Some families of Pendleton settlers can trace their roots on this land to seven generations. Local tribal members trace their histories back hundreds of generations.
Bobbie Conner of Pendleton said the names of places testify to that. She is director at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the American Indian museum and research facility on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton.
“All over the United States and right here in our neighborhood are Indian names of places people don’t think are Indian names,” she said.
Touchet, Washington, was Tuusi, “baking salmon on sticks over a coal fire,” and stems from a myth about Coyote. The tribal name Ayun morphed into Ione in Morrow County. Athena does not derive its name from the Greek goddess but from Atina, “away from the river,” when the site was a midpoint on the tribal trade route between Walla Walla and Pendleton.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown proclaimed Monday to be Indigenous Peoples Day and encouraged Oregonians to join in the observance.
Conner said an indigenous body of knowledge has been here a long time, but the stereotypes of American Indians can obscure that fact.
“If they don’t see us looking like Indians, we’re not Indians,” she said.
While the people who live in Pendleton for the most part know that, the locals may not know as much about tribal history, practices and teachings.
Dazon Sigo, an enrolled Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation member, made that point Tuesday night when he asked candidates for governor at the Debate for Oregon’s Future what they would do to solve the issues of underrepresentation of tribal history across the state. Gov. Kate Brown said the state is following Pendleton’s example and noted the Walk to Language program teaching Umatilla to kindergartners at the Pendleton Early Learning Center has been successful.
Pendleton schools curriculum director Matt Yoshioka said Walk to Language began in 2016 and remains vibrant. Fourth- and sixth-graders have long been learning components on American Indian history, he said, and Senate Bill 13 from the 2017 Legislature requires a statewide curriculum for teaching the American Indian experience.
Sixth-grade teacher John Summerfield said he covers a swath of American Indian history and culture, from how long people have lived on this land to the Treaty of 1855. He said his classes discuss tribal fishing, hunting and gathering rights and tribal sovereignty.
Summerfield came to Pendleton’s Sunridge Middle School 11 years ago from the North Clackamas School District, which had few American Indian students. Some 20-25 percent of the students at Sunridge are Indian. While plenty of local tribal students know about the history of the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes, he said, some do not have a general knowledge of their history. He also said he sees locals who don’t understand tribal rights and sovereignty.
Certain points in the curriculum can be eye-opening to any student, Summerfield said, such as when they see the tribal lands once covered roughly 10,000 square miles, but the Treaty of 1855 condensed that to a reservation encompassing 271 square miles.
“It does get a reaction out of them,” Summerfield said, and the teachings help raise student awareness of this place and its people.
Conner also pointed out the governor’s proclamation shines a light on the contributions American Indians have made, from chocolate to corn to models of democracies. And the tribes, like their contributions, are not going away. That’s even part of the message at Tamástslikt.
“We’ve been here longer than anyone else,” Conner said. “We’re still expressing our culture through art, dance, music, dressing in regalia — the way of life, the lifestyle. And we’ll continue to evolve and adapt. That’s how we manage to survive.”
The exhibit “Beautiful Games: American Indian Sport & Art” runs until Oct. 13 at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. To find out more, visit https://www.tamastslikt.org.