Reclaiming The Ancient Lands Of the `Old Ones'

Oregon tribes vie for shared management of national forest

AS she looked about at the crowd gathering among the trees along Oregon's Applegate River and smelled the wood smoke and roasting salmon, as she listened to the drums and the singing, tribal elder Agnes Baker-Pilgrim shook her head in wonder.

``Never did I think that my people would set foot on some of the land of the old ones,'' she said.

It had been more than 130 years since the American natives who had lived here since prehistoric times were killed or rounded up and sent north to the reservations in Siletz and Grande Ronde. And it had been longer than that since the sacred-salmon ceremony was held along the river in southern Oregon now named for a prominent pioneer family that had blazed a wagon trail bringing settlers to the West.

Now, here were ancestors of Mrs. Baker-Pilgrim's Takelma, along with Chocktaw, Chippewa, Digger, Shoshone, Pawnee, Yurok, Cherokee, and other tribal groups represented at this special day. And it was as if this historic occasion was bringing back something from the past. ``The beautiful people that went before us ... I just feel they're all here,'' said ``Grandma Aggie,'' as she is known.

``The healing is starting today!'' she shouted, throwing her arms in the air as her eyes glistened with tears. Indians and then guests were invited to taste sweet chunks of the sacred salmon sliced off with a large obsidian knife. Alfred Lane and Sage Butler, two boys from the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, stripped to their shorts and they dived into the icy waters of the Applegate, returning the bones of the salmon to the river in the ancient ceremony of blessing and thanksgiving. The crowd lined up for a huge potluck featuring salmon roasted on sticks along a 10-foot fire pit.

This recent event may be as important for molding the future as it was for remembering the past, for it also marked a new relationship between Indian groups and the federal government agencies that manage land across much of the West once known as ``Indian country.''

For the past several months, representatives of the United States Forest Service have been discussing with native Americans from the region a proposed ``memorandum of understanding'' that could return some land-management functions on a portion of the Rogue River National Forest.

This 17,000-acre area just below the dam that created Applegate Lake about 15 years ago has been logged several times over the past century. Fire suppression has allowed a thick understory to build up in an area that once was a more open savanna of white oak and ponderosa pine.

Indians would like to have a part in restoring the environment while also using it as an area to hold religious ceremonies and cultural gatherings. They also foresee educational opportunities here, both for Indian youth and for those whose ancestors came to the area much later - including Forest Service land managers.

``What we're attempting to do has never been done before,'' says George Fence, director of the American Indian Cultural Center in nearby Talent, Ore., and a Cherokee of Oklahoma who moved to the Rogue Valley 15 years ago. ``Is there any validity to Indian stewardship of the land? That's the basic question.''

A year or two ago, the ``Takelma Inter-Tribal Project,'' as it's called, probably couldn't have happened, according to Rick Aubin, American Indian program manager for the Rogue River National Forest. Not only were there layers of government regulation and bureaucracy but there was also a different attitude toward environmental protection and Indian rights.

Since then, federal government leaders like Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt have been pushing ``ecosystem management'' and ``biodiversity protection,'' including more public input into decisions impacting land held in trust for all Americans.

Most of the land in question has been designated an ``adaptive management area'' under President Clinton's Northwest forest plan to solve the spotted owl problem. This means it's a place where new theories and principles of forest management may be tested.

At the same time, the White House has signaled a new willingness to respect and support the treaty rights and traditions of native Americans.

``There are open doors across the government,'' Ada Deer said recently. Ms. Deer is assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs and a former leader of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.

Meeting in April with American Indian and Alaskan native tribal leaders, President Clinton said: ``For thousands of years, you have held nature in awe, celebrating the bond between Earth and the Creator. You have reminded people that all of us should make decisions not just for our children and their grandchildren, but for generation upon generation yet to come.''

``We must dramatically improve the federal government's relationships with the tribes and become full partners with the tribal nations,'' the president added.

Within the national forest land here are a number of private homes built along the river, and no one is talking about turning over ownership or even full control of public land to native groups.

Still, says Mr. Fence, there should be the opportunity for native people to do more than hold occasional get-togethers here.

During the early 1800s, he says, some 10,000 Indians lived here for at least part of each year. ``Indian people have always been part of that habitat. Culture and heritage are inseparable from the land. That's something people need to remember,'' he says.

``This land is our teacher,'' he adds, ``just as the animals are our teachers, just as the rhythm of the seasons are our guide, the order and chaos of nature our compass points. What this land needs now,'' he says, is ``a combination of history and the memory of the elders together with a scientific approach to restoration.''

Once any agreement is reached with federal officials, there would have to be an environmental-impact statement, public hearings, and a comment period as called for under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

``We're going through the easy part now, which is talking,'' says Mr. Aubin of the Forest Service. ``We're all breaking new ground here, so we're going slow to make sure we get it right.''

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