“We have been here since time began,” Don Ivy, chief of the Coquille Indian Tribe, said. “We have been here since the first human got here.”
For thousands of years, more than 60 tribes lived in Oregon's diverse environmental regions. At least 18 languages were spoken across hundreds of villages. Natural resources abounded.
“Before the non-Indians got here, we were some of the richest people in the world,” said Louie Pitt Jr., director of governmental affairs for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. “Oregon has been 100 percent Indian land.”
After thousands of years of history, life as the native people knew it was upended in just a few short decades.
For the new “Oregon Experience” documentary “Broken Treaties,” native Oregonians reflect on what has been lost since and what’s next for their tribes. The following quotes have been edited for clarity.
For most of history, Oregon wasn’t divided by lines on a map. It contained four distinct regions that varied in terrain, climate and resources. These variations shaped the way people lived. (The map below shows the cultural and language groups that existed prior to contact with settlers, and what the landscape of official reservations looks like today.)
The Paiutes claimed most of what is now southeastern Oregon, part of the Great Basin. They lived for generations in the vast desert, walking long distances to hunt, gather and trade.
The Northwest Coast region extended from Astoria to Gold Beach and encompassed the fertile Willamette Valley. The tribes of this region usually did not have to travel too far for food.
Most of northeastern Oregon — and a big swath down the center of the state — was plateau country. It’s a region of the state that’s wide and rolls in hills and valleys.
Further south in Plateau country, the Warm Springs, Wascos, Klamaths, Modocs, Yahooskins and others thrived.
For centuries, these four cultural areas were home to Oregon’s first people. But when the Euro-Americans began settling in the area they saw something else.
Pioneers often described Oregon’s diverse landscape as wilderness. They saw the forests, valleys and waterways as pristine and untouched. But the landscape had been maintained for millennia.
The early European settlers who ventured west didn’t see such complexities in the land, or in the societies of people who tended it. In Oregon, the meeting of cultures was often violent, and it would lead a systemic upheaval of the state’s first people.
Some modern historians trace the pioneer mandate to settle the West can be traced back to 1493.
In the year after Christopher Columbus claimed the Americas for the Queen of Spain, Pope Alexander VI wrote the rules on the proper way to “discover” new land. His “Doctrine of Discovery” would guide Europe’s colonization of new territories around the world. And the ideas would echo in the occupation of land and subjugation of native people for hundreds of years.
“By the authority of God … We appoint you lords over them with full and free power, authority and jurisdiction of every kind.”
In 1806, Lewis and Clark's “Voyage of Discovery" asserted America’s presence in Indian country in the American West. And the U.S. Supreme Court later invoked the Doctrine of Discovery for the acquisition of that Indian land.
In time, that policy would take on a new name: Manifest Destiny.
In the early 1830s, the Oregon Trail had established a direct route to the Pacific Northwest. The government encouraged Americans to make the journey and to settle there to strengthen its claim to the territory.
White settlers began to arrive in large numbers in the early 1840s.
Before any treaties were signed — before the tribes had surrendered any of their land — the government began to officially give it away.
The Oregon Donation Land Act was passed in 1850, offering 320-acre parcels to thousands of white immigrants. In five years’ time, settlers would claim 2.8 million acres of Indian land.
The 1840s and '50s saw a sharp increase in violence between Indians and non-Indians.
In 1847, Cayuse warriors attacked the Whitman mission, blaming the Presbyterian missionaries for the measles that infected the tribe. They ended up killing thirteen people and burning down the mission. Clashes between soldiers, settlers and Indians grew more common place.
In 1855, several dozen miners came into a Coquille village, in what is now the town of Bandon, angry at an Indian man over a minor offense.
For various reasons, white miners, ranchers and other settlers killed hundreds of native people. Sometimes it was with government approval.
But the most deadly force, with the most profound impact on tribal populations, would be epidemics.
Beginning in the late 18th century, outbreaks of introduced diseases swept through the territory. And in some areas, with no immunity to these new infections, more than 90 percent of the tribal people died. (The map below shows the relentless pace of those waves and how many of those diseases spread along the key transportation routes of the Willamette and Columbia rivers.)
Weakened by sickness and violence, most tribes knew they could not win a war with the U.S. Army. And the government knew that peaceful settlements were less costly than battle.
In 1850, the first superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory, Anson Dart, set out to negotiate with the Indians. The mandate from the federal government was to get tribes to forfeit all their land claims west of the Cascades and move to reservations further east. The tribes would be compensated in various ways.
