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Tribal leaders rally to save language

by: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Eric Bernando, a member of Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, presents a Wawa language lesson at the Museum of the Oregon Territory in Oregon City on Feb. 8 at 2 p.m. There’s a quiet revolution going on for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and some of its leaders are the well-spoken, respectful young educators of the “mil lennial” generation, determined to bring the old ways out of museums and back into normal patterns of living.

Clackamas County Historical Society’s Museum of the Oregon Territory, 211 Tumwater Drive, Oregon City, hosts a free public program on Friday, Feb. 8, at 2 p.m., featuring cultural outreach specialists and tribal members.

Brian Krehbiel and his brother, Bobby Mercier, who lead youth powwows and longhouse ceremonies, will offer a traditional story, blessing song and question-and-answer session on Oregon’s Native American customs and historic sites.

Krehbiel is passionate about the changes he’s seen in the last few years. At the start of the cultural restoration movement, he said, “We had to bring in non-natives to teach us how to weave our baskets. We now say that there will come a day when our children will never know that these elements of our culture were ever lost or abandoned.”

Wawa (Chinook trade jargon) was first adopted by indigenous Native Americans living and trading along the Columbia River. It is not the pure, original Chinook language, but it was spoken by up to 100,000 people in pioneer times, including early Oregon City settler Dr. John McLoughlin, loggers, cannery workers and fishermen. Wawa stretched from the mouth of the Columbia River up into Washington, Alaska and the Yukon Territory, all along the trade highway.

Eric Bernando is presenting the language lesson with input from Mercier. Participants in Friday’s program will learn to speak a few words.

Bernando’s grandmother was rigidly taught not to express herself in her indigenous language in a harsh reservation school and lived her entire life reluctant to do so, even among family. Her generation urged their children to assimilate with the predominant culture.

Bernando says his reason for participating in this MOOT program is “to inform the public about language revitalization efforts and endangered languages in general.”

Native culture prohibits storytelling outside of winter, and this program’s planning was expedited out of respect for that limitation. One might think that wintertime ends with the equinox, or when the daffodils first push up. To most, longer and warmer days bring to mind recreational daydreams of coming summer ease.

But Bernando clarified, “Winter ends when the salmon begin to run. Spring means it’s time to start preparing for the next winter.”

While taboos preclude some myths from being shared outside of a particular tribe, Krehbiel and Mercier plan to share a tale tied to the Willamette Falls. From this program’s seats, the museum affords a unique view of the falls and across the river to West Linn, once the site of the largest recorded longhouse.

“We thought that was pretty good real estate, too,” jokes Krehbiel.




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