Warm Springs on a summer day

Eight months ago, I made a quick stop in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, about two hours east of Portland. The reservation, managed by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is bisected by Highway 26, which stretches from Mt. Hood to central Oregon. Mountain forests give way to the high desert as one passes to the reservation’s main hub, Warm Springs. You’ll find the local casino and beautiful cultural center. Almost no one stops to see the community.

I did a drive through. I found quite a few houses in somewhat run-down condition, which is not unusual in rural areas of the West. The reservation also has what I consider to be classical reservation architecture. I have seen similar designs in Washington State, Montana. Alaska, and Kansas. There is a school, administrative buildings, and older government buildings that are now shuttered and closed. This is the older part of the community. The modern health center is found further away from the highway. You can read my old post to see the controversy that has roiled the reservation and its members concerning the alleged overspending of nearly $100 million in funds in the last 10 years.

I stopped on the highway to photograph the Warm Springs billboard that captures in beautiful simplicity the symbology of the tribe’s identify–a circle with four features, stretching out from the center. I have always found Native American design powerful for the references to tribal history, the earth, nature, and tribal beliefs. This is one of the best. The flag for the reservation actually shows eight tribes who make up the reservation, as well as the natural landmarks and native wildlife.




Forgotten graves at the Chemawa Cemetery

Just east of Interstate 5, as one approaches the city of Keizer, Oregon, from the north, sits a mostly forgotten burial ground. I never knew of its existence until I looked at a Google map, planning a trip to the Salem, Oregon, area last fall. I was unaware that the Chemawa Indian School and its adjacent cemetery called Keizer home.  According to the school’s web site, the facility dates to the 1870s when the U.S. Government authorized a school for Indian children in the Northwest–a practice that removed children from their culture and families.

Native American girls at Chemawa work in school training programs for “home economics” skills, in this image dating from 1886. (Image courtesy of The West Shore and found at: Offbeat Oregon:

Native American girls at Chemawa work in school training programs for “home economics” skills, in this image dating from 1886. (Image courtesy of The West Shore and found at: Offbeat Oregon:

This was a period of highly criticized forced cultural assimilation of the region’s and nation’s Native American population into general society through education. The boarding high school just outside of Salem was first built in 1885, following an earlier one outside of Portland. The school claims it is the “oldest, continuously operated boarding school for Native American students in the United States.” It continues today, and is off limits to outsiders without permission to visit. The campus has Native American art, a sports field, and sits near the cemetery. Here children who were boarded at the school and who died while in the school’s care are buried.

So, naturally, I wanted to take a closer look given the boarding school would not let me see the campus grounds. The cemetery is in earshot of the freeway roar, and has pines standing on it, surrounded by a steel fence. The graves are modest, bearing names of youth who died from the early 1900s toward the mid-20th century.

I was struck by the number of deaths, as marked on tiny concrete grave markers, which listed 1918 as the year of death. That year the great pandemic spread worldwide and claimed more than 21 million lives–more lives than the battlefields took during the Great War.

A few months after my visit, the Al Jazeera news organization in January 2016 reported a Native American researcher, Marsha Small, had concluded that there were more than 200 documented graves at the Chemawa Cemetery. According to the somewhat critical story, “Government records indicate that epidemics of tuberculosis, trachoma and influenza often swept through overcrowded dormitories at the boarding schools, where children were often malnourished and exposed to germ-infested conditions due to inadequate funding.”

The pandemic that was sweeping Oregon was so severe in 1918 and 1919, that Oregon lawmakers cancelled their legislative session out of fear of the killer flu virus. The Oregon Quarterly reports that the first cases in Oregon were reported on the University of Oregon campus in October 1918. Given the conditions of a boarding school, it is likely it could have taken hold at Chemawa too. The cluster of three deaths over a four-day period is almost certainly an indication of a contagious disease, such as influenza. However, no additional information is listed on the headstones of these long forgotten young people, who died far from their families, in a place most people still do not know exists.

Grave of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

The story behind this photograph is a long one. It involves ownership and secrets, legacies and histories. Who has the right to tell this story? Who has the right to publish this photograph? Is Chief Joseph‘s legacy only safeguarded by his people, or a larger circle who care about his people’s story of leadership, exile, pain, loss, and conquest? I do not have the answer.

Chief Joseph was born in what today is the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. He and other Nez Perce warriors led his band of just 700 men, women, and children on a 1,400-mile march that even received taciturn praise from their military pursuers seeking to place them in reservations. The group held off more than  2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four battles and numerous skirmishes, before surrendering in 1877. His speech at his band’s surrender is among the most famous of all made by Native American leaders in response to their subjugation by the young United States and its people:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

The Nez Perce were relocated and broken. Half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Perce reservation in central Washington, becoming one of the bands of the Confederated Colville Tribes. Today the area is known as the Colville Reservation, where I shot this photograph in August 2014 when passing through. I found his final resting grounds to be a serene place.

Fort Spokane, a mixed legacy


This month I visited Fort Spokane, a former U.S. military base that is located where the Columbia and Spokane rivers join. Today those waters are dammed in what is now the Lake Roosevelt National Scenic Area. The fort was built in 1880 to keep “the peace” between white settlers and Indian residents on the Colville Reservation. (Click on each photo to see larger pictures on separate picture pages.)

The National Park Service notes, “In many ways, the Indian experience at Fort Spokane is a microcosm of the Indian experience across the United States.” In 1900 the fort become an Indian boarding school, one of the most controversial legacies of the treatment of American Indians. Children were forcibly moved here from their families from the Colville and Spokane reservations, leading to major protests by Indian leaders, including Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. The school was then closed in 1908.  (See the display from the visitor center below.)

Click on the picture of a display at the Fort Spokane Visitors Center entrance to read the description about the Indian boarding school controversy surrounding the boarding of more than 200 American Indian children here at the start of the 20th century.

Spokane Historical, published by Eastern Washington University, describes this controversial era, which was followed by having the fort become a tuberculosis sanitarium after 1909: “The idea behind Indian Boarding Schools was that the children would benefit from learning skills that would help them integrate into the white population. It was the general consensus among the white government agencies, at the time that this was far superior to the education that they would have received at home. As Capt. Richard H. Pratt said on the education of Native Americans, the cruel philosophy was, ‘Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.'”

After much of the fort was removed prior to 1930, a few remaining buildings were saved, such as those captured in my photographs and incorporated into a cultural site to be administered in the area surrounding the newly created reservoir that filled the river canyon after the Columbia River was dammed in Coulee City. I highly recommend anyone traveling to eastern Washington visit to the fort and lake and enjoy the beautiful scenery (I heard coyotes when I camped there). Also take the time to learn about the area’s history. This location truly is a microcosm of the state’s development in the last two centuries.