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Oct. 21, 2021

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Anthropologist dispelling myths with plankhouse talk

Lesson on Native American history held at Ridgefield’s Cathlapotle Plankhouse

By , Columbian environment and transportation reporter
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Anthropologist David Lewis talks about the colonization of Native American history by white American culture at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday.
Anthropologist David Lewis talks about the colonization of Native American history by white American culture at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday. Photo Gallery

At the start of some of his classes, David Lewis starts with a question: What’s Wy’east?

Well, that’s the Native American name for Mt. Hood, many of his students respond.

“I do that all the time,” said Lewis, who has a doctorate in anthropology and currently teaches at Chemeketa Community College.

It’s a good way to introduce people to Native American history, or, alternatively, how it has been ignored, marginalized, rewritten or misunderstood.

Lewis explained some of the history Sunday at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

There’s no evidence anyone ever called Mt. Hood Wy’east. The name comes from a work of fiction written in the late 19th century.

Lewis said he’ll explain why that is, but some people won’t believe it, preferring, he said, to stick with what they learned as kids in school.

By around the late 1800s, Lewis said, white immigration to the Northwest and corresponding displacement of tribal populations had evolved into the assimilation of native culture into American society.

“That sort of removes the influence of the tribes on American society,” he said.

That lost influence includes the ability to control their own stories, or get anyone to listen.

“Native oral history was basically suffering in this time period, because while stories were being collected — ethnologists were coming in, early anthropologists were coming in, collecting stories — they were seen as sort of these quaint” things, he said, like myths or fables.-

What those early researchers didn’t get was that those oral histories were, to the tribes, just that: history.

By the mid-20th century, it became clear these stories seemed to document real events.

Once scholars figured out how Crater Lake was formed, others noticed it matches the Mazama story from the Klamath tribes. Kalapuya (or Calapooia) tribal stories seem to mirror the history of the Missoula floods that swept across much of the Northwest at the end of the last ice age.

Through the 19th century, many of these histories were re-interpreted or altered to align with the dominating culture, Lewis said, which gave the now-conventional wisdoms regarding the Northwest’s Native American tribes a Romantic-era bent.

Old flood stories were rewritten as Noah’s flood corollaries, he said. Native people were cast as the “noble savage.” White people were written into Native American settings as the heroes. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, he said, or John Carter of Mars.

“For some reason this white man gets to Mars and is better than all the Martians at Mars,” Lewis said.

These recycled and remade stories, Lewis said, are still around. Chief Multnomah is a prime example of how it worked, he said.

Frederic Homer Balch published “The Bridge of the Gods: A Romance of Indian Oregon” in 1890. It was a hit among white audiences, and became a popular play.

Chief Multnomah was presented as a great war chief from ancient times, whose influence spread around the region and who had a beautiful wife.

There isn’t really a record of a Chief Multnomah, Lewis said, adding he thinks the Chief Multnomah character is, in part, based on a chief named Kiesno, who was one of the most influential chiefs in the area before reservations were established.

The image of a wise and noble chief who married a beautiful princess was engaging to Americans primed to see native people as “noble savages,” Lewis said.

“This characterization of natives as welcoming helps them get over any kind of guilt … for the wars, for the treatment of native peoples, mistreatment, maltreatment whatever you’re going to call it,” he said.

For the white American listener of the time, native people are made into one-dimensional characters who are wise and welcoming of outsiders, he said. That turns into welcoming of colonization.

“It’s almost a feel-good story for colonization,” Lewis said.

Balch said he did ample research and talked to tribal members for his work.

“Which is why this book is so confusing to me,” Lewis said. “Because he was hearing the real stuff, yet it appears he was actually rewriting his own sort of Romanticist tradition.”

“Willamette” is another example. There are records of a place on the modern Willamette River called Willamette, but nothing beyond that, so when Balch calls Multnomah the chief of the Willamette tribes, he’s essentially wrong. There were no “Willamette tribes” until whites came and started using the name for the river valley.

The first use of Wy’east is in Balch’s book, too, but there’s no credible information anyone really called the mountain that, Lewis said. Wy’east is, however, similar to Wyam, the name of a Native American community on the Columbia River.

Balch labeled his book as fiction, Lewis said, “but the stories are so compelling to that audience of the time period that they basically replaced native stories.”

Native Americans were erased from the land, he said. And, in part because historians never really talked to native people, those groups were likewise erased from history.

“All these books that have been written in the last 150 years about Oregon history or American history, they may have a paragraph or a small section talking about native peoples,” he said. “Generally you’re going to get: OK, we wrote treaties, we had a few wars, treaties, reservations, and they disappear. What happened?”

Lewis, a member of the Grand Rhonde Tribe, said there are now efforts among tribal groups to correct the record and write their own histories, and to examine how existing histories were created.

That means reading between the lines of the religious, Romantic or nationalistic biases that might have colored those histories, he said.

“We’re trying to mainstream native history as a part of American history. We’ve always been here. We’ve been here since time immemorial,” he said. “We’re still here. We didn’t disappear.”

Columbian environment and transportation reporter
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