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Pacific University's 'Rajneeshpuram' offers former governor's view of crisis

Pacific professor Jim Moore working on Atiyeh biography

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Pacific University's online exhibit features 125 artifacts from Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh's personal collection.Pacific University is offering a look back at the Rajneesh crisis of the 1980s through records kept by former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh.

The online exhibit, Rajneeshpuram, features a number of artifacts from Atiyeh’s personal collection while he served as the state’s chief executive. Atiyeh donated his collection to Pacific University Archives for preservation and digitization in 2011. All of Pacific Archives’ online exhibits can be viewed at exhibits.lib.pacificu.edu.

Followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh took over a remote area of central Oregon in the early 1980s. After clashing with neighbors and the government, they poisoned salad bars near The Dalles with salmonella. Though none died, hundreds got sick, and the incident is often cited as the largest bioterror attack on American soil to date.

Jim Moore, a politics and government professor at Pacific who is writing a biography on the governor’s life and legacy, said the collection provides far more than a snapshot of how Atiyeh handled the crisis.

“The Rajneeshpuram exhibit introduces us to an activist Governor Atiyeh, working hard behind the scenes to understand and react to the Rajneeshees,” Moore said. “At the time, he kept a very low profile, with major public roles played by Oregon’s Secretary of State, Attorney General and Superintendent of Public Instruction. These documents, many of them from the governor’s legal assistant, provide us with new ways of understanding the four years that the Rajneeshees spent in Oregon.”

The Rajneeshpurahm exhibit is comprised of 125 items that chronicle the Rajneesh relocation to Oregon from India, the battle for incorporation in rural Wasco County, aerial photographs of the Rajneesh community at Big Muddy Ranch, the group’s annual festivals and attempted takeovers of public office positions, as well as the state’s surveillance and responses, and public views on the Rajneesh.

Some of the documents have likely never been made public before, university archivist Eva Guggemos said. “The State Police were reporting to Gov. Atiyeh on undercover operations, as well as interrogations as the crisis developed,” she added. “The documents show that while Gov. Atiyeh maintained a calm face in public, behind the scenes he was keeping a close eye on the situation.”

Atiyeh was prepared to declare martial law in the county if violence erupted, Guggemos said. But after top Rajneesh leaders were arrested or left the state, the community dissolved.

Pacific University Archives houses the permanent records of the university, as well as historic primary sources for research and education.