This series, “Indigenous Resilience in Oregon,” focuses on different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary Tribal culture and explores how traditional ways of life have continued forward throughout colonization and settlement of Oregon. This collection of writings and interviews showcases the history and resiliency of Oregon’s First Peoples. The first installment of the series, “Steph Littlebird: ‘Am I honoring those who have come before me?’,” is here. This article focuses on David Harrelson, the Cultural Resource Manager for the Grand Ronde Confederation, who is working to maintain traditional knowledge and arts so future generations can continue to learn and pass on the knowledge.
Oregon is home to nine federally recognized Tribal nations and each nation is unique in its own way. For example, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is a collective of over 30 bands and tribes whose territories include Oregon, Southwest Washington and Northern California. Within the Grand Ronde Tribe multiple individuals are actively working to record and protect traditional knowledge and land. Grand Ronde Cultural Resources Department Manager David Harrelson is part of this team.
When the reservation system was established in the western states during the 19th century, many tribes were forcefully rounded up and led to remote locations far away from their traditional homelands. Due to the isolation, desolation and disease Indigenous people experienced during the era of colonization, many elders and knowledge keepers died before our traditions and languages could be recorded. Since this time, tribes have worked to salvage what knowledge and traditions remained while working to protect and record it for future generations.
INDIGENOUS RESILIENCE IN OREGON: An ArtsWatch Series
In addition to keeping and preserving this knowledge, cultural resources management also gives tribes more say in how they’re remembered and represented, because historically, Indigenous people have not been seen as experts on their own culture. By creating departments run by Natives that specialize in their own histories and traditions, we can guard against the kind of erasure our communities have experienced in the past.
Prior to 1997, when the Cultural Resources Department was established at Grand Ronde, work related to the tribe’s cultural resources (collections, archaeology, museum development, tribal project regulatory compliance, language revitalization) were all handled by Tribal Council, the General Manager, lawyers, or special committees. By creating this department, the Tribes were able to dedicate specific resources to documenting and salvaging ancestral knowledge. Eventually the Chachalu museum (discussed in an earlier installment in the series) was born from this effort. The museum created a physical place where tribal members can research and access more information about their heritage and traditional practices like basketry and carving.
The Cultural Resources Department serves more than the tribe. Part of Harrelson’s responsibilities is working with non-Native entities who are interested and engaging with the Tribes on various projects. His team works on many different types of requests; this includes managing a growing interest in land acknowledgements by the broader public. “Often the people making inquiries aren’t Tribal people or Tribal organizations. They’re non-tribal people and non-tribal organizations.”
As David explains, back in the mid-2000’s, Grand Ronde began receiving increasing mail requests “because different laws and practices were passed and court cases established that government agencies and others have to talk with Tribes about their projects and the impacts that they have. And overnight the Tribe started to receive hundreds of pieces of mail. And now, today, we’re around 8,000 requests.” These requests typically relate to projects that impact archeological resources, sacred sites, or gathering areas.
Some of these requests come from folks like the Army Corps of Engineers, for example, if they’re looking to permit anything in a navigable waterway or a wetland. “So anytime that a project—municipality, private or otherwise, [that] needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, the permit is not issued unless they talk to the tribe.” And there are good reasons for this: David explains that there have been “decades of misuse and destruction and not seeking input. So, it’s sad what led us to win that, but now there’s an expectation and platform for Tribal voices to be that.”
Now, these requests come in with increasing regularity as people become more engaged with Indigenous causes and culture. “I think a beneficial impact when tribes are able to staff and meet consultation needs, I think that’s really contributed to a resurgence of the things that people talk about today because there’s a place for it, because there’s an impetus to think about.”
David studied to be a historian at Lewis & Clark College: “I studied under Steve Beckham, who is a well-known historian of Oregon, and has worked with Tribes throughout the United States for more than 50 years on litigation cases and recognition.” And, through all of his experiences as a historian managing our heritage assets, David has come to the conclusion that art is an integral piece of the puzzle. Indigenous cultures revolve around self-sustaining practices, which usually includes learning to make various use objects and traditional crafts.
