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Coquille recall history in midst of preservation concerns

Stories of sovereignty; not a sovereignty bestowed, but one which has always been there were exchanged during the fourth annual Coquille Culture Conference, "Sharing Our Stories."

For members of the Coquille Tribe, restored in 1987, the path to writing their own history has been rocky.

"Indian people have been merely props in the picture," said Oregon State University Ethnic Studies Professor Kurt Peters, opening the conference.

"They have been taken out of context, removed from their stories without any thought as to who they were and who they are today. I've come under the pretense of speaking about the Native American experience, but I can only talk about my own experience.

Peters explained he is caught in the middle. "Back home, I'd need to have someone trusted speak for me whereas at the university, the more I speak for myself the better off I am. ... I'm of mixed blood."

For Natives of the southern Oregon coast, where disease and assimilation effectively silenced the people, telling these stories is "all those things which have to do with loss, those things that have to do with hope in our hearts," as Don Ivy, Coquille cultural director, said.

"We are becoming the professionals, the academics, so that we can find out and tell the truth; so that we can recover our own heritage," said Don Day, Grande Ronde tribal member and graduate student in archaeology.

As momentum builds across Indian country to take back the reins of storytelling, hard stories are being told.

Over a banquet of shellfish and salmon, renowned storyteller Ed Edmo spoke to the group. Pale strands of bear grass, a traditional basketry material, decorated the tables.

"There's some things in our cultures that change and there's some things that stay the same. There was a time whenever somebody would come, you'd get up and cook a full meal. It was because you knew they hadn't stopped at restaurants on the way. Back then they wouldn't serve us in the restaurants. That's the way it was."

Edmo spoke of his childhood on the Columbia River, where the he learned the "cadence of poetry from watchin' those sparkles."

Tongue in cheek, he smiled and recalled, "You know tourists love to take photos of Indians. My uncle, though, he never got his picture taken by tourists. Every time they started to take his picture, well, he'd start to take down his fly."

Surrounded by laughter, Edmo continued, "Ya, I sure wish I had his sense of humor."

Robert Kentta, Siletz cultural historian, began the discussion of the "Crisis on the Coast" which focused on sacred sites which are being systematically destroyed.

"Emphasis must be placed on teaching hikers not to touch and disturb sacred sites. Recently a sacred prayer ring was dismantled and used for someone's fire pit. The way to halt site desecration by public and private individuals is to proceed with very public prosecution."

Tribes increasingly are the stewards of the cultural, historical and environmental resources of their usual and accustomed territories, speakers said. As they battle to put teeth into legislation such as the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, they are testing the meaning of tribal sovereignty in courts and in the field.

"The Kennewick person traveled nine thousand years to be here for Native people today, for us to hear his story," Day said. "The message he is carrying is pay closer attention to what's happening, what we have lost and what we are losing. In the name of science they have voted to study him. They've already identified him as Native American, and yet they won't follow their own law."

As the weekend conference progressed, representatives of government agencies debated with university viewpoints and the educated citizenry of the tribes.

Native site monitors recounted the repeated experiences of arriving at traditional village sites only to find fresh shovel marks from pothunters.

Discussion of historical documents, the repeated carbon dating done on Indian bones and the threat of future cultural reprisals all lent an edge of tension to the proceedings. Yet, that such conversations were even occurring leant a sense of Indigenous revival and strength, those attending said.

"We pride ourselves on getting where we are supposed to go. We advise the tribal council on the things we want to do. Anything that had to do with culture, and by the way, that's just about everything - well, we advise on it," said Jason Younker, Coquille Cultural Committee member and University of Oregon doctoral candidate.

"We sit around the table and figure out what we are to do next. Cultural Committee is one of the most difficult jobs, to try and figure out what the tribal face should look like. Without the Cultural Committee, the tribe just doesn't have a backbone."

During the weekend, the Coquille commemorated the opening of their new hotel with the first "swim" of their canoe. Chief Tanner presented the dripping canoe to the crowd, saying, "We are giving thanks today for the tree that guides our steps, the tree that gave us our canoe, the cedar tree. And for the wind that fills our joy."

"In my life I've never known us to have one," said Tom Younker, Coquille councilman. "This canoe symbolizes part of our forest. And the tree came off my brother's land."

As Indians re-write their own history, it becomes a story of return, Kentta noted, saying, "We recently made a trip to the Museum of Natural History. They said that all the ancestral remains that were designated as culturally unaffiliated, which is upwards of two out of three, did not have to be repatriated to the tribes.

"We handled it fairly quietly, but changed that belief and they are in the process of rewriting their report now."

Questions raised included whether sites are best protected by secrecy or public education.

"For all of us who carry this in our heart, how willing are we to talk publicly about this? What does it mean if the site is not there, if erosion takes it out to sea. Does the meaning of the site go away?" Ivy asked.

June Olsen suggested, "Computer technology is really, in my opinion, the only way we are going to preserve our history.

"I'm hoping the technology will allow us to hear more Indian people giving their stories, creating an awareness of a richer history," the Grande Ronde cultural site protection specialist said. "These are the things we are thinking about, and I think it is best it come from Indian country."

Day agreed. "Well, if Native people don't find, locate, and protect our heritage it will be lost forever. If we don't get up and enter into a schooling program, it'll be lost forever like the grains of sand on the beach.

"It is time to come back together, to sort out our differences and then all of us to unite.

"I grew up on the streets, when it wasn't cool to be an Indian," Day said. "If I let that become a problem for me, then I wouldn't be able to undertake these things in front of us that need to be addressed."

Grande Ronde Chinook language specialist Tony Johnson said "... if you sit long enough and ask the right questions, you'll hear the stories. Somehow there's this myth that we don't have any of our culture left. I just want to say that we really do."