Think Out Loud

Coquille Indian Tribe honors ‘gift’ of beached gray whale on Southern Oregon coast

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
May 24, 2024 1 a.m. Updated: May 31, 2024 7:52 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, May 24

On May 7, 2024, members of the Coquille Indian Tribe assembled on a beach in Bandon in Southern Oregon for an intergenerational ceremony near the body of a dead whale that had washed onto the Tribe's ancestral lands. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department promptly alerted Tribal officials of the whale, recognizing its cultural significance.

On May 7, 2024, members of the Coquille Indian Tribe assembled on a beach in Bandon in Southern Oregon for an intergenerational ceremony near the body of a dead whale that had washed onto the Tribe's ancestral lands. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department promptly alerted Tribal officials of the whale, recognizing its cultural significance.

Courtesy: Coquille Indian Tribe


Earlier this month, the body of a juvenile gray whale was found washed onto a beach in Bandon on the Southern Oregon coast. Bite marks on the body suggested it was likely killed by orcas which hunt gray whales. Typically, reports of a beached whale would trigger a response from government officials to authorize the collection of samples to determine the cause of death.

But in this case, officials at the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department went one step further. Realizing the cultural significance of this discovery, they alerted the Coquille Indian Tribe whose ancestral lands span the Southern Oregon coast. According to Tribal Chair Brenda Meade, “within an hour or so” about 50 Tribal members had assembled at the beach to take claim of this “gift” and honor it with an intergenerational ceremony that included prayer and song. Meade shares details from that special day on the beach, and how the whale continues to provide sustenance for the Coquille Indian Nation on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the restoration of its recognition by the federal government.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, the body of a juvenile gray whale washed up on a beach in Bandon on Oregon’s South coast. Bite marks on the body suggested he was killed by orcas. The usual response is for state officials to collect samples to determine the cause of death. But in this case, officials at the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department went one step further. They alerted the Coquille Indian Tribe whose ancestral lands span the Southern coast. Within an hour or so, about 50 Tribal members had assembled at the beach to take claim of this gift and to honor it with an intergenerational ceremony. Brenda Meade is a Coquille Tribal Chair. She joins us now. Welcome to the show.

Brenda Meade: Thank you so much for having me.

Miller: I’m curious about how you first heard about this. Can you tell us about that moment you found out?

Meade: Yes. Actually, it was Oregon Parks and Rec that reached out to some of our staff here at our culture department and they came in. Our council was meeting that day and she came in and said that we’ve just gotten a call that the whale had washed up on our beaches at Tish-A-Tang Beach near Face Rock in Bandon. And it was a surprise that day. I can say that hasn’t happened in my lifetime. But we were all just shocked, number one, that we had gotten that call, that we had those relationships but that someone recognized that that was so important for us as a people.

Miller: What do gray whales mean to the Coquille Nation?

Meade: For us, we have traditional stories archived of just really talking about us as a people, as a tribe, as a potlatch tribe, and how when a gift like this washed up on the beach, that Coquille people would come from miles around to just be thankful for that blessing from the creator to be the reciprocal of that gift. And it is such an important species for the food values and also all of that species is utilized throughout our ceremonies and regalia and foods. And it just always has been a story that we’ve heard of but had never experienced it. We knew how important it was, though, to respond that day.

Miller: Well, I’m curious about that response. This was just an out-of-the blue phone call. What happened? Who did you call first?

Meade: Yes, it was quite a response from our tribe, our Tribal organization and the community, really. When we got that call, I just immediately reached out to our Chief Younker and asked for his guidance. He wasn’t here in town, but I knew how important this was for our people to respond and it was immediate. Our organization basically shut down here. We reached out to staff and to our culture department, our natural resources department and our Tribal membership just to announce that this gift has come to us as a people, the Coquille people, and that we needed to get out there as soon as possible to claim that gift and to be able to take care of it in the best way possible.

People jumped in cars and it was pretty incredible. I was so proud of just the response of our organization, our Tribe and our people to just recognize how important that was. And we did, we responded, it was beautiful.

Miller: I mentioned that within an hour or so about 50 Tribal members had assembled at the beach. Were you at all surprised to have that many people that quickly?

Meade: Yes, I believe it was a Thursday afternoon. And so yes, for people to be able to stop everything they were doing and to be able to come out to abandon from wherever they were. I was so incredibly proud of just that response because everyone came out in expectation that we were going to accept this gift, that we were going to have ceremony, that we were going to make sure that we did it in the right way and that was important to us, and that we were going to work with our partners as well because just the thought that they knew enough to know that we were there and we celebrate these gifts. I just continue to be amazed that those folks from OSU, from Oregon Parks and Rec, NOAA Fisheries and ODFW just recognized that this was a cultural revival for our people actually. And just culturally significant for us.

Miller: I can’t help but think how different this is from the state famously blowing up a sperm whale [on] the beach in Florence in 1970. That is a far cry from calling a tribe up and saying, “hey, we recognize that this is meaningful to you and we will let you take over here.” How would you describe the relationship that you’ve had with state agencies in the past?

Meade: We’ve had some struggles and I have to say that there has been a shift in, I would say the last three or four years, actually, that our communications have gotten so much better. We really are working as partners closer together. And I do remember that time as well and how devastating that was.

I think that we continue to try to educate the community really about the fact that Coquille people are still here in Southern Oregon. We’ve been here since time began and we are still practicing our ceremonies and our culture here. And it is something for the state of Oregon to celebrate as well because the things that we want to teach people about this ceremony is that it’s really important to recognize that these are gifts from our creator and that we should never waste these gifts when we receive them. And that’s important to us as a people. That’s our teachings that we take only what we need and we leave some for the others. But it is also about making sure that we share that with our partners that ultimately do make a lot of those decisions.