“One of the realizations that you have when you do this work is—you realize how little people know about Natives. And you have a lot of the preliminary conversations over and over again. Even here in Oregon, we have to demonstrate and explain that we’re even here; it’s not taken as a given.”
David sees art as a way to connect non-Native people with our communities in new ways. “An understanding of place means actually seeing the art form of this land be highlighted. And that’s why we have taken efforts to focus on creating more visualizations of the Columbia river art form. We’ve seen it work in other regions, such as the Great Lakes region, or Southwest British Columbia. Each of those have had their own struggles with how this is maintained and how it becomes appropriated, but we don’t even have the luxury of having those problems.”
Creating a regional awareness through Tribe-centric public art projects can eventually lead us to move fruitful and reciprocal relationships. As David explains, “if I’m successful, we want to see Columbia river art be featured as the regional art form that it is.” Many Portland-metro area residents are unaware of the unique art forms of the Tribes that traditionally lived along the Columbia River prior to westward expansion. This fact is a true shame when you start to explore the portfolios of Columbia River artists like Greg Archuleta, who was previously profiled for this series.
Shifting traditional practices to meet the expectations of a contemporary art audience is also tricky: “It is a really challenging thing to do authentically and it takes time and it has to happen slowly and in community. Columbia River art wasn’t necessarily a big demonstration of public art to our ancestors, but yet that’s the way that the art world is now. And so you have a body of artists who are tribal members, community members, or grounded and connected to those people that are exploring these ideas of what is like an Indigenous futurism.”
Recently, I was honored to assist David in his mission to merge traditional art practices with contemporary public art when we collaborated on a concept design featured during Converge 45 at the Prototypes exhibition. Converge 45 is an annual multi-day event that features international, national, and regional contemporary art in and around Portland. My job as an artist was to illustrate his vision for a series of metal sculptures titled First Fish Herons, meant to be temporarily installed along the Willamette river each year. The idea for these sculptures is based on a traditional ceremony performed by the Clackamas Tribe that marks the beginning of Chinook Salmon runs. Each year, tribal members place heron carvings near the river to watch for the first salmon as the fish make their way inland from the ocean.
Along with his duties for the tribe, David recently accepted a commissioner position with the Oregon Arts Commission. In his capacity as commissioner for the next four years, part of David’s responsibilities will be “representing the arts commission as they look to you to build relationships and connections to community and organizations, and familiarize people with the programs that the arts commission has, and how people can access funding. The reason why I was really interested is that I think there’s a lot of value in having an Indigenous voice. I have this skill set that kind of relates to the types of efforts and programming that are being run, and with having an eye and a mind towards the needs of place-based art.”
Being able to carry our traditional crafts into the future is an integral part of Indigenous resilience. David emphasizes the importance of moving traditions forward, not getting stuck in the past. “I think what really brings things alive [are] temporal installations, or this idea of rotating artworks…l like the idea of keeping arts and cultural traditions living. I’m not really interested in trying to replicate moments in art, whether it’s photography or a totem pole—I’m interested in showcasing and talking about living cultures and Indigenous futurism.”
“The past, present and future are all being considered in the moment of keeping it living. So, you’re doing it for your ancestors, you’re doing it for the people, generations down the road and all of those things, including your interactions in the moment. And that inspiration is fueling you and guiding you to make the best decision for the moment. If you can walk in life in a way that you carry the past, and future with you while being present—it is really powerful.”
Many people don’t even know that Native people still exist in Oregon. There’s even a common phrase used within the Indigenous community to articulate this feeling of invisibility “We are still here.” And as an artist, I can attest to the power art has to start important conversations like this. The work that Harrelson and his team does not only ensures traditional knowledge is protected for future Tribal generations, it helps raise the visibility of Indigenous people and the myriad of creative talents they possess.