Keeping the tradition alive

Roberta Conner

ASTORIA - Some call it spinning a yarn, others call it folklore, but no matter what you call it, Columbia River oral history came to life during the Columbia Forum last week.

Speaker Roberta "Bobbie" Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Ore., told the story of what is now known as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation - a grouping that encompasses Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples.

Conner began and ended her story with brief discussions of oral tradition and how, as a story that must be defended in public, it is a tradition that survives through corroboration of others present at the telling of the story.

The first example of public input in an oral tradition was the defense of her Indian name, Sisaawipam, given to her by her grandmother at age 13, and defended in front of a "few hundred people." Conner also answered a question about oral tradition and how it has survived throughout the generations. Her second explanation touched upon the slow recapture of native languages and how vital they are to the telling of traditional stories.

"The oral tradition survives in English," said Conner. "I think the reason it has survived is because it is so public." She said the veracity of the story must be agreed upon by others present or the story is "just a tall tale."

Oral tradition was the common thread throughout Conner's presentation, which was a story told to those in attendance with moments punctuated by dry wit that elicited laughter and moments of bald truth that earned hushed gasps. The tale was of the confederated tribes' people when the two tribes, while living in a six-million-acre area, was not yet clustered under one umbrella confederation.

"We have had to learn how to be interpreters of our own culture," said Conner. "I think people may tend to think that the stories we tell are about how horrible the coming of white men was. I think that's a gross generalization."

Before Lewis and ClarkConner began the history story with an instance of two Frenchmen who arrived before the Lewis and Clark expedition, as possibly the first two white men seen by the two Cayuse men who came across their camp one night.

"It's notable that they came before Lewis and Clark," said Conner. "We had undocumented immigrants. It's a new problem to some."

Conner's telling of the history of the area continued, laced with interjections that made the story much more memorable than a written history could ever be. She told the group of a friend who described stories of Lewis, Clark and the rest of their party as "upside-down faces" because they had hair on their chins but not on the tops of their heads and "they had blue or green eyes like fish."

The past and present collided as Conner described an overnight stay by Lewis and Clark on their return trip through the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla lands.

During their stay, Lewis and Clark witnessed what they described as singing and dancing. The songs and dances Lewis and Clark witnessed were part of a prayer service that is still employed today by the indigenous Seven Drum religion practiced by many of the confederated tribes' members.

"That is the night the prophecy was announced," said Conner. The prophecy predicted a great change for the native peoples and foretold that if the tribes could survive the change, they would regain their strength.

"I like to think that time is now," said Conner.

When Lewis and Clark departed, heading for a Nez Perce camp where their horses had been taken care of for the winter, the explorers labeled the local tribes the "most hospitable people they had met on their journey." Conner said they also bestowed similar labels upon other tribes in the area, including the Salish.

"It's sort of like a man dating three women and telling them all they are fabulous," said Conner.

Odd elementsConner's oral history highlighted three things observed by the native tribes when they encountered Lewis and Clark. First, the tribes thought perhaps they were cannibals because the explorers had the "habit of reaching into their shirts," pulling out something and eating it.

"We are the inventors of the fanny pack," said Conner. "But we had never seen pockets."

She also said the members of Lewis and Clark's party had pouches with what appeared to be teeth in them, which were later identified as kernels of dried corn and called that the tribes' first exposure to corn. And finally, the party had a black man with them who was kept apart from the rest of the group.

"We have stories to make children behave in camp," said Conner. "They weren't sure York was a man."

The history also touched upon the appearance of the Northwest Trading Co. and the Hudson's Bay Trading Co., as well as the infiltration of the Whitmans and later the Oregon Trail settlers. Conner identified the influx of settlers as a turning point in the local history of the indigenous people, saying it was then that the "neighborhood" changed.

She highlighted the treaty negotiation in 1855 that led to the establishment of a reservation in what is now the Pendleton area to keep the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples from having to move onto either the Yakama or Nez Perce reservations "in exile."

Hospitality at the centerConner's history was wrapped up with different points but the first had to do with hospitality. As evidenced by the visits of Lewis and Clark and others, the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes were welcoming to those who first arrived, and it is Conner's contention that being poor is not looked down upon by Native Americans but that being stingy with one's wealth or self to the disadvantage of others is. Being stingy includes being inhospitable to visitors, even if they are of a type never before seen.

Her other final thoughts included three specific points - that Native Americans are not going anywhere, that attempts to fully assimilate native peoples have failed, and that no one, native tribes included, can afford to treat others with the disregard and violence they were treated with in the past.

She ended her story saying it was a long and tragic one.

"The great thing is, we are still here to tell that story," said Conner.

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