I have to tell you, it was incredible the amount of people that came down there that day just from the community as well, wanting to know what was happening. And some of them were pretty aggressive asking, “What are you guys doing? What is happening?” And they were kind of upset about it. But I was just really proud of our Tribal members who just really took time to talk to those that maybe didn’t understand what was happening. I was just proud of one of our Tribal members who said, “We are going to do what our people have done for thousands of years. We’re going to accept this gift and we’re going to respect it and we’re going to utilize everything we can.” It was a good day.”

Miller: Can you describe what the ceremony entailed and what it was like for you personally to be a part of it?

Meade: It’s not easy to explain, but I think what’s important to share with folks is just the fact that we have not received a gift like this for generations. It could possibly be over 100 years that our people have been able to receive a gift similar to this. And really, what I can share with you is that it really started with us coming together and just being thankful for this, being thankful in prayer, being thankful in song and offering our ask of forgiveness if we were handling it in the wrong way, because we were coming there with a good heart and good feelings and we were there to accept this gift in the way that our ancestors have since time began.

It really is something that we don’t have elders standing behind us to tell us exactly how they did it before. So we’re relying on archives. We’re relying on stories that have been passed down for generations and just our purpose and intent of being on that land in that same place that our ancestors have upheld that ceremony. It was very moving that all of our Tribal members that were there were there for the right reasons and it was to accept that gift for us.

Miller: Were there any young Tribal members, any kids?

Meade: Yes, I think that was the best part, was looking around and seeing all the generations, the elders that were there that were just watching and giving guidance on

how to take care of, how to move this mammal and how to think about the best way to handle it. We had our young people, we had little kids out there that wanted to help. I saw one of our Tribal members helping just little guys, probably three or four-years old with the shovels because we needed to pull some of the sand away so that it could be lifted. They all wanted to help and they were laughing and having fun and we just talked to them about why this was such a great day and that we were celebrating as a people. And I truly believe that we are blessed people.

Miller: It’s fascinating to think that for them … I mean, maybe a three-year old or a four-year old knows something about history, but my six-year old doesn’t really understand the idea of generations yet. But I’m just imagining that those young kids now, I mean, that’s how tradition happens. They’ve now taken part in something that hadn’t happened for generations, but for them, it now has.

Meade: Yes. And this is our 35th Restoration Celebration this year, which is significant for the Coquille Tribe. Our history includes termination era. Not so long ago, in 1954, our Tribe was terminated by the Western Oregon Termination Act. That was 70 years ago …

Miller: … Just to remind folks who may not understand this language – meaning, terminated by the federal government, they ceased to recognize you as a sovereign nation. So it’s been a little while since we’ve talked about termination but you’re saying that this is the 35th anniversary of restoration.

Meade: It’s significant. We suffered 35 years of the termination era and fought to be restored and recognized once again as the people of this place, as Coquille people. And we are now celebrating 35 years since we were restored in 1989 by Congress. And there’s so much to think about where we’ve come from since termination and then to receive this gift right before June 28th, that we will celebrate our 35th restoration, it felt like maybe just some acknowledgement that we’re doing the right work, we’re doing the right things for our Nation and for our people and our community to receive a gift like that. We will be able to work towards cultural revitalization for our people for generations with this information and for those young people that experienced it, they may not remember but their pictures [and] those stories are going to be told for generations. And it’s such an opportunity for us to share to the community as well. And we’re looking forward to that.

Miller: What happened over the last few years, or maybe longer, in terms of either relationships that have been built up with state or federal agencies that made it possible for that call to happen?

Meade: I think one of the significant changes in our relationship with the state of Oregon … not so long ago, I believe it’s been three years now, the Coquille Tribe and the ODFW, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, we negotiated an MOU that defined our relationship as being co-managers of fish and wildlife in our Tribe’s five county service area. And what that means is that any decisions that ODFW makes around fish and wildlife in our five counties – Coos, Curry, Lane, Douglas and Jackson counties – that we will meet and we will talk. We will talk about our best practices for stewardship, for subsistency gathering, for ceremonial gathering and we’ll share information. The science needs to be tested, and it needs to be tested by our practices and our boots-on-the ground background.

I think it’s been such a great working relationship. We’ve had some bumps, but it comes with good intentions from both sides. And I think we’ve seen some incredible work already, especially around our Coquille River fall Chinook salmon that were near extinction. We’re seeing runs increasing already.

Miller: Just briefly, [the] pieces of this gift of a whale, where are they going to end up? How are they going to be used in the coming weeks or months or maybe longer?

Meade: I think it’s going to be an opportunity. There’s been so many ideas from Tribal membership, those that were there are taking care of it and those resources. We had folks from our culture department just going through the archives and looking at how this would have been used in our traditional regalia for ceremony, which we’re excited about that. We also are really paying attention to the stories around [how] our Tribe used lamps used with lamp oil. That’s something we haven’t really paid attention to lately, but it was significant because those lamps would be where we had ceremony or where our sweat houses were. We’re going to be able to take some time as our Tribal members come home for ceremony and for that restoration celebration to share that and to begin looking at those examples of those carved oil lamps, and start talking about revitalizing that culture around our ceremonies. So it’s exciting.

We also are really thinking a lot about how to share this information with the community. Having a full whale skeleton is something that we’ve talked about, possibly being able to cast that and have it as a display with the information about that ceremony and this gift that happened for our community as well. So we have lots of ideas. We’re even talking about a coloring book for kids about the story and just really tying it into our traditional language teachings as well. So, lots of excitement around the possibilities of getting more cultural education opportunities from this as well.

Miller: Brenda Meade, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Meade: Thank you.

Miller: Brenda Meade is the Tribal Chair of the Coquille Indian Tribe.

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