By the time Dart returned to Washington D.C., he had 19 signed treaties. In these documents, the tribes ceded about six million acres of their land to the government.
However, he failed to move the Indians out of western Oregon. Congress never ratified those treaties, and the president never signed them into law.
Soon after the initial venture, the new superintendent for Indian Affairs, Joel Palmer, embarked on another round of treaty talks. But what exactly these talks looked like remains a mystery.
The Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse Tribes negotiated a reservation on — or near — their ancestral lands. It was at the cost of ceding six million acres to the U.S. government. The 1855 treaty merged the tribes to become “The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.”
The signers of the 1855 Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla Treaty agreed to certain boundaries for their reservation. But later, the government's survey would show half as much land. In the years that followed, the reservation got even smaller.
Eventually, a government policy turned their land into a patchwork of small allotments, privately owned by both Indians and non-Indians.
The treaty with the Warm Springs and Wasco tribes reserved their fishing and other rights by ceding an area one-sixth the size of the state of Oregon.
Tribes along the coast appear on a single document, which has come to be known as the “Coast Treaty.”
Superintendent Palmer traveled village to village, stopping to identify the local headmen. He would explain the terms of the treaty and acquire their marks, usually “X's.”
The treaty specified a million-acre reservation where all these tribes would reside. It was a 105-mile strip along the western edge of the territory, to be called the “Siletz “ reservation — or the “Coast Reservation.”
In return for ceding most of their lands to the government, the Indians were promised a long list of compensations, including cash payments, sawmills, teachers — even arms and ammunition.
Soon after the treaty signings, the Indians were rounded up and led to the Coast Reservation, or the smaller, nearby Grand Ronde reservation.
Other western Oregon tribes were marched along other routes to the Siletz or the smaller Grand Ronde reservations.
Members of the coastal tribes — whose ancestors had lived in these places for countless generations — eventually learned the treaty had not been ratified. There would be no schools or blacksmiths, farm implements, nor return to their homelands.
Within ten years of its creation, the Siletz/Coast reservation began to be dismantled. By 1895, the once-immense coast reservation was gone. Today, the Siletz Reservation is less than 4,000 acres.
Virtually all the Indians west of the Cascades, plus the Klamaths, would no longer be "federally recognized." The laws were touted as an effort to liberate the native people from government oversight.
The terminated Indians saw their tribal holdings “repossessed” by the government. The Klamaths — who lost their vast timber holdings — received some financial compensation for their loss.
Most U.S. tribes were not terminated, and elsewhere conditions for Indians were improving. As Congress approved new Indian health programs, new native education funding and various reservation housing projects for federally recognized tribes. But none of that translated to the terminated tribes of Oregon.
It would take anywhere between 20 to 30 years for most of the terminated tribes to be restored.
The people of each tribe had to convince Congress their members deserved to be re-recognized as Indians.
The Klamaths won their case on Aug. 26, 1986. By then, their million-acre reservation had been reduced to a few hundred. Nevertheless, restoration was a victory. They celebrate the anniversary in Chiloquin every year.
Three tribes in western Oregon established themselves as autonomous: the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe, the Confederated Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw and the Coquilles.
The larger confederations, the Siletz and the Grand Ronde, regrouped and looked to the future.
By the end of the 20th century, the native people of Oregon had survived deadly epidemics, vigilante raids and countless assaults on their culture.
But federal Indian policy was changing, and possibilities were opening up. Many tribes bumped up efforts to try to preserve their traditional languages. Though some had been lost forever.
Maintaining the Paiute language has become a priority for the Burns Paiute Tribe.
The Warm Springs collection of art grew so big that the tribe built a museum to house it.
The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians opened Oregon's first casino in 1994. Today all of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes have casinos.
The tribes are funding other work that may have far-reaching effects. Indians are increasingly playing active roles in resource management.
Dams and diversions blocked salmon migration in the Umatilla River for more than 70 years. By asserting their treaty right to fish the Umatillas were able to reroute a considerable amount of water. And today the Umatilla flows again.
In the Klamath Basin, battles over water have raged for decades. But a treaty provision has given the tribes a powerful seat at the bargaining table.
These days, many Indians are well-versed in the details of those treaties of the 1850s and 60s. Most other Oregonians know little or nothing about them.
Looking to the future — as Oregon’s population grows and the climate changes — some of these individuals who've called this state home longer than anyone else has, believe they have a lot to offer.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to show that Robert J. Miller is a law professor at Arizona State University. OPB regrets the error.