Fall 2014

Issue 115:3

Special Issue: Death and the Settling and Unsettling of Oregon

Drawing from presentations given at a public symposium hosted at OHS in November 2013, this special issue includes new information and valuable perspectives that help us understand the ways death —as reality and metaphor—was integrally linked to the process of Oregon’s transformation into an American place during the nineteenth century and to the ways that change was remembered (or misremembered) well into the twentieth century.

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In this Issue:

Natives and Pioneers: Death and the Settling and Unsettling of Oregon

by Matthew Dennis

Organizers of the Oregon Historical Society's November 2013 symposium, "Death and the Settling and Unsettling of Oregon," sought to assess the role of death Oregon's history. "Death is a serious subject," co-editor Matthew Dennis explains, and "for Native Oregonians, as well as for newcomers, the American settlement of Oregon proved profoundly unsettling." Focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the symposium and articles in this special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly explore the "so-called settlement of the Oregon Territory by white pioneers" and the devastating unsettlement" of Natives. Dennis also suggests opportunities to examine history beyond the scope of the symposium.

"We Are Created from this Land": Washat Leaders Reflect on Place-Based Spiritual Beliefs

by Rex Buck, Jr. and Wilson Wewa

Washat leaders Rex Buck, Jr. (Wanapum), and Wilson Wewa (North Paiute, Warm Springs) help tribal members prepare for death, burials, and assist in spiritual ceremonies. They met with Oregon Historical Quarterly editor Eliza E. Canty-Jones following the Oregon Historical Society's September 2013 "Death and the Settling and Unsettling of Oregon" symposium to expand on the themes discussed that day. In this edited transcript, Buck and Wewa discuss Native spirituality and connection to the land: "We are created from this land…. And out of the ground comes all of our medicine, all of our roots, all of our berries - all the things we need for our livelihood." That connection also compels them to work to maintain Native traditions and lifeways through interactions with their communities.

Stealing from the Dead: Scientists, Settlers, and Indian Burial Sites in Early-Nineteenth-Century Oregon

by Wendi A. Lindquist

In 1835, Hudson's Bay Company physician Meredith Gairdner sent his most valued specimen to physician and naturalist John Richardson - Chinook leader Chief Comcomly's skull. As the early nineteenth century practice of phrenology emerged, scientists sought skulls to measure and examine for common traits that might lead to an eventual cultural hierarchy. Many were intrigued by Native head shaping practices and were emboldened to rob gravesites in the name of science and research. Lindquist concludes that, "among other things… [their] research demonstrated that Natives lacked the innate ability to assimilate into American society, providing many nineteenth-century whites with the justification they needed to mistreat Indians." Euro-Americans eventually saw Native burial sites as places to experience remnants of what they considered a dying race.

Death and Oregon's Settler Generation: Connecting Parricide, Agricultural Decline, and Dying Pioneers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

by Peter Boag

Loyd Montgomery murdered his parents and a visiting neighbor in 1895 during a rural depression that greatly impacted Linn County's local economy and marked a shift from agrarian ways of life. The Montgomerys belonged to a branch of the region's most notable pioneers, and their death coincided with the reality that a generation of early Oregon pioneers that was quickly passing. Memorializing pioneers became increasingly popular in the late nineteenth century, with statewide and local organizations hosting annual reunions that focused on celebrating hardship overcome by perseverance. In this article, Boag "connects parricide, depression, and celebration," with the common theme of death "in a triangulation of cause, effect, and remembrance that provided meaning to how a large number of Oregonians experienced the complicated transition to the twentieth century."

Killing Narcissa: Race, Gender, and Violence in Recreations of the Whitman Incident

by Chelsea K. Vaughn

Chelsea Vaughn explores the complexities of Narcissa Whitman's portrayal in early-twentieth-century presentations, including the unreleased 1919 silent film Martyrs of Yesterday, and How the West Was Won, a 1923 historical pageant. Such portrayal, Vaughn explains, "offers important insights…onto the often complicated relationship among race, gender, and violence in recounting the early history of the state." Producers of How the West Was Won and Martyrs of Yesterday chose to repeat popular rhetoric of patriotism and sacrifice in the settling of the Oregon Country - a sentiment that resonated with audience members during the post-World War I era - while attempting to recognize the incident's negative legacy. Both productions reflect the enduring cultural value placed on Whitman as "the mother of U.S. society in the Pacific Northwest and a martyr to the cause of U.S. empire building," although the producers "ultimately denied the very histories they sought to correct."

Four Deaths: The Near Destruction of Western Oregon Tribes and Native Lifeways, Removal to the Reservation, and Erasure from History

by David G. Lewis

Whether physical, cultural, legal, or in scholarship, death has been part Western Oregon tribes' lives since contact with newcomers. Yet, Native people have survived. This shared tribal legacy, however, is still unknown to many people throughout the state, and according to Lewis, "such historical ignorance is another kind of death - one marked by both myth and silence." He shares stories of his ancestors' death experiences through removal, assimilation, and termination. As tribal historian for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Lewis works to ensure that Native voices are heard in order to "produce and interpret history that continue[s] to develop and will result in a better history for all Oregonians."

A Reflection on Genocide in Southwest Oregon in Honor of George Bundy Wasson, Jr.

by Gray H. Whaley

In the first of three reflection essays on the articles published for this special issue, Gray Whaley takes an in-depth look at the meaning of genocide and asks readers: "Is genocide an effective explanatory term for American Indian experiences with the United States?" While Native tribes experienced various forms of death - both physical and cultural - Whaley argues that American Indians have worked too hard at balancing accommodations and resistance to U.S. colonial policies over the past two centuries to have their main narrative reduced to that of victims of genocide."

How the West Was Lost: Reflections on Death and the Settling and Unsettling of Oregon

by Jennifer Karson Engum

As an anthropologist working for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Jennifer Karson Engum asserts that "if a history of the American West continues to be placed in the popular dichotomy of how the region was won, then how the West was lost must also be a part of that story." The tribal histories of Native peoples who lived in what is now known as Oregon are critical to the understanding of how this place was settled and unsettled. "The history of Oregon since contact has included the story of the heroic and sturdy pioneers…as much as it has been a story of Native people…continuing…their traditions and lifeways in the face of great change.

Dislodging Oregon's History from its Mythical Mooring: Reflections on Death and the Settling and Unsettling of Oregon

by Melinda Marie Jetté

The articles published for this special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly point to Oregon's complex history and the ongoing legacies of that history. In her reflection, Melinda Marie Jetté explains the ways in which these stories serve as was to help "[dislodge] the state's history from its mythical mooring - an invented past of romantic fur traders and explorers, vanished Indians, heroic missionaries, hardy Anglo-American pioneers, peaceful settlement, bountiful landscapes, and great social and economic progress."