The Woodsman: Acknowledging the Original Peoples on The Mountain
By Steve Wilent
Have you ever stopped to think about the people who lived in our area before us, before we, people of mostly European descent, were here? There were people here, of course, just as there were throughout North America. And they had been here for as long as 20,000 years. So reports a recent article in Scientific American titled “Ancient Footprints Affirm People Lived in the Americas More Than 20,000 Years Ago.”
Estimates of the indigenous population before 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the “new world,” range from a few million to more than 100 million. Diseases, forced displacement from their territories and horrifying attempts to exterminate the original inhabitants reduced the numbers dramatically. The 2020 US census found more than 3.7 million American Indian and Alaska Natives in the US, and nearly 6 million more people with Native American ancestry. The total accounts for nearly 3 percent of the U.S. population.
The members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, from May 1804 to September 1806, reportedly encountered members of more than 50 Native American tribes and found thriving communities along the Columbia River.
But who lived here, in the villages we now call home? Sadly, much knowledge of these peoples is lost. Nonetheless, I think acknowledging the original peoples of The Mountain is important.
In recent years, many organizations and individuals have written land acknowledgements, statements that name and honor the original inhabitants of an area. Land acknowledgments may be spoken at the beginning of public and private gatherings, such as school programs, conferences and sporting events, or included with an organization’s or individual’s value statements.
I set out to write a land acknowledgement for myself and our area. Googling and other research turned up little information, so I contacted David G. Lewis, PhD, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and a professor of anthropology and Indigenous Studies at Oregon State University. Lewis has written numerous articles for his fascinating Wordpress blog, The Quartux Journal (this shortened link will lead you to it: tinyurl.com/3jvat6wf). “I understand there were likely Cascades, Wasco and Molalla huckleberry camps up in that area,” Lewis said.
Were there permanent villages in the area? Lewis didn’t know, but said that several tribes and bands either had seasonal camps or traveled through the area to trade with other tribes and bands.
From that scant information, I drafted this land acknowledgement:
I respectfully acknowledge that Zigzag, Oregon is located on the traditional lands of the Cascades, Chinook, Molalla, Multnomah and Wasco peoples, who traveled through the area to trade amongst themselves and other peoples in the region, and established summer camps for gathering traditional foods such as huckleberries. I offer my deepest respects to their ancestors, elders and present-day community members, who have stewarded this land for generations. I recognize the ongoing relationship that these Indigenous peoples have with lands in this area and I am grateful for the contributions they continue to make to our communities, culture and society as a whole.
Lewis, as well as other Native Americans I contacted, said the acknowledgement is appropriate. Of course, a land acknowledgement may seem like empty words, even if it is sincere.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian says this: “It’s essential to recognize and honor the original inhabitants of the land, and a land acknowledgment is a way to do so with respect and gratitude. However, it’s also important to remember that land acknowledgments should not be performative acts but rather a commitment to understanding the history, ongoing struggles and contributions of Indigenous communities.”
Reading Professor Lewis’s Quartux Journal is a step in that direction.
Have a question about land acknowledgements? Have information about the original peoples of this area? Let me know. Email: SWilent@gmail.com.