Clatsop Indians host gathering at Fort Stevens State ParkFor generations, Clatsop Indians hosted large gatherings that drew people from many Northwest tribes to their village on the mouth of the Columbia River.
Last weekend, a handful of their descendants returned to rekindle their connection to that distant heritage.
Members of the Clatsop and Nehalem tribes came from around Oregon, Washington and California to Fort Stevens State Park Saturday to the site of a former Clatsop village whose inhabitants hosted Lewis and Clark.
It's one of the first times in recent years that the scattered descendants of the once numerous tribes have gathered at the village site, which is marked by a replica native longhouse next to the park's Civil War-era fort.
"It means a lot to be here, to see these sites, and meet people who want to keep alive this story," said tribal descendant Joe Scovell of Turner.
The scattered descendants are re-discovering long-lost connections among themselves and their ancestors as the upcoming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial focuses attention on the native peoples of the Lower Columbia River and their role in the explorers' saga.
Scovell, who is spearheading efforts to gain federal recognition for the combined tribes, suggested the Fort Stevens site as an appropriate locale for Saturday's gathering. After a picnic lunch, the group gathered in the longhouse, where they built a fire and shared their connections to the tribes. Elder visitors were presented with woolen blankets.
"For some people, this is their first time getting acquainted with the tribe," said Dick Basch of Seaside, a Clatsop descendant and National Park Service American Indian Liaison for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.
Root tracingMany of Saturday's visitors trace their ancestry back to Coboway, the Clatsop chief who welcomed Lewis and Clark and traded with the explorers during their winter stay at Fort Clatsop.
Despite the fact they were bands of two different native groups, the Clatsop and Nehalem peoples shared long-established links and traditions of intermarriage that date back to the beginning of time, according to some tribal oral histories.
But the tribes suffered the same fate as most other Northwest Indians after Lewis and Clark's arrival, as disease reduced their numbers and white settlement displaced them from their traditional lands.
At a point just east of Fort Stevens, Clatsop-Nehalem tribal members signed the Tansey Point Treaty with government representatives in 1851. The treaty was never ratified, and without any official status or a reservation of their own, tribal members mostly dispersed, some joining other tribes such as the Chinook, Grand Ronde and Siletz. A few of the remaining members, many of them old women, formed a small tribal community near Garibaldi dubbed "Squaw Town" that endured until the 1930s.
Scovell, 80, lived in that community as a child and is one of its last living former inhabitants. He took up the Clatsop-Nehalem cause after retirement in the 1980s and has been pursuing federal recognition for the tribes ever since, an effort that's yet to yield results.
Many tribes in Oregon and around the country won recognition in the 1980s, but the process has been much harder going in recent years. The Chinook tribe, based in Chinook, Wash., won federal recognition in early 2001 after a years-long struggle, only to see it withdrawn a year later after a challenge by another Indian tribe.
Keeping culture aliveSaturday's gathering, though, was a heartening sign that some Clatsop-Nehalem descendants are re-connecting with their roots, Scovell said.
"I can sense in these people a real interest in keeping their culture alive," he said.
Today the group's efforts are centered mostly in Tillamook County, where members have secured 20 acres of property they hope to make the site of a replica native longhouse that will serve as a tribal meeting space, museum and educational center. Last year they received a $50,000 federal grant for the project.
Even if the effort for federal recognition fails, Scovell thinks the Clatsop-Nehalem members have a key role to play in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, which will hit its peak in Oregon in late 2005. Scovell was among a small contingent of Clatsop-Nehalem and Chinook representatives who presented gifts to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton at the kick-off of the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial last January in Monticello, Va.
"Our people hosted Lewis and Clark in this area - we should be a part of that," he said.
The village site at Point Adams, the historic mouth of the Columbia, was strategically located to connect to the vibrant trading network that stretched up the river and north and south along the coast - oral histories of tribes in British Columbia mention trade with lower Columbia Indians. The village was displaced when the U.S. military took over the area for the construction of Fort Stevens in the 1860s.
The Point Adams site is the focus of new research by staff from Fort Stevens park and Fort Clatsop National Memorial, who hope to find more information about the village and tribe's links to Lewis and Clark and the shipbound traders and explorers who visited the mouth of the river.
Gathering storiesDouglas Deur, a University of Nevada-Reno professor who has researched many Northwest tribes, is helping the Clatsop-Nehalems gather information about their past. He attended Saturday's event.
TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian
Joe Scovell receives a woolen blanket at Saturday's gathering of Clatsop-Nehalem descendants. Pearl Biddle of Astoria sits in the foreground.The Clatsops, Nehalems and other Lower Columbia tribes were already reduced by disease by the time Lewis and Clark arrived - the explorers saw smallpox scars on some of the people - but anthropologists believe the area once supported a large population, perhaps almost as large as the number of people who live here today, Deur said. Given its strategic location right on the mouth of the river, the Point Adams village likely was a major meeting point for tribes from a wide area, he said.
"These gatherings would have been on a grand scale," he said.
One of the most compelling parts of the history of the lower Columbia is how the native peoples were able to live in the area in large numbers and not over-burden the land and resources, Deur said.
"They figured out ways to make a living on the land and feed hundreds, thousands of people," he said. "The imprints they left were very subtle."
Pearl Biddle of Astoria remembers the dedication of the Fort Clatsop replica in 1955 at the 150th Lewis and Clark anniversary. A descendant of Chief Coboway, she's been supporting official recognition for the Clatsops for half a century, she said.
"We have a good heritage, we know who we are," she told the group at the longhouse. "Even if we are never recognized, we will have something to pass on to our children. It's good to talk about it, but we need to show them these places."
Lack of official recognition has hurt, she said, pointing to the case four years ago in which a developer logged a parcel of land south of Warrenton that she and other Clatsop descendants said contained a tribal cemetery.
Marriage connected Steve Shane of Silverton to the Clatsop-Nehalem heritage - his wife Lori is a descendant of one of Coboway's daughters, Clementine, who married a French Canadian and settled in the Willamette Valley.
Shane, who has Cherokee ancestors, said connecting with their Native American roots is important for he and his wife, who brought their oldest son to Saturday's gathering.
"We want to be a part of the restoration of this tribe," he said.