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Aguilar gives insight into Indian culture

Sageland Magazine 2007

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - Author George Aguilar Sr.

Tribal fishermen from the Columbia River and the Paiute hunters and gathers of the high plains all had rich histories and traditions when they relocated to the Warm Springs Reservation in the mid-1800s.
   But as tribal languages were discouraged and native people became acclimated to American culture, only a handful of elders retained knowledge of the old ways and tribal tongues.
   While watching his grandchildren learn tribal languages from elders in a program at Warm Springs Elementary, George Aguilar Sr. began to wonder how many other parts of his culture were slipping away.
   How many people on the reservation even knew Tenino was named after a place on the Columbia River, or about the reservation's wildfire of 1938 which drastically changed their horse-based society?
   "Children of the reservation have no idea of their roots. Today's kids' ideas of Indian culture is a powwow because that's the only thing they can relate to. The ancient background is all forgotten," Aguilar said.
   Even their identity has become homogenized he observed, saying, "Now they call themselves the `Springers' and the Yakama Nation, but at one time they were one group."
   Inspired by a desire for his grandchildren to know their roots -- the Eastern Kiksht Chinookan people of the Columbia River -- Aguilar began collecting bits of information, starting with his own history.
   The son of Easton Aguilar from the Philippines and Evelyn Polk of Warm Springs, Aguilar was orphaned as a baby when his father drowned while fishing the treacherous Cascade Rapids (now Cascade Locks) and his mother died shortly after.
   Raised by his grandmother Hattie Polk in the remote Wolford Canyon on the Warm Springs Reservation, Aguilar grew up speaking the Klickitat Sahaptin language and learning all the traditional native skills, from tanning hides to berry picking.
   Later, his three uncles taught him how to fish at the family's stations at Coyote's Fishing Place (near The Dalles) and Cascade Rapids on the Columbia River.
   Tales of Lewis and Clark
   Late at night as his grandmother was sewing buckskin gloves to sell, Aguilar said she would tell stories that had been handed down to her. Stories of elders' prophesies of the coming of bearded palefaces, accounts from those who had seen Lewis and Clark, tales of bountiful salmon runs, and the oral legends of the Thunderbird, Coyote, Blue Jay, Grizzly Bear and others.
   "My grandmother's great-grandmother "Hea-yu" was a very young girl during the arrival of Lewis and Clark. She was one of the people who gathered at the head of Fivemile Rapids, a dangerous area and the dwelling place of a mythical monster who gobbled up people who passed through the rapids," Aguilar was told by his grandmother.
   Because of the danger, the Indian people would portage their canoes around the rapids.
   "But Lewis and Clark ran those rapids, which put great fear into the Indian people. They were in awe of Lewis and Clark and thought they must have high spiritual power to survive those rapids," he was told.
   During his childhood, the people he knew all had tribal names and Indian naming ceremonies were an integral part of their culture.
   Reflecting on all this, Aguilar said, "My primary objective was to establish an Indian name for each child taking the language lessons. Because when there is a known Indian name, there is a story to tell." The tribal naming system traces a person's genealogy, he said.
   He began doing his own research to fill in gaps in the information from his childhood memories and stories from the elders. Having quit school after the eighth grade, Aguilar became a self-taught learner and acquired on expansive vocabulary through extensive reading and use of the computer.
   "Names are key -- the foundation of history," Aguilar emphasized, adding, "Most of (the Warm Springs) people had Indian names, so I would look for documented materials of when that name existed and see what happened in that time period."
   "The names are passed down from generation to generation, but epidemics wiped out so many names -- the whole civilization was practically wiped out -- and all that information is lost," he observed.
   Ironically, in 1871 a Bureau of Indian Affairs directive aimed at eliminating Indian names, ended up preserving them for future generations to discover.
   "As they changed the (single word) Indian names to American (first and last) names, the BIA documented the Indian names and their kinship ties," Aguilar said.
   Award winning book
   Ten years later, Aguilar's research was published in 2005 by the Oregon Historical Society Press in association with the University of Washington Press as the paperback book "When the River Ran Wild!" The book is filled with many historical photos of river and reservation life.
   Now in its third printing, the book won the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction at the Oregon Book Awards in 2006. As a result, Aguilar will be sent on a statewide book tour with other winners this spring.
   Originally intending to self-publish a small number of copies for his relatives, Aguilar said, "I had no idea it would evolve into a thing like this."
