The Lands I Walk
My travel motto has always been “show me something new, always.” I’ve lived on 3 continents, and from each home base I’ve traveled near and far seeking new sights and adventures. I’ve never been one for taking a photograph or returning time after time to a particular favorite haunt.
Then came the virus, which clipped my travel wings. I’ve had to stay local, and really get to know the backyard of my current home. Bend sits in the center of Oregon, and in 2020 I’ve been exploring within a roughly 16,000 square mile rectangle between the 44th parallel just to the south of Bend and the 46th parallel which largely follows the Columbia River to the north. The natural east and west boundaries for these close-to-home circuits have been the Ochoco Mountains to the east, and the Cascade Mountains to the west.
As avid outdoorists, we Tribe Pilot members love to learn, so I am thankful for any opportunity to see something new, or see in a new way, to be inspired, stopped in my tracks. These months on the Columbia plateau have forced me to slow down, and allowed time to discover and re-discover an awesome back yard. The discoveries have not just been in the natural history, largely wrought by volcanism and visible everywhere, but the less visible, and no less spectacular 15,000+ year human history too…
The first nudge that prompted me to start digging into the human history of my back yard happened in the Ochocos, on a circumnavigation of Big Summit Prairie, a gorgeous five by seven mile basin suspended at 4,500 feet (https://dirtyfreehub.com/adventure/oregon-x/big-summit/). The prairie itself is largely off limits these days (private property). The attraction in the spring is to emerge out of the forested mountain slopes onto the sight of a huge 35 square-mile flat meadow and its oasis of wild flowers, an “unexpected meadow island in the dramatic old growth ponderosa pine forests.” (https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/big_summit_prairie/#.X0anRy2z3jA)
For me, one of the spring highlights of the prairie is the beautiful blue camas flower and, after a beer or two, I’ll gladly make the case that it should have been Oregon’s state flower, not the Oregon Grape (which looks like holly, not like pinot noir 😊). In a classic re-discovery moment I learned that the camas bulb was one of the most valuable of currencies in the pre-contact trade network of the first nations and “before EuroAmerican settlement, Big Summit Prairie was an important area for Native peoples, including those who are now members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The meadows provided abundant camas root and other traditional foods that are still gathered by members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Burns Paiute Tribe. Many cultural sites can still be found on the Prairie, including camas ovens. Summer gatherings included pony races and gambling, and traces of a Native American pony racetrack remained as late as 1939.”
Just as I was seeing camas in a new way, along came this post from one of Tribe Pilot’s Instagram followers:
Discover the indigenous names of places you adventure into. Highlight the indigenous tribes of that region. Acknowledge the trails you follow were once ancient trade routes between tribes. Realize that people lived in exterior environments before we had the words exterior and interior. […] It takes a lot of critical thinking and analysis to figure out a way to practice your business without perpetuating colonial attitudes (even completely unknowingly)…
Boom! Second nudge, second domino. An admonishment, and a timely reminder to learn more about the land I was walking on! I called my buddy Jeff, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, to ask his input on how to learn more about the history and culture of this region. Jeff encouraged me to learn more about the seasonal rounds, and to re-visit the Museum at Warm Springs (https://www.museumatwarmsprings.org) just outside of Madras, Oregon.
I did both. I already knew Oregon has 15,000+ years or longer of human history. Now I know that, before it was flooded behind the Dalles Dam in 1957, Celilo on the Columbia River (Nch’i-wana, or “Big River”) was the longest continuously settled place in the Americas – 15,000 years!
And now I also know that my “back yard”, my 16,000 square mile rectangle, fit rather nicely over the ancestral lands the mid-Columbia bands were forced to cede in 1855.
So, with thanks to stick and carrot, admonishment and challenge, I’m trying to shake off my obliviousness to the history of the place I love and the lands I walk. For this nomad, as I continue my life on the ancestral lands of the Sahaptin-speakers and others of the first nations, I will be making every effort to learn and acknowledge the history and significance of plants and places to the people that walked this land before me.
Acknowledgements and thanks:
Jenifer Clements and Natalie Kirk of the Museum at Warm Springs, for patient conversation, and who pointed me to some awesome resources that I am still digesting, including
Nch’i-wana,”the big river”: Mid-Columbia Indians and their land. Eugene S. Hunn with James Selam and Family. University of Washington Press (2001), and
Coyote was going there: Indian literature of the Oregon country. Jarold Ramsey (ed.). University of Washington Press (1977)
Gautam Bentley, for admonishment and encouragement