When the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians broke ground in February for their Cultural Center and Museum, it was a moment long overdue. But while a formal venue had once remained out of reach, the tribe’s effort to preserve and share their culture was never in question. For years, they’ve hosted language classes, pow-wows, and Oregon’s longest relay race. Despite this, tribal members often encounter people who know nothing about them, including their existence.
“When I went to school in Oregon a long time ago, nothing was taught about Oregon Indian tribes,” said Delores Pigsley, chairwoman of the Siletz Tribal Council. “You would hear about the Sioux tribe, mostly. On the Tribal Council, when there is something that affects us in the state Legislature or Congress, we have to go through the whole story of who we are and how long we have been here. People are always amazed that they didn’t know.”
The new Cultural Center and Museum – opening date to be announced — will offer one more way for the tribe to share its story. And it can’t come a day too soon.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
“The cultural center has been on every comprehensive plan the tribe has put together since 1977,” said Alfred “Bud” Lane III, Tribal Council vice chairman. “It was always a priority to do it, but funding-wise, we were never able to get it off the ground until now. Our expectation is it is a place to house those things that mean a lot to us, things our children want to see. This museum will function as a home for the collections we have, to show people our traditions. It really is kind of a mirror of ourselves, where people can go and immerse themselves.”
The nonprofit Siletz Tribal Arts and Heritage Society reached its fundraising goal of $2.5 million for construction of the center in 2022, as well as raising an additional $500,000 for the building’s interior. The Cultural Center will be a 20,000-square-foot, three-story building adjacent to the tribal community center in Siletz. A daylight basement will serve as a repository for archives. The main floor, where visitors will be welcomed, will include a museum and visitor space and a replica of the cedar-plank dance house located by the Siletz River. The third floor will house office and meeting spaces.
By the tribe’s own description, its origins are a “complex subject.” Its website offers this history: “The Confederated Tribes of Siletz is a federally recognized confederation of over 30 bands, originating from Northern California to Southern Washington. Termination was imposed upon the Siletz by the United States government in 1955. In November of 1977, we were the first tribe in the state of Oregon and second in the United States to be fully restored to federal recognition. In 1992, our tribe achieved self governance, which allows us to compact directly with the US Government.”
Noted for their superior basket-weaving skills, the Siletz Indians are based on a 3,666-acre reservation in Lincoln County, about a 13-mile drive from Newport. Though a distinct entity, the tribe plays an important role in the overall community, not only in sharing their culture, but also their resources, particularly in times of crisis. During COVID, the tribe offered vaccinations to the community at large, and during the wildfires of 2020, assistance to evacuees. But such interactions were not always welcome.
“Doing things that we do traditionally was sometimes stopped by the general public,” Lane said. “That was part of the reason we kept things internal.” Noting that the elders taught them to keep things to themselves, Lane said the tribe was somewhat invisible. “We’ve had to live with that. Our language and our basket traditions have become popular over time. But there was a time our language wasn’t thought of as legitimate language.”
Today, thanks in large part to Lane, innumerable people have learned the Siletz Dee-ni language – part of the Athabaskan family of languages. He began teaching native language classes about 20 years ago, a time when few native speakers remained. He also helped create a talking dictionary that features nearly 14,000 words. Students at the Siletz Valley School, a charter school operated by the tribe, begin learning the language in grade school, while high school students can choose it for their language credits. Classes are also offered to the community, with lessons available online.
“To have people, especially Siletz people, be able to communicate, and seeing young people begin to use the language, I really can’t describe that,” Lane said.
Tribal members Theresa Smith and Nick Viles lead the classes.
“I didn’t grow up speaking the language,” Viles said. “I started learning in high school, around the time Bud was setting up the language program. Siletz is a really interesting place linguistically, because it’s a confederated tribe made up of people from all across Western Oregon. That means there is a lot of linguistic diversity. I think that linguists often refer to our language as Oregon Athabaskan, but I like to use our own words to describe our language, either Nuu-wee-ya’, our language, or Dee-ni Wee-ya’, the people’s language.”
The school classes are open to all students, but for tribal members in particular, the learning experience is complicated, Viles said.
“There is no way to learn it without confronting loss,” Viles said. “Students might find themselves asking, ‘Why don’t I already know this? Why am I not learning this at home?’ It’s about more than learning the words. It’s really personal. It makes you think about your own family, history. I try to give kids a chance to think about that in class.”
Every student learns differently, some excited to jump in, others more quiet and reserved, Viles said. “Sometimes, I wonder, are they picking this up at all? Then one day they just start talking to you. It’s something everyone has to do for themselves, but it’s something you can do together. You’ve got to do it for yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone.”
The tribe also hosts two pow-wows a year, including the wildly popular Annual Nesika Illahee Pow-Wow, scheduled this year for Aug. 11-13. The pow-wow includes the Royalty Pageant, parade, salmon dinner, and the crowd favorite, the grand entry, when dancers in regalia enter the dance arena together. “The pow-wows, as we know them today, started sometime in the ‘60s in Siletz,” Pigsley said. “We’ve carried forward that pow-wow tradition. People come from all over the U.S. to dance. It’s mainly a gathering of friends. In the old days, they used to come together to trade and buy things from each other, trade for beads and furs.” A second pow-wow held in November celebrates the tribe’s restoration.
While the pow-wows honor tradition and friendship, the fall Run to the Rogue relay race recalls a darker piece of history. Beginning at Government Hill in Siletz, the 234-mile, three-day relay retraces the reverse journey Siletz ancestors made from the Rogue and Umpqua valleys to the coast.
“It was a forced march,” Lane said. “We go by places where our people were lined up and shot. It’s really moving. I was taught that if you go to these places and speak the language, the spirits will recognize you, and I believe that. There is a lot of happiness with the run, lots of camaraderie between the runners and elders, but also a lot of sadness. It is an important event.”