MYS Oregon to Iberia

Celebrating the land and its people: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

This cultural hub in Pendleton, Oregon celebrates the past, present, and future of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It is also one of the state's five Oregon Trail Interpretative centers.

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This is the first in a series of three articles about the cultural hubs of Pendleton, Oregon. Each article focuses on a particular institution and its symbiotic relationship with the communities in the Pendleton area. Look for articles on Pendleton Center for the Arts and Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in the coming months.  

Exterior of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, image courtesy of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

In the offices of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, a map on Exhibits Coordinator Randall Melton’s computer screen is taking some time to load, giving him the opportunity to contextualize what I’m about to see. Melton explains that this new map, titled “Tíintičamna, Our Living Earth,” is one of two that will replace the current “Westward Expansion Map.” Centering on the trails and place names of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) instead of those provided by settlers to the area, “Our Living Earth” omits the more recently imposed state boundaries. On his screen the map resolves into focus, showing the familiar topography of northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington and Western Idaho. Without the dashed lines of state borders, the importance of the Columbia River and its watershed is emphasized and the web of trails and marked sites follows the topography (rather than the highway system). The partner map, titled “Foreign Incursions,” overlays the trails of the explorers and the Oregon Trail onto “Our Living Earth” emphasizing the recent and directed nature of their paths. These two newly made maps of an ancient landscape succinctly illustrate the core of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute: to center attention on the 10,000 year connection between the CTUIR people and this land.



OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series



The meaning of Tamástslikt in the Walla-Walla dialect is two-fold: to translate and also to turn over, as from one season to the next. Opened in 1998, Tamástslikt Cultural Institute is one of the five Oregon Trail Interpretative Centers; uniquely, it is the only one tribally owned and operated. Often, the story of the Oregon Trail is told from the perspective of those traveling the 2,200 miles by foot or ox-drawn cart over the course of 6 months, facing geographical and existential challenges along the way. Translating the history of the Oregon Trail into the history of how this migration of 250,000 people from the east intersected and impacted the history of the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla people whose existence is linked to this land is an important part of Tamástslikt’s purpose, but the scope of the Institute is much broader.

The charge of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute is multivalent: It is the national archive of the CTUIR, it hosts cultural programming, it serves as an event site, it initiates and supports projects related to the historical preservation and future advancement of the CTUIR, and it is a space for permanent and temporary exhibitions related to the tribes. In the week before my visit, Tamástslikt was the site of a three-day tribal language meeting. The weekend after my visit, Portland author David H. Wilson Jr. gave a presentation about his recent book, Northern Paiutes of the Malheur: High Desert Reckoning in Oregon Country (2022). On August 5th, there will be a Community Celebration that includes a hand drum contest and a costumed pup parade in celebration of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute’s 25th Anniversary. The anniversary celebrations also herald the reopening of a Tamástslikt favorite: the Coyote Theater, whose programming centers on the wisdom and experience of animals.

Exhibits at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

The “translation” component of the word tamástslikt is evident in the way the Institute translates tribal history in its permanent exhibition, framed around the categories “We Were,” “We Are,” and “We Will Be.” Beginning with the origin stories of the Plateau tribes, the exhibits weave the lessons of Coyote,1 the adaptable teacher and trickster, with historical artifacts, recreated structures, and explanatory texts, placed in large airy spaces with windows onto the foothills of the Blue Mountains. As visitors walk through the permanent exhibits, complex ideas are explained in a straightforward manner on wall panels that begin with a title in the Umatilla dialect, then the English translation. These titles are then followed by historical quotations, which provide period language and context for the explanations. Further contextualization is provided by specific audio content: ambient sounds of the High Plateau, horses hooves, singing voices, or spoken recollections of students at the Chemawa Boarding School.

Moving further into the museum, the topics turn to the impact of the United States’ expansion from the tribes’ perspectives. The physical spaces of the exhibit become tighter and more complex, metaphorically mirroring the content and focusing visitors’ attention on the myriad ways in which the tribes interacted with the explorers and homesteaders. For example, the exhibit details the positive impacts of the introduction of horses, which reached the Cayuse people around 1730. The Walla-Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse tribes became accomplished riders and ranchers, raising large herds of horses as livestock.2 But by 1890 the allotment and fencing of the land for pastures and the railroads began to destroy the free range necessary for large horse herds, and over subsequent decades the tribes lost a significant resource.

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Pendelton Roundup Display at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

Understanding the history of the horse in this way – as a beneficial introduction that became functionally and symbolically integral to the CTUIR – also explains the importance of the Pendleton Round-Up to the CTUIR community. Tribal participation in the Round-Up is celebrated as an aspect of both “We Were” and “We Are,” connecting present tribal members to the history of both the event and the skills it showcases.

Tamástslikt, defined as a “turning over,” is evident in the way that the Institute has been “turning over” difficult topics, such as the history of Native American Boarding Schools, since its opening in 1998. More recently, Tamástslikt has supported multiple efforts to expose and correct the Whitman Myth, a tragic episode in the history of missionaries migrating westward and settling in tribal lands. Founded in 1836, the Whitman Mission near present-day Walla-Walla became an important stop on the Oregon Trail. In 1847, Dr. Marcus Whitman could not heal or contain an outbreak of measles, particularly in the Cayuse, who had no natural immunity, leading to the disease threatening the existence of the tribe. In accordance with Cayuse custom, and in an effort to save their people from an incapable healer, members of the Cayuse killed Whitman and other missionaries, starting the Cayuse War. Eventually, 5 men, Ti’ílaka’aykt, Tamáhas, ’Iceyéeye Cilúukiis, K’oy’am’á Šuumkíin, and Łókomus turned themselves in to United States authorities and were hanged for what was termed “the Whitman Massacre.” As this history has been “turned over,” examined, and re-written from the perspective of the Cayuse, efforts are being made to locate the graves of the Cayuse 5, who were buried without ritual in an unknown location far from their homelands. Tamástslikt Cultural Institute collaborated with the National Parks Service to create the short film, A Prophecy Fulfilled: The Cayuse and the Whitmans at Waiilatpu (2013), which is shown at the Whitman National Historic Site and provides a history of the events from the perspective of the Cayuse culture.

