Beyond settler history: New book explores the story of Willamette Valley’s Indigenous tribes

By Lillian Karabaic (OPB)
Dec. 2, 2023 2 p.m.

Anthropologist David Lewis tells new stories from old government records

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


Lillian Karabaic: When students learn about Oregon’s history, the narrative of the land’s Native people often takes a backseat to the stories of the European settlers on the Oregon Trail or the Gold Rush. A new book aims to add perspective to that narrative. “Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley” is a detailed account of the numerous tribes that ended up confederated at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in the mid-1850s. The author, Dr. David Lewis, is an assistant professor of anthropology and Indigenous studies at Oregon State University and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The book weaves together the first encounters between settlers and tribes, the painful dispossession of tribal lands, and the lasting impact of assimilation efforts. Lewis paints a vivid picture of resilience in the face of colonization.

In this supplied photo, tribal elder David Lewis is shown with an advance copy of his book titled "Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley." The book was released Nov. 14, 2023.

In this supplied photo, tribal elder David Lewis is shown with an advance copy of his book titled "Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley." The book was released Nov. 14, 2023.

Courtesy of Michelle Alaimo/Smoke Signals

Karabaic: Your book gives such a detailed history of the region’s Indigenous people all the way before settler contact until the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act of 1954. Can you tell me about some of the fictionalized narratives that persist about Indigenous peoples of the region?

David Lewis: Many histories were written mainly about white settlement. Much of Native people were on reservations and not really as present in society until after they were sort of made citizens in the 1920s.

Scholars didn’t really care so much about Native culture or tribal culture at all. And so, all we really get in most history books, is “there was a few wars, a few interesting leaders, chiefs maybe like Chief Joseph, people like that. And then they’re put on reservations.”

And that’s kind of the end of them in our history books. And so this does not at all address our lived experience getting to the point we’re having to move to reservations and then our experiences on the reservation. And that’s kind of what I delve into.

Karabaic: One of the things you did for this book is you took U.S. government federal documents and you combined them with oral stories from the tribe, and your aim was to write this book outside of the settler colonial narrative. How did you go about shaping these essays? Tell me about your process for doing your research.

Lewis: I began to notice that there were a lot of Indian records, sometimes history written into federal records. That’s not really accessed all the time by historians or even anthropologists. And I was in anthropology, so I get a lot of the anthropological training as well. And I began to notice that there was quite a bit of ethnography related to the tribes in linguistic studies.

And then I began to sort of put those things together and I realized there was something there that the ethnographers don’t come along until the 1870s while federal records go back into the 1840s or so, we have an interesting history, you can write through federal records that gives kind of sometimes a play-by-play, day-by-day history of the tribes and what they’re doing and what federal policy is the time. And then later on you get a little more direct information about Native culture and how people are living on the reservations and what they were experiencing.

And this joined together really well with federal records about some of the same situations. And so a lot of the federal records are obviously written not from a Native perspective, they’re from the Indian Agents’ perspective.

I had to imagine then sort of what Native people were thinking about when a lot of these records were written, what they were going through. If the federal authorities were saying, “Well, they were starving or they didn’t have any food,” how would you feel as a Native person being on a reservation where there’s no food? And so that’s kind of where I came to this and I spent a good long time analyzing these records from various perspectives and bringing in other settlers’ accounts because Native people didn’t always write down what they were doing or going through. And so I came up with some really interesting stories of this time period.

Karabaic: Yeah, I think one of the most compelling parts of the book for me was the first-person accounts via transcript. Sixteen years after the reservations were established, a petition was sent by Chief Louis Nepisank and other chiefs at the reservation to the government, which the government never answered as far as you could tell. Can you read the quote from that petition for me?


Lewis: This is 1872. And just a little context, this is a couple years after Grant is elected president, and he actually is telling the tribes that he gives them a path to citizenship if they civilize. And so that’s kind of the context. Nepisank is quoted as saying:

“I have now been on the reservation 16 years, and during that time, I have seen poor white men come here as officers and stay a few years and go away rich, while I and all my people have always been growing poor, we at first had a great deal of money when we came here in agreement with the terms of our treaty, but my people have never got much benefit from that money. Our superintendents and agents have got all of it. While I have seen my people die for the want of food, just as their horses die in the winter when they have nothing to eat, the men you have sent here for officers have not only stolen our money, but they have violated our women, scattered diseases among us, which have reduced our numbers from thousands to hundreds. Our schools have done us but little good, our children have not learned to read and write. Our young men and women have not learned to work because the persons you have appointed do not care for anything but to get our money and then leave us in a worse condition than they found us.

Karabaic: Can you talk to me about what it’s like to read some of these documents?

Lewis: There are times when it’s really hard, especially when it’s direct family members. There’s quotes in here from the Hudsons and Merciers and those are in my family, and I realize the challenges they had in life back in the day. It is kind of heartbreaking to realize that the original people that signed the treaty and were promised to have a better life on the reservation, never really saw the benefits of that better life in their lifetime. They died poor; they died with nothing.

Karabaic: Do you see, as a scholar, a connection between the mistreatment of all of these folks during especially the reservation era — but up through termination — and the socioeconomic conditions of tribal people in Oregon today?

Lewis: Oh, absolutely. We live in a settler society where everything has been given away to the settlers. They literally got a mile farm for free by coming to Oregon if they stayed on it for five years. Whereas Native people were put onto reservations, not given land for almost 20 years. And when they got land, it took ‘em 20 years to prove up that land. So there was a huge mistreatment.

And it seems like if you look at the longer history over the last 180 years, every time there’s a change in politics, with that change comes change in Indian policy and taking away of land, taking away of resources.

In the last administration, there was even a threat to take away our funding for medical care. This is a present-day thing. I mean, we are completely at their mercy. Tribes are completely at the mercy of the political system in the United States.

Karabaic: I guess the other thing that I was struck by as I was reading this history was that despite everything thrown at them, despite forced assimilation and boarding schools and appalling conditions in broken treaties, people kept fighting. They kept fighting for their culture, and their families, and their way of life.

Did doing this research for this book give you any hope or insight into the resilience of Indigenous people?

Lewis: I can see a throughline from the past to the present where people have saved the language. Certain families have saved the culture and are working on bringing it back — a huge restoration. Sometimes they call it a revitalization effort when tribes today try to re-learn their languages, bring back culture. But part of the problem is, getting to other issues that we’re talking about nowadays, like Land Back and things: we don’t have enough land in enough different territories in Western Oregon to actually really restore much of our sense of the land as tribal people, because we only have a small bit of acreage over at Grand Ronde, my tribe. So it’s still a huge issue today if while we do restoration, we don’t always have the space to do that.

Karabaic: So what do you hope comes out of this book? Where do you hope to see it used?

Lewis: One reason why we are in the situation we are today is because many people thought that we disappeared and they’re not taught about Native peoples at all in our public school.

So I’m hoping that the book is used as text in high school, and in college to show a different way of writing history from the perspective of people who lived through it.

I only did this for the Willamette Valley, so I would like to do more with the Umpqua Valley, and the Rogue River Valley and the coast. I’d like to look at other histories, too.

I think it’s a general problem. I have been teaching class here for five years at OSU, and I’ve been teaching for 20 years up and down the I-5 corridor and 99% of the people that come to my classes know nothing about Native peoples.

Karabaic: That was Dr. David G. Lewis. His new book is Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley, and it’s available now.

Dr. Lewis will be signing books at the Oregon Historical Society’s 54th Annual Celebration of Oregon Authors on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. Lewis’s blog, The Quartax Journal, contains even more deep research into Kalapuyans and other Western Oregon tribes.


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