Native American

New Portland murals and the legacy of cultural appropriation

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

In late winter 2021, trail users on Portland’s Springwater Corridor were suddenly greeted with Northwest, Coastal Salish, and Alaskan Native imagery on utility towers and graffiti-covered surfaces of the Ross Island Bridge.

The artist, Stephen Cutler, appears to be a Portland-based creator who has been using Native imagery for years in his work. I do not know if he has Native ancestry or if he has worked with Native artists. I also do not know if groups whose iconography he uses have weighed in on these creations.

Appropriation of Coastal Salish, Tlingit, Haida, and other tribal cultural traditions has been going on for decades, sparking controversy about the rights of non-Native persons to use traditions that are not theirs. These important discussions about cultural appropriation have not ended—and the voices of those whose traditions are being used by others needs to be centered in all discussions and displays of such work.

At the same time, I also know that art is never meant to remain static. It never has been as long as humans have created art since they first painted wild animals in caves many millennia ago. Creation involves taking ideas and inspiration from others and reinventing those creations to make something new. In addition, anyone from the public who encounters art, I believe, can both like something that is beautiful and question the larger story around it.

As for these new murals, I like them, aesthetically. They are vital. They adhere to beautiful traditions I have seen first-hand in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, including in living studios of Native and First Nations artists in those places. These pieces also bring life to an area that is shared by the public. It is a space used all residents for biking, hiking, walking, and other sports, and it is a de facto home to Portland’s large houseless population, who live in the elements a stone’s throw from where you see these pieces. So far, no graffiti artists who tag the concrete and steel spaces in this area have covered these pieces. It appears there is respect by that community too.

If you find yourself in Portland, take a stroll. They pieces can be found just underneath the Ross Island Bridge, on the east bank of the Willamette River.


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.

Hopewell Mound, Ohio

The Hopewell Cultural National Historic Park in central Ohio showcases one of the country’s greatest collections of mound building. Native Americans from Mississippi, to Illinois, to Ohio, to Alabama, left a lasting legacy still visible today in the form of burial mounds. The Hopewell mound builders of central Ohio built their mounds almost 2,000 years ago. According to archaeologists, Hopewellian people gathered at mounds for feasts, funerals, and rites of passage.  The greatest collection of Hopewellian mounds can found be near Chillacothe, Ohio. (Click on the photos to see larger pictures on a separate page.)

Fancy dancing at the Seafair Seattle Pow-Wow

I really like pow-wows. They are lively, loud, physical, colorful, cultural, competitive, creative, and welcoming. One of my favorite activities in Seattle, when I lived there, was to visit Discovery Park for the annual Seafair Seattle Pow-Wow. The event fell on hard times recently, and has been cancelled, but it looks like funding was secured once more and it was held again, most recently in 2015. These shots all date from July 2013. All but one are of the male elders. What I noticed was a lot of intensity among the younger male dancers, and more energy conserving movements of the older, more veteran contestants. The most athletic did not win; it was the one who was in a space of personal expression, feeling the drum, and how that moved him.

Contestants who participated came from across the Northwest region and Canada, and tribes from the Spokane, to the Colvilles, to the Warm Springs, to the Umatilla, and more, were represented. Everyone I saw appeared to love it. The place was packed and everyone was taking pictures.

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)


Warm Springs on a winter’s day

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I just passed through the Warms Springs Indian Reservation, which lies in northwest Oregon, on the east side of the Cascade range. It is managed by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The bands that claimed ancestry in the region include the Paiutes, Warms Springs, and Wascoes.

The reservation was created by treaty in 1855, which ceded lands to the United States in exchange for rights and services. Those rights include fishing rights for salmon that remain today.

I will go back in the spring, when the weather is warmer. There is a lot I would like to see.

Today, the reservation has made a lot of news because of a tribal vote to allow cannabis cultivation. During the same election in December, there was a measure to remove lifetime members from the tribal council. The tribe reported this update in November that the petition needs to be submitted and approved for further review by the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This measure to change the tribal constitution likely stemmed from news that broke earlier in 2015 that the tribes overspent $100 million over the last 10 years, which put at risk  pensions and distributions from a tribal trust, and also impacted essential services.

