The Country Between Us
By Edward Weinman
“We love our country—it is composed of the bones of our people and we will not part with it.”
—Cayuse Delegation Treaty of 1855.
The bones of their dead remain at Whitman College.
The Cayuse. Umatilla. Walla Walla. A small assemblage of the tribes’ ancestral human remains and funerary objects are still held at Maxey Museum.
The skeletal collection used to be larger. But Whitman complies with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—federal law—and continues to work with local tribes to return all remains.
So how did Whitman come to possess the bones and artifacts of the area’s Native Americans?
The Oregon Trail delivered fur trappers, traders and farmers by the thousands to, and through, what is now Walla Walla. Settlers fuelled by the notion of “Manifest Destiny” forded west. Displacement of Native cultures followed.
Historically, “any farmer who got a homestead would plow the field and find bones,” said Jennifer Karson Engum, a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer who works for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The CTUIR consists of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes.
What was once Indian land surrounds Whitman College. The Walla Walla tribe wintered at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. The campus was built on Native soil. In fact, the CTUIR considers Whitman to exist on ceded land.
In the early- to mid-1900s, Indian bones were still being found in and around Walla Walla. These are called “inadvertent” discoveries—bones found by chance—like in 1952 when the construction of Green Park Elementary School uprooted human remains. The bulk of the remains, however, came to the college as a result of large excavations that took place in the late 1940s along the Columbia River preceding the construction of McNary Dam.
These unearthed tribal relics, with no place else to go, were most likely delivered to local law enforcement, eventually finding their way to Whitman, according to Engum.
The museum still has small holdings, remnants temporarily in limbo, only because of the arduous process required for repatriation: a forensic expert must determine Native from non-Native, human from animal, and then try to assign cultural affiliation; once designated to a tribe, the objects must be entered into a federal register so any competing claims can be filed; if no one files claims then the remainders can return to the proper tribe and be buried.
Time consuming, but repatriation is important work. It’s “human rights work,” Engum said.
“It’s as important as if these people were alive and well and still walking and breathing. Just because they are passed away doesn’t mean they don’t still have the same type of civil rights. Somebody has to speak for them.”
Search For That To Bring Home
Despite its proximity to the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Whitman is one of the few regional colleges with no Memorandum of Understanding with the CTUIR. This memorandum is essentially a road map guiding the interactions between an institution and the CTUIR by establishing ground rules. Without such a memorandum, an uneasy relationship has lingered. Why? Because the two institutions share a messy history.
There’s the Whitman Massacre in 1847 (some historians call it a massacre, others call it a conflict) where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, for whom the college was named, died at the hands of Cayuse and Umatilla Natives. The couple has a mixed reputation. To put it simply, some argue that Marcus and Narcissa were pioneers who helped the Native people, while others argue they brought hardship and disease to local tribes.
Through the process of return, however, Whitman and the CTUIR have been reengaging. This recalibration of the relationship has led to, among other collaborations, a small group of Whitman students taking a spring service trip to the reservation in April.
“There was tension between Whitman and the tribe and this service trip helped to diffuse that and start a new relationship,” said Wenix Red Elk, public outreach and education specialist with the CTUIR’s department of natural resources.
A spring service trip is a weeklong volunteer trip that enables Whitman students to focus on a particular social issue outside of the Walla Walla community. These service trips come in all shapes and sizes, but for the 12 students (plus two student leaders) who signed up to work with the CTUIR, they entered a completely foreign land, a sovereign nation only 40 miles from their pristine campus, yet completely alien.
“The students were able to break ground with the tribe, get access to a closed culture,” Red Elk observed.
Guided by the underlying motif “Search for that to bring home”—Wiyákitnaytùxt, the word created by the tribe’s language institute to describe the trip—Whitman volunteers took part in lessons on Native foods and fisheries, conservation and river restoration, and tribal leadership and cultural sovereignty. Students even volunteered to help run a basketball tournament held on the reservation.
While the students experienced life in what is often seen as a mystifying—and misunderstood—culture, Red Elk felt it was just as important for them to “spend some days in their backyard.”
