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Native stories come to forest center


Eirik Thorsgard will present the history of the Tillamook and Clatsop people this Saturday

In the oral tradition of his ancestors, Eirik Thorsgard, tribal member and Cultural Protection Coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, will share his ecological knowledge with the public at the Tillamook Forest Center this Saturday.

Thorsgard's expertise originates from stories his ancestors tell and have since lived by, stories he said can help inform us today. “Stories inform people and place,” he said. “Our stories tell us the proper way to live our lives — how to interact with our environment [and] how to live sustainably.”

As protector of tribal culture, it’s Thorsgard's job to ensure people hear them. “When you quit listening, you become disharmonious with the system,” he noted. By helping to inform the public, he hopes to create awareness about preventable issues, such as the overuse of resources and irreparable damage to our environment.

“We lived in this environment for 10,000 to 14,000 years,” said Thorsgard. “It’s important to remind people that the Indian people are still around. We still exist. We don’t live in TeePees and we don’t ride horses.”

As the son of a military father whose life was mobile in nature, Thorsgard has roots in Oregon, But he has lived all over, from Coos Bay to Bellingham and Grants Pass to Oklahoma City. Near completion of a Ph.D. in archaeology from Flinders University in Australia, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern Oregon University and master's at Oregon State University.

Six years ago, Thorsgard accepted his current position, a job that keeps him traveling throughout Oregon to various ancestral homelands and sister territories stretching from the Dalles to Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook counties. He also traverses the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua valleys and the Columbia Basin.

He can’t think of anything he’d enjoy doing more. He protects landscapes linked to tribal heritage — archaeological and sacred sites, villages and gathering areas — from builders looking to slap up a condominium or a cell tower in the name of development.

“Generally people see tribes as being impediments to development,” he said. “The modern world is not built around a cyclical nature.” Thorsgard helps bridge that gap. He identifies, reviews and ensures the proper processes for development projects. And, he wants to help people understand why access to religious sites is important to tribes and the community.

“For most folks, if they want to go to church, can go to their local neighborhood. But we were kicked off our church and our land,” Thorsgard said. Despite a history of disputes and land loss, he added that reaching out to the public, informing the uninformed and building lasting relationships help protect sacred sites.

Still, he said, “Urban development has wiped out a lot of them.”

At the Tillamook Forest Center, Thorsgard will talk about the ecology of water and fish, as well as local connections to the Tillamook and Clatsop people. He will share sustainable harvesting techniques for certain kinds of plants and the principles of salmon runs.

“The relationship with fish spelled out a millennium ago by our ancestors tells you how to interact with them, so they can come back, and without upsetting neighbors up the river,” Thorsgard said. It is scientific principle embedded in cultural tradition, he added.

For example, by not harvesting salmon for the first five days at the start of a salmon run helps to cull the species. The strongest run through first while the weak are harvested.

“I feel empowered by history. I think that more people need to get exposed Indian history and culture to help them learn more about themselves and our environment,” said Thorsgard, who lives in Grand Ronde with his wife and four children. “Our story is Oregon’s story — and people feel empowered by that.”