Entrance to the boarding school exhibit at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

Tamástslikt Cultural Institute’s desire for the more literal idea of turning over applies to the Treaty of 1855, which created the first version of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Melton describes the document as an “article of cultural patrimony”: it reduced the historic land rights of the tribes from 6.4 million acres to 250,000 and united three cultures, the Umatilla, the Cayuse, and the Walla-Walla as the CTUIR. While portions of the treaty were loaned to Tamástslikt for the sesquicentennial celebration of its signing in 2005, it is currently stored in the United States National Archives in Washington DC. Melton would like to change that – to have the treaty reside in the cultural and physical landscape that it created.

Traditional garments with trader beads at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

The location names on the “Foreign Incursions” map are unfamiliar to me. Randall explains that the places important to the tribes are given in the local dialects: Walla Walla, Umatilla, or Nez Perce/Cayuse. The map draws strongly from the Sahaptian Place Names Atlas, a Tamástslikt-organized project which began in 2000 with the goal of preserving both the history and language of the tribes. The Atlas was published in 2015 and is a combination of geographic descriptions and essays by elders and scholars. 

Preserving the languages of the tribes is crucial to Tamástslikt Cultural Institute since fluency in the CTUIR dialects has recently decreased – particularly as elder master language speakers pass on. On the reservation, the Nixyáawii Community School now requires 2 credits of native language for high-school graduation, and the pre-school program offers Tamalúut (Umatilla) language immersion for 3-5 year olds.

Tule Mat Lodge in the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

Tamástslikt Cultural Institute began as an idea in 1988, with no collection at all. Now, due to generous donations, its vaults are now full to bursting and the collection includes more than 15,000 stone tools, 7,500 objects, and 3,000 books. Moreover, the Tamástslikt team is now an integral part of the Oregon Heritage MentorCorps, helping other archives, libraries, and museums to care for their historic collections. In the Tamástslikt exhibits, one thing that is notably missing is dates on the object labels. Melton explained that this intentional omission conveys that these objects are not simply “historical,” but are part of a continuous story that is still unfolding. He describes the objects and accompanying explanations as one aspect of “connecting with those who came before and with the people ahead of us who we will never meet.” Updates to the “We Will Be” components of the exhibit, particularly the inclusion of conversations with younger members of the tribes are anticipated as part of the Institute’s anniversary celebrations.

But really, “We Will Be” is enacted daily at Tamástslikt. As we discuss the placement and intentions of the map, Melton explains that it’s currently being test-printed in the print shop across the hall by his daughter, who is working at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute this summer. There’s currently a problem with the map’s font – it doesn’t have all the diacritical marks necessary for the Umatilla language and so it might be a little late to the Anniversary Celebration. 

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Blue Mountain foothills near Tamástslikt Cultural Institute

Slowly moving through the landscape is intrinsic to arriving at, or departing from, Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. The winding road acts as a “decompression zone” that refocuses attention externally. This time is an opportunity to look at this land not as a web of development, but rather as the land to which the Plateau people were created, and which they have agreed to care for. There is no immigration aspect to the creation stories of the CTUIR people. Tradition states that the Creator made these people and placed them on this land.

Melton characterizes the goals of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute as teaching, interpreting, and protecting. As I looked at the “Our Living Earth” map, I noticed that some labels lack pinpoint specificity, indicating instead general areas. Melton explains that this is protection in action. “Since tribal elders had knowledge weaponized against them, they are now reluctant to share such information outside the tribes,” he explains, “but that is changing.” Tamástslikt’s welcoming atmosphere and desire to engage all visitors in conversation with the history of this land and its people prove this to be so.  


[1] Oral traditions of the CTUIR tribes describe the Creator speaking to Coyote, who then explained to the other animals that humans would need to be taught how to exist on the land. A council of animals was then held during which the natural world offered its support to the Plateau people who would then, in turn, care for the land and the life it sustained. (Robert Conner and William L. Lang, “Early Contact and Incursion, 1700-1850,” in Wiyáxayxt As days go by Wiyáakaaˀawn, ed. Jennifer Karson (Pendleton OR: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, 2006, 23)

[2] Descriptions of the arrival of the tribes for treaty negotiations in 1855 include the arrival of 2,000 mounted Nez Perce and 500 Cayuse riders.

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It must be noted that this series of articles is not an exhaustive survey of all that Pendleton has to offer. The Heritage Station Museum, the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy-Canyon Hall of Fame, and the Pendleton Air Museum each exhibit specific histories of a town that began as a trading post in 1851. Additionally, I was reminded of the important role of music –the Jackalope Jamboree (each year in June), the Whisky Fest (July), the famous Pendleton Round-Up (September), and the Oregon East Symphony (Nov-June).

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Georgina Ruff is an art historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. Her interests in the conservation of obsolescing media and immersive installations have led her on explorations of 60's era light shows, Bauhaus illuminations, histories of fluorescent light bulbs, and contemporary spatial politics of object-less art works. Georgina earned her PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2020.

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