The tribes’ former treasurer, Jake Suppah, was put on leave after identifying the mismanagement. These findings and the treatment of Suppah led to the tribes contacting the office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior to investigate tribal finances in March 2015. Since that time, the fiscal mismanagement, the connection between the reporting of the mismanagement and the petition last month to amend the constitution, and the impacts of these findings have not been widely covered in Oregon. I still cannot find out how this petition process turned out, yet.

As the Bend Bulletin in March quoted council member Carlos Smith, also general manager of Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa: “Our tribe was one of the richest tribes in the ’80s and now we’re broke. That’s why we brought Jake back, to figure out, ‘Why are we broke? What is this issue?’”

I am hoping the residents of Warm Springs have found answers to their questions about what went wrong. There are many reasons for silence in Indian country, but I think many on the reservation think otherwise with this matter.



Two sides of a historic coin and wrestling with the past

The debates over the public and state-sanctioned display of the flag of the slave-holding Confederacy point to the United States’ not-so recent past. No country is pure, and the United States’ evolution is marked by great accomplishments, great divisions, and also some historic acts that leave a painful legacy. Our history of conflict in the 1800s stretches the entire century, from the War of 1812, through the Mexican-American War, dozens of conflicts with Native American bands across the continent, overseas expansion and trade wars (the Opium War), and the Spanish-American War.

in 1902, Portland area residents and war veterans erected a statue honoring the nation’s war veterans at the city’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. The cemetery is filled with graves of many white, Christian early settlers from the 1800s, and latter-day residents of all persuasions. I stumbled on the cemetery accidentally at a staging of Macbeth last weekend.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

I looked up and saw this statue of a Civil War soldier, with memorials plaques honoring veterans of Spanish-American War of 1898, the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the American Indian Wars from 1846 to 1856, which saw most of Oregon and Washington occupied and appropriated as U.S. territory from many native tribes.

There were conflicts, but many of the original inhabitants were perishing en masse due to diseases like smallpox that accompanied the arrival of new settlers. Even after land was ceded by treaties and tribes were resettled on reservations, hostility was pronounced. Eleven years before this statue was erected, in 1891, the Oregon Legislature was passing resolutions with language that characterized the state’s Native residents as “a wild man.”

State lawmakers signed their names to a measure that stated: “… it would only be a fact of evolution to call him a wild animal on his way to be a man, provided the proper environments were furnished him. While the instincts and perceptions are acute, the ethical part of him is undeveloped, and his exhibitions of a moral nature are whimsical and without motive. Brought into contact with white men. whether of the lowest or of the highest, he is always at a disadvantage which is irritating, and subject to temptations which are dangerous.”

Today, what are we to do with such legacies to this time when these attitudes prevailed, and good people erected monuments to their fellow soldiers who fought for their country, and many doing so believing they were in the right and doing it for the best of intentions?

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Fort Rock State Natural Area up close and from afar


This is the second in my series of images published on the Fort Rock State Natural Area. My first set of photos were taken  near the entrance to the old volcanic caldera. A reply I received from a person who is an advocate for the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society wanted to be sure I noted that the Fort Rock Homestead Village is a citizen led effort and uses donated buildings, all of which are authentic to the area. Duly noted. A museum is open to the visiting public, and it is worth a story stop too. My only regret is not having done enough research in advance and learned more about the amazing footwear found near the crater–the world’s oldest known pair of shoes, or should I say sandals. Here are a few more angles of the area, as well as the village.

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

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.

Look around and you might find art about American Indians


I took a drive from St. Louis to Seattle in 2013, with the goal of visiting a few places with historic significance to the story of American Indians/Native Americans. Oddly enough, the first thing I took a picture of was an electric box in St. Louis, by the light rail station, which had been painted with scenes of a buffalo hunt. I thought this must have been a locally supported art project, and I really liked these pieces. The same day I visited the Museum of Westward Expansion, under the Gateway Arch, which has a superb exhibit of the story of the West, including the loss of lands, conquest, and cultural collapse of bands who once called the American West their own.

This summer, I was passing through The Dalles, Ore., and saw the side of a local store that was painted with a mural telling the story of the treaty signed by the U.S. Government and Oregon tribes, which ceded much of the state to the United States. Large mural art by Alaskan Natives and American Indians can be found throughout the United States, but also in Canada and Mexico (by their first nations and indigenous artists). When you see something bold and creative, stop for a moment and think about the story. The art tells the tale of the land you are standing on. And the story is long, complex, and continuing.

(Please click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)