   The idea to offer the information to the public took off after he met retired college professor Jerry Ramsey of Madras.
   "I gave it to him in an unorganized note form to edit and he helped with my grammar and syntax. But to him, it was like I handed him a piece of dynamite -- he was enthused!" Aguilar said, noting Ramsey contacted the Oregon Historical Society and encouraged Aguilar to let them publish the book.
   "When the River Ran Wild!" has the unique perspective of telling the Native American side of the story, and it was written by Aguilar for his own people, not for outsiders, Ramsey points out in his forward to the book.
   But the book also offers interesting cultural and historical insight to nonIndians. Aguilar's research included reading diaries of white missionaries and pioneers, Lewis and Clark journals, and writings of early anthropologists such as Edward Sapir, Leslie Spier, Robert Ruby and John Brown.
   He studied information in the archival libraries of several Columbia River museums, and drew on his own 75 years of firsthand experience, which breathes life and emotion into the scenes of river activities, unlike the anthropologists' scientific notations.
   "He is relentless in his research," Ramsey said of Aguilar's determination to track things down.
   Chapters cover things rarely discussed with outsiders, including shamanism, tribal religions, and superstitions, and have sections on tribal plant foods and medicines.
   Life on the `Rez'
   In a section of the book on the fire of 1938, he tells how wildfire swept through the reservation, burning almost all the farm homes, fence posts, livestock and crops. Since horses and wagons were the only mode of transportation then and had powered the farm equipment, most of the Indian people moved to what Aguilar called the "shantytown" of Hollywood, which has since been swallowed up by the town of Warm Springs.
   "Our way of life was completely altered. The yearly treks to the Breitenbush huckleberry fields and root digging areas ceased ... For two years, the only method of transportation was on foot," he said in the book.
   As a young man in Warm Springs, Aguilar said his first job was as a field worker for Norm Weigand Sr. at Powell Butte, and he later fished on the Columbia and in Alaska.
   After serving 3 1/2 years in the U.S. Army, he married Ella Kurip, a nurse from the Ute tribe in Utah, and in 1955 they returned to Warm Springs to live and raise five children.
   The housing and employment situations were still dismal. Their cabin had no electricity or running water and his wife carried water from Shitike Creek for drinking and washing. It wasn't until 1965 that the quality of housing was brought up to decent standards.
   Aguilar worked in the tribal home construction and maintenance department, serving 13 years as construction superintendent for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Although long past retirement age, Aguilar still contracts to do reforestation work for the tribes.
   Since his book's release, Aguilar has been invited to speak at booksignings at Washington State University, University of Seattle, in Portland, Idaho, Bend, and at the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery nationally-traveling exhibit, when it stopped at The Museum at Warm Springs last summer.
   Upcoming engagements this spring include stops in Astoria, Klamath Falls, Portland State University, Maryhill, Wash., and many points in between. "I'm kind of swamped," he admitted.
   The reaction to his book in Warm Springs has been mixed, he said. While the young people like it, some of the older tribal members feel it's sacrilegious to share some of the material with nonIndians.
   "The way I look at it is, I'm putting the information out there so it won't be lost. It was documented by earlier recorders, and I'm just glad someone did it then or where would we be now?" he said.
   Two new books
   Encouraged by the reception of his first book, Aguilar, now 77, has completed two new books which he is seeking to publish.
   "Plant Use of the River People," a book of ethnobotany, outlines the 64 known plants that his people used for food, medicine, and building materials. The book includes color photographs of each plant.
   "There are a lot of other plants, but their use has been forgotten," he commented.
   The second book is "The Shattered Civilization," inspired by a personal account he found while researching.
   "I ran across a (early) 1900s story about Billy Chinook written by a granddaughter (Janet Garcia). It was on an old paper that was turning yellow, was written in pencil, and had no punctuation of any kind," he said, noting it was fascinating but took some time to decipher.
   With permission from Richard Macy, a descendent of Janet Garcia, Aguilar said, "I took that story and used it as the foundation for the book. "The Shattered Civilization" tells how his ancestors' civilization existed from 1700 to 1855. "The customs, songs, dances, everything," he said.
   Most recently, he has been working on writing recollections of fishing at Celilo for this year's events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the flooding of the Celilo rapids on the Columbia River.
   Copies of "When the River Ran Wild!" are available at Willow Creek Book Store in Madras, or other book stores, and through online outlets.