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Reimagining the museum with a Native lens

Steph Littlebird's series "Indigenous Resilience in Oregon" continues with a feature on the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center.

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Story by STEPH LITTLEBIRD
Photos by JOE CANTRELL


This series 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. In this piece Steph Littlebird, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, explores the growth and aims of the Confederation’s Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center.

Driving southwest on Highway 99 from Portland, about 30 minutes past McMinnville is the Grand Ronde Reservation. Just off the highway, down Grand Ronde road, you’ll find the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center

Exterior view of the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Photograph by Joe Cantrell.

The word “Chachalu” comes from the Yamhill Kalapuyans who called the land our museum sits on the “place of the burnt timbers.” A massive forest fire burned through what is now known as the Grand Ronde Valley in 1856, just one year before 27+ bands and tribes were forcefully relocated to Grand Ronde by the U.S. Government.

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The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde’s stated mission for the museum is to share the story of the land and its original caretakers. Grand Ronde proudly opened the doors to a newly constructed Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in June of 2014. “This is a significant step,” said Tribal Council Secretary Toby McClary, reading a letter from Tribal Council Chair Reyn Leno, “Never before have we had a place to tell our story.”


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It took many years to locate an appropriate site for the museum, but ultimately the Tribe was able to acquire the property that the old Grand Ronde school was built on. Grand Ronde invested in transformative renovations to the building; the exterior is now clad with cedar and is remarkably modern in appearance. The museum entry is grand and visually striking as you approach: the almost exaggerated height gives you the impression of standing amongst living cedar trees in an ancient forest.

Entrance to the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Photograph by Joe Cantrell.

Before Chachalu opened in 2014, the original Tribal museum was quite small and located inside the Spirit Mountain Casino and Hotel complex. The site of the former Grand Ronde school is far from the casino property and surrounded by mature trees. It is a peaceful place to sit outside on a sunny day. Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center is both a permanent place for our objects and an innovative statement about what a tribal museum and cultural center can be. It serves the tribal community and students equally and gives us a chance to tell our own stories. 

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

The museum was created out of necessity, as Chachalu’s Curator and Manager, Travis Stewart explained in a recent interview. Travis has worked for the tribe in various capacities for approximately twenty years. Discussions about opening a museum have been going on for almost as long. The tribe needed a museum, a place to safely store important artifacts, and eventually to keep repatriated Tribal objects. One impetus was the Summers Collection, which had been kept in a British Museum warehouse outside of London for more than 100 years.

Curator Travis Stewart in front of traditional cedar carvings and a metal sculpture at Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Photograph by Joe Cantrell.

In 2018, after much negotiation, the British Museum and Chachalu reached an agreement to transfer on loan a group of sixteen objects from the British Museum to Chachalu for one year. This collection contained multiple handmade objects that the Tribes had not seen in many generations, and many of the objects held lost techniques and patterns that Tribal members wanted to study and document. Through the studies of these objects, including baskets, beaver teeth dice, deer toe rattles, and dentalium purses, the tribe was able to rediscover basket weaving patterns that were lost through violent colonization.

As part of the agreement, employees at Chachalu were tasked with designing and building a specific enclosure for the objects before they could display them. Travis designed the display case himself, and it is itself a work of art: a giant cedar bentwood box that visitors can actually walk inside of. The form was significant. The bentwood box is a traditional cedar box used by tribes along the Northwest coast to keep food, clothing and ceremonial objects. 

Once the enclosure design was approved by the British Museum, they escorted the objects from London to Oregon. Travis served as curator and led a team of artists from the tribe to record the objects with 3D scanners and photography so the ancestral pieces could be studied by others outside of the museum. 

Detail shot taken at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Photograph by Joe Cantrell.

While it’s important to return stolen and coerced objects, Travis thinks by recording and remaking these things, we can shift the value those artifacts have: “We can get upset about those objects being in different places. But a lot of that is because the knowledge is gone, but if we have people that can make it now, that really takes a lot of that value away…It takes the value of old items, because I don’t think our ancestors necessarily thought of them that way, they saw them as utilitarian items that we used.”

Furthermore, he explains: “The only reason they would be important is if the people that created them didn’t exist anymore, and they do, they do exist. So therefore it kind of takes away the relevance of being the caretakers, you know? And the power that we allow those objects to have over us is also not helpful. It’s like labeling ourselves as extinct, it contributes to trauma, as opposed to just learning the value those objects had to begin with and carrying it on. Then it’s not gone.” 

What Travis said, struck a chord with me. These objects, particularly in the historical museum context, are reaffirming another white supremacist belief that Native life was eradicated or assimilated fully through colonization. Our very existence, and ability to reproduce those objects in contemporary times makes them less precious. 

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While Chachalu was born from a desire to tell our own stories, it reflects an innovative approach to what a museum “should” be and how it can serve an audience. Travis recalls: “We looked at it more through an artistic lens. We’re not building an exhibit space, we’re building an installation, we’re building a piece of art itself. And really, we wanted people to hopefully leave feeling something maybe uncomfortable and comfortable, and wanting to go outdoors and see some of the landscapes highlighted in here and have people kind of feel things, feel stories, feel the land. We didn’t want them to come in here and read a bunch of information, we wanted them to come into the museum as a primer to go outside and go to those places, and just be there.”

Two canoes in front of a panoramic image of the Willamette Valley. Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Photograph by Joe Cantrell.

While the space definitely includes historical text and traditional information, it’s not presented in the same way as a typical historical museum. Within the museum there is a research room for those who wish to explore, as Travis explains. “If you want to learn more about something, we have a research room, and we encourage people to do some of the legwork so that it sticks with a viewer. If you do have an interest in something, there are plenty of avenues, and we want to help you learn that. You wouldn’t just come to the gallery space to learn everything.”

The future of Chachalu is bright with a creative person like Travis Stewart at the helm. He’s excited about making the museum a unique place for children to learn through experience: “We know that there is a way of sharing stories that is engaging, whether that be in the wintertime, in the house by a fire or even visiting an exhibit space, where kids are able to look around, that’s what we were thinking is the theme of the museum. The things that kids are engaged by are not art museums or historical societies.”

Interior view. Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Photograph by Joe Cantrell.

During the pandemic the museum has been closed to the public, but the Tribe plans to reopen in the Fall. Since the closure the Museum employees have been working on a virtual museum experience for those who can’t physically visit the site. This move toward tech is more and more common with museums today, as they look for ways to reach broader audiences and increase educational opportunities. The new site is not yet live, but will hopefully be soon, pending Tribal Council approval.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Steph Littlebird is a Kalapuyan visual artist, professional writer, and curator from Portland, Oregon. She is the 2020 AICAD-NOAA National Fellowship recipient, ‘20 Caldera Artist in Residence, 2019 Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) project grant awardee, and a three-time Art + Sci Initiative recipient. Fogel’s work revolves around her Indigenous heritage and contemporary native issues. She has been featured by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Oregon Bee Project, and at World Environment Day.

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