Tribes of the Oregon Country: Cultural Plant Harvests and Indigenous Relationships with Ancestral Lands in the Twenty-First Century

By Dobkins, Rebecca; Hummel, Susan Stevens et al. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Tribes of the Oregon Country: Cultural Plant Harvests and Indigenous Relationships with Ancestral Lands in the Twenty-First Century


Dobkins, Rebecca, Hummel, Susan Stevens, Lewis, Ceara, Pochis, Grace, Dickey, Emily, Oregon Historical Quarterly


FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL, Indigenous peoples have been living on the land now known as Oregon. Given this special issue's theme of Oregon Migrations, it is important to acknowledge that, according to Indigenous oral traditions, the first peoples were created and placed on the Lands and waters the Creator provided for them. Thinking in archaeological terms, there is evidence of human presence in Oregon going back to this time beyond memory, at least 12,000 to 14,500 years ago. (1) Over millennia, the first peoples who made this place home developed deep relationships with the land and its resources. Today, the languages, beliefs, and lifeways of Oregon tribal people still embody those relationships. Despite centuries of dispossession, tribal people persist in maintaining connections and relationships with land that they protect through the exercise of sovereignty and the assertion of treaty rights.

History for Oregon Tribes and for all people who now call Oregon home is inseparable from the region's lands and waters where later waves of migration have occurred. (2) Tribes have ongoing legal, ecological, and cultural relationships with their ancestral lands even when they have been forcibly removed from them. These relationships between Lands and tribal peoples underlie all the other migration stories.

Today, the governments of the nine federally recognized Tribes in Oregon--the Burns Paiute Tribe; the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians; the Coquille Indian Tribe; the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians; the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde; the Klamath Tribes; the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation--represent the descendants of dozens of bands and communities that had and have knowledge about, and relationships with, every dimension of the state's lands, waters, flora, and fauna. There is a complex history behind the formation of each present-day reservation community, and each Tribe has its own legal-political framework and specific relationships with the multiple state and federal agencies that now have jurisdiction over its off-reservation ancestral lands. This legal and political complexity is characteristic of federal-tribal relations across what was once the Oregon Country (which extended across modern day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia).

This article discusses our research regarding one context in which these Longstanding relationships occur today, namely, when tribal people seek to harvest plants from ancestral lands now held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. Underlying the research is our premise that knowledge of historical relationships among American Indians, land, and natural-resource harvests is vital to upholding the federal trust responsibility to Tribes. This responsibility is understood by the U.S. Supreme Court to be a legal obligation under which the United States "has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust" toward Native American Tribes (Seminole Nation vs. United States, 1842). This trust includes protecting reserved rights to gather on lands now under federal jurisdiction --rights that have been affirmed by the Supreme Court and a responsibility repeatedly acknowledged by the USDA Forest Service--including through the creation of an Office of Tribal Relations within the agency in 2004. (3)

The right to gather on ceded lands--those lands transferred from American Indian Tribes to the United States by treaty in exchange for the reservation of specific land and resource rights and other promises--was guaranteed explicitly in many treaties between Tribes and the U.S. federal government. In instances when this right was not explicitly reserved in treaties, these rights are understood to exist, unless abrogated by Tribes. The legal complexities of tribal harvesting rights are beyond the scope of our research and this article, but we emphasize that the federal government and its agencies, including the USDA Forest Service, have a trust responsibility to Tribes that includes protecting reserved rights to gather. …

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