“Whitman students can now spread the word about what they learned so the tribe isn’t such a mystery to outsiders.”
Walking and working on these Native lands, in their own backyard, transformed the students’ perspectives about how they view the landscapes seen from their dorm rooms or from the windshield of their automobiles while driving through the region along HWY 12, I-84 or HWY 11.
“When I drive by these hills and mountains, I of course see
the beauty, but also the cultural value these hills possess,” said Maya Baker-Freid ’17.
Whether getting her feet wet in the Umatilla River, or her hands dirty with soil while learning about traditional foods, Maya regained a notion of wildness that had been absent before this trip.
“I look at how the hills are harvested by the tribes in the same techniques used for hundreds of years. I see a glimpse of that bucolic natural world. There is a labor that goes into the harvesting of their traditional foods. The roots collected are not planted in neat rows and fertilized like modern agricultural practices; instead they are grown through natural processes and picked by a dozen women with their hands.”
Maya did find “that to bring home” in what could help forward her future career. The environmental studies-sociology major spent time during the trip with Alexa Maine, a biologist who is propagating mussels and lampreys in the Umatilla River and its tributaries. Maya felt the work related directly to her courses, so she set up a summer internship with the CTUIR, which she hopes will continue throughout her time at Whitman.
“I knew the trip would be enlightening. Whitman students are largely unaware of the historical significance of who our college is named after, who the CTUIR are, their history, present conservation efforts, and what many of the historical landmarks located around us represent.
“This general lack of knowledge is not what Whitman represents. Students here should be educated on this more extensively.”
Whitman has only had a smattering of local Natives attend the college. Feather Huesties ’00 grew up outside Pendleton, Oregon, along the border of the Umatilla Reservation, but believes she was destined to attend Whitman. Feather’s ancestors on her father’s side of the family were interpreters for the 1855 Treaty with the U.S. government that is recognized by Treaty Rock (Pe-wa-oo-yit), a boulder located on the east end of Ankeny Field.
“My mom would probably say it was the land that chose me,” Feather said.
When Feather was four, her mother and grandmother took her for a walk on campus, and stopped at Treaty Rock. It was here where they told Feather that she was descended from the very people who were displaced by the treaty for which this rock stands, a treaty that confederated the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes and annexed their people to reservations.
“At that time, the story goes, I declared to my mother and my grandma, ‘I am going to school here.’”
Whitman always held an aura of wonderment for Feather, who now works for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Office of Civil Rights, in La Grande. She listened to her grandmother’s stories about their family’s relationship with the land on which Whitman sits and her mother often talked about the interesting classes students take at Whitman—“art to astronomy to biology and language and religion.”
Despite her historical connections to Whitman’s acres of earth, Feather didn’t feel as though she belonged when she first started at the school.
“About two weeks in, I remember calling home and telling my mom there must have been some mistake. There is no way I was accepted into this school.”
Feather earned a Presidential Art Scholarship to attend Whitman, but was in disbelief that the vast majority of students in her first-year classes had read books she didn’t have access to while growing up.
“They were able to have these fun discussions and articulate ideas about these texts that I had not yet been exposed to. At the beginning, it was overwhelming, but then I would remember—this is mine.
“Long before this school was ever here, my ancestors lived on this very spot. Long before this institution was ever formalized, my ancestors called this place home. They knew the waterways and they knew where to gather food. And I come from those people. Of course I belong here. When I was able to grasp that—life became better,” she said.
Feather now lives on acreage off Deadman Pass, near Meacham, Oregon. When she walks her land, mutt dog Otty in tow, she carries a sidearm in case she encounters black bears. Onions and the root vegetable couš grow wild on her property. Although she refuses to take credit for bridging the gap between Whitman and the CTUIR, it was a meeting with members of the college’s Student Engagement Center at the Cookie Tree in Pendleton last year where Feather helped spark the connection that led to the spring service trip.
She hopes the trip will lead to a stronger relationship between the two parties, and will trigger storytelling between a future generation of Whitman students and CTUIR members.
