. A woman could say: “I burned the bread. It’s all Coyote’s fault.” And almost always Coyote was a blundering hero who succeeded in spite of himself.
Finally, came the teaching tales. Bill Bowen, from the local Indian Activities Center, shares his understanding of them.
[From Tribal Meeting clip:]
--Bowen: Tales do teach a lesson, ..such as, the children wandering
around at night – which is dangerous, of course – …you tell them
something to scare them, to keep them around the camp.
Knowledge that has been gathered over the years, put into a form
that’s easy to tell and useable.
Teaching tales pointed out that certain foods were harmful, or why there was no slave raid in a given year. Sometimes they helped in a search for identity, such as, “Your ancestors were more beautiful, stronger, wiser, than anyone else’s.”
But always there was a moral, or point – although sometimes, as Bowen said: “in disguised form.”
The Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw Federation [of Native Americans] perpetuates an ancient tradition by holding tribal council meetings. At one such gathering, two members of the Indian Activities Center sorted out some of the ideas about tribal government now, and before the coming of the white man.
Esther Stutzman and Bill Bowen see the old tribal law – the foundation for religion and social life – as centered around the extended-family.
[from Tribal Meeting clip:]
--Stutzman: The families held the tribe together. All of Indian life
centers around the family, the children, the elders. Without a close
family life -- in wanting each other, respecting each other -- there
could not have been an Indian idea.
--Bowen: …The tribe wasn't really a tribe, it was families. They lived
in a longhouse, and they'd have a system all worked out.
--Bradbury: Before the coming of the white men, how did Indians of
this area govern themselves?
--Bowen: There wasn't really any sort of government…, except respect
for the elders. You used the guidelines of the tales [oral literature] to
"set up camp", I guess you'd call it. This was used for several
centuries. The coming of the white man ‘loused it [the system] up".
--Bradbury: It got more formal, then?
--Bowen: Yes, it did
Esther Stutzman holds the view that today you have to “play by the rules” in order to conduct official business. Therefore, at tribal council meetings now you see a more definite structure.
[from Tribal Meeting clip:]
--Stutzman: A chief is a word that was given to us at the coming of the
white man. The Indian people were ruled either by a council of
elders or by a council of wise people. The concept of one leader is
a very non-Indian concept.
…There was really no hereditary title. But the concept is that if a
person is a leader, then his children, his son would try harder to also
be a leader, to emulate his father's footsteps.
The role of men has been emphasized in the councils of nomadic tribes, such as the Plains Indians. So Esther’s opinion about the early Coos may surprise some.
--Bradbury: Let me ask you this. What was the role of women in the
council and the running of the Indian culture?
--Stutzman: The Pacific Northwest society relied a lot on elders that
were women. The women were the child bearers, the experiencers
of many things. The women were held in very high esteem. Almost
on a pedestal. Very well respected. Our [Coos] tribe was ruled...
governed... by a council of women. Mostly women elders...
because the women have the knowledge.
These Indian customs continued until 1855. And then came the white settlers. They brought with them different lifestyles, values, and government. Both groups wanted to occupy the same territory.
And so there was – conflict!
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