Charlotte Basch sits on a piece of driftwood in the tall grass along the Necanicum River estuary, in Seaside where her Clatsop Native American ancestors used to live.
“The estuary is where the Neawanna, the Neacoxie and the Necanicum rivers all come together,” she said. “You can hear the ocean. ...You can see the coastal range. ... It’s an incredibly beautiful spot.”
The former tribal village site is at a busy intersection culturally and ecologically, along a tidal marsh at the confluence of three rivers, sandwiched between the ocean and a steady stream of cars and RVs driving through Seaside on U.S. Highway 101.
This place was so important to the Clatsop Tribe that when it signed a treaty in 1851 ceding their land, this was where they were guaranteed the right to fish and hunt indefinitely. Ultimately, though, they were fenced out and forced to leave.
Growing up in this area was a challenge, Basch said, as she confronted misguided interpretations of her tribe’s history and it’s very existence.
“I often was told that the Clatsop people are now extinct. They don’t exist anymore,” she said. “And I, obviously, knowing I am a Clatsop person, knew that was wrong.”
Their ancestors had longhouses here, in the place they called Ne-ah-coxie, or “place of little pines.” They fished for salmon and crab, hunted elk, gathered plants, roots and berries, and canoed up and down the coast on the Neacoxie River. Then, white settlement pushed them out.
The Clatsop Tribe’s treaty ensuring them the right to fish and hunt was never ratified by Congress, so tribal members never got what they were promised. And as white settlers moved in, the Clatsop weren’t able to return to their homeland.
“They put up fences and no trespassing signs,” Dick Basch, vice-chairman of the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribal Council, said. “Our people weren’t able to go to the place they gathered, and they were arrested for trespassing. Can you imagine that? The horror that they had to endure.”
It wasn’t until earlier this year when the owner of 18.6 acres of land at that site decided to deed it back to the Native American people who used to live there, that tribal members had any hope of restoring a semblance of what was once called Seaside’s “Indian Place.”
‘Why would we own that’?
Over the last two decades, the North Coast Land Conservancy has protected that 18.6 acres of property from development and restored its tidal marsh ecosystem. The land trust referred to the area as its Neawanna Point Habitat Preserve, one of more than 60 habitat reserves the organization manages on more than 5,000 acres.
Katie Voelke, the conservancy’s executive director, said after years of talking with tribal members about their desire to own some of their ancestral land, her organization made the historic decision to deed its portion of the former village site back to the tribes.
“We realized that though we have a conservation mission, our connection to this land is not, and could never be, as deep and important and meaningful as the connection of the Clatsop people,” Voelke said. “What we owned was one of the most important places to other people, and why would we own that when we know that those other people will care for it even more greatly than we would?”
Voelke said the tribal relationship to the land is becoming more important to land trusts across the country.
“More and more, the land trust movement is seeking out our indigenous partners not only out of what feels like moral and ethical obligation to restore culture but also because we have deeply shared values around the land,” she said.
The North Coast Land Conservancy’s decision to return the land means Clatsop-Nehalem tribal members have a place to call home for the first time in nearly 200 years, according to David Stowe, a council member with the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes.
“It’s going to really, literally allow us to be a tribe,” he said.
The tribes have been denied federal recognition, so they don’t have full sovereignty or the right to self-governance.
When they were forced to leave their homeland on Oregon’s North Coast, they didn’t have a reservation to go to. So, they scattered across the Northwest, and many lost track of their family lineage.
“We were basically just blown apart and pushed off the land and went different directions depending on where we felt like we could be safe,” Stowe said. “It’s a miracle there’s anything left.”
Dee Zimmerlee, treasurer for the Clastop-Nehalem Tribal Council, said she grew up knowing she had Native American heritage but thinking her ancestors were Nez Perce, with ancestral land in Eastern Oregon.
“My grandmother said that we were related to Chief Joseph, who was obviously from a Plains tribe — not a tribe on the coast,” she said. “As I got older, I wanted to know more about my ancestry. ... I was excited to find out that I was actually a Clatsop.”
Dick Basch said he was able to learn about his family history through his grandmother Charlotte, who was the daughter of Celiaste and granddaughter of Clatsop Chief Coboway.
“There were pieces that were able to be threaded through the generations,” he said. “Of course, a lot was lost. But I am lucky enough to be able to say that I know something about our family and our history.”
Chief Coboway was the only Clatsop leader to make recorded contact with the Lewis and Clark expedition. He regularly visited their winter camp at Fort Clatsop, which Lewis and Clark left to the chief after their departure. Celiaste’s son, Silas Smith, went on to become an attorney who filed the first legal case in 1898 to try to get the federal government to pay for the lands it had taken from the Clatsop and Tillamook tribes.
Standing on their newly transferred property with traffic on Highway 101 whizzing by, Stowe and Dick Basch talk with an architect about their plans to build a longhouse and museum at the site.
“Can we put a dirt floor over the concrete slab?” Basch asked as they discussed how modern building codes apply to the traditional Native American structure they plan to build next to the sign welcoming cars into the city of Seaside.
“How cool would it be if the first thing you see coming into Seaside is the Clatsop longhouse?” Stowe said. “That is powerful if you combine that with our story of being erased for 200 years. … It’s unbelievably just.”
Stowe said tribal members are thinking differently about their future now.
“Here we are for the first time in a very, very long time, actually owning land in our homeland,” Stowe said. “So we’re like, ‘Okay, now what do we do?’ We’re dreaming again ... and having a lot of discussions like, how do you put Humpty Dumpty back together again?”
Looking out at the land generations of her family called home, with creeks and a river snaking toward the ocean and a Sitka spruce forest towering overhead, Charlotte Basch said it’s hard to describe how it feels to have land ownership after so much trauma.
“It gives you a sense of pride, I think, in resilience,” she said. “Knowing that our people, our community, have been here literally since time immemorial, and despite everything that happened to us we’re still here ... in this place.”