“I want everyone to recognize that long before the college was established there was a strong, healthy, beautiful people who inhabited the very same landscape, and that those people had been here thousands of years,” Feather said.
“I also want them to know that the CTUIR is filled with smart, proud and articulate tribal members, descendants and supporters who continue to thrive in current cultural, economic, social and political realms. We are artists, business owners, doctors, nurses, anthropologists, linguists, scientists and entrepreneurs.”
On The Rez
“Native youth—and Native education—are in a state of emergency,” declared a 2014 White House report. In the U.S., more than one in three Native children live in poverty; the high school graduation rate for Native students is only 67 percent, the lowest of any ethnic group in the country; suicide is the second greatest cause of death for Native youth aged 15 to 24; and 22 percent of Native youth suffer from PTSD.
Locally, Native youth in Pendleton graduate at one of the worst rates in Oregon: 45 percent, which is 30 percent lower than white students. These American Indian students are mostly drawn from the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Anthropology major Haley Case ’17 participated in the service trip because she’s interested in trying to solve the social justice issues faced by Indians across the country and, of course, by members of the CTUIR.
“While I do not want to speak on behalf of the CTUIR, I can envision Whitman contributing effectively to tribal youth higher education programs…to combat the deeply rooted social etiology of poor educational and health outcomes.”
It was a Whitman educational program that helped Feather realize that she could attend college. The Whitman Institute for Scholastic Enrichment Program is an all-expenses paid outreach program that introduces local middle school students to college life (on Whitman’s campus) in order to generate excitement for pursuing a college education.
The WISE program “was the catalyst that helped me create a reality that led me to Whitman,” Feather said.
Maya, Haley and Feather believe that future service trips will lead to more cooperation between the college and the CTUIR. Already evolving out of this past trip, Whitman is currently working with the CTUIR to attract more Native youth to future WISE camps. And the two institutions are finally discussing what would be, if completed, a historic agreement: a Memorandum of Understanding.
“When I think of the future for Whitman and how this relationship will grow with the CTUIR, I think of institutions that have a Memorandum of Understanding with sovereign nations both in Oregon and Washington for Native youth. I also think of schools like Dartmouth, which established a Native American Program and have been more successful at recruiting and retaining Native students than any other Ivy League institution,” Feather said.
“So why can’t we create something like that? Can you imagine a generation from now what this could look like? How important this could be for the future leadership of the tribe.”
In a future where the two institutions work more closely together, Whitman students can develop a deeper understanding of local history and learn cutting edge land management and conservation strategies while tribal members can gain access to the college’s facilities with camps that focus on math and science, and enjoy mentorship programs pivotal to helping lift youth out of poverty. The CTUIR has said it wants more of its members to consider Whitman as an educational option, and future camps can help the tribe reach this goal.
Cooperation between the two institutions is also about exposure: exposing Native people to what Whitman stands for and has to offer; and exposing Whitman students to the traditions and expertise of a sovereign nation, or as Feather said, to the “artists, business owners, doctors, nurses, anthropologists, linguists, scientists and entrepreneurs.”
This increased interaction, both sides hope, will demystify the unknown.
Place of the Rye Grass
The Treaty of 1855 forever changed the lives of the Yakama, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Native Americans. In May and June of that year, then-Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs Joel Palmer and then-Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens carved up the area. The local tribes had 510,000 acres in what is now the area around Pendleton, Oregon, while the U.S. government received about 6.4 million acres.
For generations prior to the 1855 Treaty, which the local tribes signed under duress, Native Americans fished and hunted in the area’s mountains and valleys and plateaus. Out of the 1855 Treaty, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation was born. These include the people of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes.
The treaty council was held at Waiilatpu (Place of the Rye Grass)—what is now Walla Walla. It is recognized by Treaty Rock, a boulder on the east end of Ankeny Field, which is emblazoned with two plaques. Despite common belief, Treaty Rock was not a gift from the tribes.
On June 10-12, 1955, Whitman celebrated the centennial anniversary of the treaty by reenacting the signing, giving a series of speeches and erecting two tee pees on campus. The buttons shown below were from the centennial observance.
Photo above by Matt Banderas.