Fighting to Keep Their Frontier

Today, both area Indians and ranchers are battling to preserve their culture and place in a region that faces a new influx of outsiders

`OREGON Territory" remains just as attractive as it was more than a century ago. Its livable cities and small communities, spectacular landscape, and economic potential draw tens of thousands of newcomers each year.

Nearly 75,000 people moved to Oregon in 1992, 42 percent of those from California. Many more are moving to other states in the region: Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Those first emigrants left trail ruts and other signs of civilization from back East. And following a series of Indian wars (Yakima in 1853, Modoc in 1873, Nez Perce in 1877, Bannock and Snake-Paiute in 1878), they wrested full control from Native Americans.

But the descendants of pioneers and their successors have done much more to change the natural and cultural environment here. Agriculture, logging, mining, and power-generation have marked the land. Recently, tourism and a new migration of retirees and workers in high-tech and service-industry jobs have started to crowd out the traditional resource-based way of life.

The Portland Oregonian recently reported that 69 percent of Oregonians now live in urban counties. "More and more, the rurals see their clout, their philosophies, and even their values slipping away under the domination of a growing urban population," the region's leading newspaper observed.

Ironically, those two most-enduring symbols of Western history and myth - cowboys and Indians - are both fighting to preserve their place in the region.

Early government policy regarding Indians is well known: Treaties forced tribes onto reservations (sometimes lumping together traditional enemies like the Arapaho and Shoshone), native religious practices were outlawed, Indian children were made to attend government boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language. There also were massacres, like the one at Sand Creek, Colo., on Nov. 29, 1864, in which 130 Arapaho and Cheyenne (mostly women and children) were killed by militiamen.

But it was a more-recent act that nearly wiped out native culture. In 1953, the Klamath, the Siletz, and 50 other Oregon tribes were terminated by order of President Eisenhower. This policy, which continued until it was reversed by President Nixon in 1970, was designed to force assimilation by buying up tribal lands.

"The ultimate goal of termination was to get rid of us - the sooner, the better," says Ron Pond, who lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon. "The basic effect was to discard our customs and traditions, and the effects of it are long-standing."

Mr. Pond, who holds a graduate degree in archeology and museum studies from Oregon State University, says the impact has been hard on young people, who suffer high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, and school dropout. "Classrooms have become a real battleground for students trying to find their identity," he says.

Many Indian leaders are working to save their past. Pond teaches tribal culture as well as math and writing at the reservation summer school. A baptized Presbyterian, he also has become a native spiritual leader who offers Indian prayers and ceremonies for those who are ill. He recently tanned an elk hide in honor of his granddaughter's naming ceremony.

"We know we have to live in this world, and it's important to balance tradition and a healthy economy," says the soft-spoken Pond. "But the important thing is to try and retain what we have, whether it's language, dancing, tanning hides, or religion."

In nearby Pendleton, Mildred Quaempts is helping four teenagers from the Umatilla Reservation set up tepees at the new Native American and Pioneer Living History Exhibit. She is an ethnographer who helps the tribe document important sites on the reservation, and she's teaching the language to her young son and daughter.

"It's something my grandmother believed in, and I feel I have to pass it along," she says. This sense of ancestral obligation is not unique.

In Casper, Wyo., (through which the Oregon Trail passes) newspaper reporter Debra Thunder relies on her grandmother for wisdom and encouragement. "The old people keep us from giving up hope," she says. "Grandma tells us the people were hard-working and clean and intelligent, and she encourages us to be like them. She differentiates us from the conditions we live in ... tells us that the poverty and the unemployment and the social conditions aren't us."

Ms. Thunder, who is descended from a survivor of the Sand Creek massacre, keeps close ties with her relatives on the nearby Wind River Reservation. "We need to stay together, or we won't be a tribe anymore," she says.

There is a growing sense of this need to stick together for survival among Western ranchers as well. Leading the effort to preserve the "customs and culture" of ranch life is Karen Budd, a young attorney in Cheyenne whose family goes back five generations in Wyoming. Her parents, Dan and Barbara Budd, have a 30,000-acre ranch (about two-thirds of that is state and federal land) that dates back 125 years. It includes a log house built with door and window frames from Ft. Bridger, an outpost along the Oreg on Trail.

Ms. Budd is working with about 50 of the 200 or so Western rural counties now trying to gain some control over the federal agencies that manage much of the land in their states. Federal law, they contend, requires the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to preserve local culture, heritage, and customs.

FURTHERMORE, they say, land-use plans drafted by county officials should carry considerable weight in federal policy regarding grazing, logging, and mining. Some have termed this the second round of the "sagebrush rebellion" launched in the 1970s by conservative Western officials and economic interests.

"Nobody's arguing that local governments have veto power," Budd says. "But we want to see decisionmaking at the local level."

The Budd family ranch has "gone bust" several times over the years. And while 30,000 acres sounds like a lot, the high, dry country supports fewer than 1,000 head of cattle in the best years. Karen Budd worries that "with government regulations now so overbearing ... my father won't be able to leave the ranch to my sister." Thus, the push to obtain legal protection for the "customs and culture" of the traditional rural Western life established by early pioneers.

So far, federal officials show no sign of relinquishing authority. And critics find it ironic that the descendants of 19th-century settlers should now assert (as one did in a letter responding to a column by Thunder) that "the rancher, miner, and logger are now the Indian, and the federal government is trying to remove them from the land."

In this way, the historic struggle over who best represents the values of the Oregon Territory continues to this day.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Fighting to Keep Their Frontier
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today