Reclaiming the Ancient Lands of the `Old Ones' Oregon Tribes Vie for Shared Management of National Forest

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming the Ancient Lands of the `Old Ones' Oregon Tribes Vie for Shared Management of National Forest


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AS she looked about at the crowd gathering among the trees along Oregon's Applegate River and smelled the wood smoke and roasting salmon, as she listened to the drums and the singing, tribal elder Agnes Baker-Pilgrim shook her head in wonder.

"Never did I think that my people would set foot on some of the land of the old ones," she said.

It had been more than 130 years since the American natives who had lived here since prehistoric times were killed or rounded up and sent north to the reservations in Siletz and Grande Ronde. And it had been longer than that since the sacred-salmon ceremony was held along the river in southern Oregon now named for a prominent pioneer family that had blazed a wagon trail bringing settlers to the West.

Now, here were ancestors of Mrs. Baker-Pilgrim's Takelma, along with Chocktaw, Chippewa, Digger, Shoshone, Pawnee, Yurok, Cherokee, and other tribal groups represented at this special day. And it was as if this historic occasion was bringing back something from the past. "The beautiful people that went before us ... I just feel they're all here," said "Grandma Aggie," as she is known.

"The healing is starting today!" she shouted, throwing her arms in the air as her eyes glistened with tears. Indians and then guests were invited to taste sweet chunks of the sacred salmon sliced off with a large obsidian knife. Alfred Lane and Sage Butler, two boys from the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, stripped to their shorts and they dived into the icy waters of the Applegate, returning the bones of the salmon to the river in the ancient ceremony of blessing and thanksgiving. The crowd lined up for a huge potluck featuring salmon roasted on sticks along a 10-foot fire pit.

This recent event may be as important for molding the future as it was for remembering the past, for it also marked a new relationship between Indian groups and the federal government agencies that manage land across much of the West once known as "Indian country."

For the past several months, representatives of the United States Forest Service have been discussing with native Americans from the region a proposed "memorandum of understanding" that could return some land-management functions on a portion of the Rogue River National Forest.

This 17,000-acre area just below the dam that created Applegate Lake about 15 years ago has been logged several times over the past century. Fire suppression has allowed a thick understory to build up in an area that once was a more open savanna of white oak and ponderosa pine.

Indians would like to have a part in restoring the environment while also using it as an area to hold religious ceremonies and cultural gatherings. They also foresee educational opportunities here, both for Indian youth and for those whose ancestors came to the area much later - including Forest Service land managers.

"What we're attempting to do has never been done before," says George Fence, director of the American Indian Cultural Center in nearby Talent, Ore., and a Cherokee of Oklahoma who moved to the Rogue Valley 15 years ago. "Is there any validity to Indian stewardship of the land? …

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