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Stories Hidden From History: Roberta Conner

The 28th annual Summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers examined “Hidden From History: Stories We Haven’t Heard, Stories We Haven’t Told.”

Roberta Conner is the executive director of the Museum at Tamástlikt Cultural Center.

Roberta Conner is the executive director of the Museum at Tamástlikt Cultural Center.

April Baer/OPB

Roberta Conner of Cayuse, Umatilla, Nez Perce ancestry is the executive director of Tamástlikt Cultural Institute. She’s approached storytelling from several angles — as a journalist straight out of the University of Oregon and later in her work preserving oral histories of tribal elders. Conner also served as chair of the Board of Trustees at the National Museum of the American Indian for six years.

April Baer: Do you ever feel you’re in a position of trying to make sense of things that are inherently insensible?

Roberta Conner: Absolutely. Not only are many of the stories we’re trying to tell incomprehensible or unfathomable — for example, explaining to fourth-graders what it’s like to be from a  place for more then 10,000 years. We’re trying to use contemporary language with a contemporary audience in a contemporary setting and share ancient teachings. That’s quite a leap.

Baer: You were invited to Fishtrap this year to talk about the stories of native people, and what happens when those stories are told by white people. What kind of stories do we get when the narrative is woven through white worldview and white language?

Conner: I think you get an abbreviated story. I guess I have to confess from the point at which the story stops being told in the native language, it’s already a changed story. Then it’s even further changed to fit the time-frame permitted. Our stories take a long time to tell when they’re told well. It’s even more changed because often it’s cleaned up for the audience it’s being told to, mixed company, small children. That’s not bad, that’s not good, it’s just very different.

Baer: What hidden stories speak most deeply to you?

Conner: I have a couple of stories — I’m not sure if they’re hidden — they may be lost to time. One is related to the Cayuse Five. After the bloodshed that followed the Whitman killing from 1847 to 1850, a council of Cayuse and Nez Perce men agreed to surrender 13 meant to the Oregon Territorial government, to stop the bloodshed.

The five men are tried in what’s been described as a carnival-like atmosphere in Oregon City … sentenced and hanged in 1850, and buried there. What no one has been able to tell me is the names of the eight men who were not tried … who were willing to give their lives to stop the bloodshed, I don’t know their names. And I’d like to know their names.

Baer: What stories are most important to tell about this place?

Conner: Most importantly the story of this place. The Wallowa country is magnificent. People are amazed when they come here. Every time I have to leave this country to my other home on the Umatilla Reservation, I have a pining. It’s not so tough now that I know I’m just going over the hill and can come back anytime.

But when I lived in California and Denver and Washington, D.C., leaving this place was really hard. This place is a place of abundance and richness, in story, in culture, and in resources. I have watched other tribal people who came back here to visit after being gone for three and four generations, and have been experiencing the longing exile brings. Witnessing those people coming to this valley for the first time, after being out of this land for a hundred years, exiled to the Colville Country, and watching them cry. They were experiencing the beauty that had been described to them, becoming real. Understanding the anguish and sentiments that go with that is pretty incredible.

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