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Living here, back then

David Lewis will discuss Tualatin Valley's indigenous history in county museum's Crossroads Lecture


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Linda Hill, a staff educator at the Washington County Museum, describes how the Tualatin Indians lived in Washington County.What we think of as the “natural landscape” of western Oregon looked very different centuries ago.

Before the Oregon Trail, before statehood and long before the wine industry took root in the Willamette Valley, indigenous peoples shaped and tended the land in their own way.

Much of the modern-day Gaston area was covered by water. Wapato Lake, as it has been known, was a home for the Tualatins, or Atfalati, the band of Kalapuya Indians who inhabited what is now modern-day Washington County. Back then, Willamette Falls was a well-trafficked trading post where one could find goods from as far away as the Coast and the Great Plains.

The Tualatin Valley floor itself was covered not by coniferous forest, but by fields of camas, the roots of which were a staple of the Tualatins’ mostly vegetarian diet.

Ethno-historian David Lewis will be giving a talk on the Tualatins and Wapato Lake at the Washington County Museum at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18.

Lewis is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, although he traces his heritage mostly to the Santiam band of Kalapuya Indians and other groups rather than to the Tualatins specifically. The Kalapuya and other tribes that inhabited western and southern Oregon were relocated to the Grand Ronde reservation in the 1850s to make way for American settlements; the Tualatins considered Wapato Lake so important that they sought to carve out a reservation of their own around the lake, Lewis said, but that treaty was never ratified.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ethnohistorian David Lewis will give a talk on the Tualatins and Wapato Lake at the Washington County Museum.

During the first part of the 20th century, Wapato Lake was drained for the benefit of local farmers.

“They wanted to use the lake soil,” Lewis said. “Lake soil is pretty good. It’s nutritious, you know, really rich in nutrients and stuff. And so they drained the lake and they began planting it out, and it worked pretty well. I think they had pretty good farms.”

The namesake of Wapato Lake is a root vegetable called wapato, sometimes known as the “Indian potato.” Wapato once grew in abundance in the Gaston area.

“Wapato, along with camas, was really an important food source,” said Linda Hill, a staff educator at the Washington County Museum (120 E. Main St. in Hillsboro), which includes a corner dedicated to Native history focusing on the Tualatins. She said she has been told that “the pH is so off from what it once was that (Gaston) can’t support wapato.”

The Tualatins lived semi-nomadically, Hill explained, traveling between villages and campsites depending on the season. They hunted and fished some, but their dependence on plants including the camas and wapato was such that their calendar followed the plant cycle, according to Lewis. They carried mats of cedar or reeds as they traveled to build structures in the warm parts of the year.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Linda Hill, a staff educator at the Washington County Museum, shows where Tualatin Indians lived in Washington County.

“People think Indians lived in teepees,” said Beth Dehn, director of education at the Washington County Museum. “Nope … the Native people who lived in this area would have lived in mat houses in the summer and semi-plank houses in the winter.”

The Kalapuya were generally divided into bands based in the river valleys each inhabited. Although they were linguistically related, distinct dialects — sometimes considered languages in their own right — developed in the northern, central and southern areas of the Willamette Valley, Lewis explained. Their territory stretched roughly from what is now the West Hills of Portland to the Roseburg area.

Today, like much of the Willamette Valley, the Tualatin Valley is renowned for its fertile soil. But while the Tualatins did not farm in a modern sense, Lewis said, they did return to family plots throughout the years and generations, and managed the landscape.

“Each fall … they would burn the fields here,” Hill said. “The burning happened every year, and I hear it was really widespread. Some of the early explorers in this area talked about how black the land was all throughout the Willamette Valley. It was just scorched. But … the fire served a lot of different purposes.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - David Lewis addresses students at Chemeketa Community College in Dallas, where he teaches.

“In the recent decade or so, we’ve had these massive forest fires that have wiped out whole forests,” Lewis said. “And this has been going on for several decades, and forest managers are like, ‘What’s going on? How come the fire’s so much bigger than they used to be? And why are they destroying forests now when they didn’t used to destroy forests?’ Come to realize that Native peoples used to set fires all the time, like once a year, on the land. And that constant ... setting of fires was a form of managing the land. It would destroy, it would burn up all of the extra dead matter on the ground — and then you wouldn’t have massive fuels built up over a period of 30 years or 40 years where, when a fire does come along, you end up having a giant oven that destroys everything.”

Efforts are under way, led by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to restore Wapato Lake as a wildlife refuge. Whereas in the mid-19th century, the federal government bought up land in the Grand Ronde Valley so that the Tualatins and other Native peoples could be moved there and kept separate from American settlers, it is now buying up land in the Gaston area in the old lakebed, Lewis said.

Lewis suggested he sees a larger trend toward recognizing the value of Native traditions and history.

“I think … that Americans have gotten to the point where they realize that it would be better for everybody if things were returned to the way they were,” he said, adding, “There’s all kind of areas where I think we’re turning around to look back at Native practices and how they used the world around them, and maybe returning to them — return to that way of thinking.”

For more than a decade, Lewis has been active in promulgating the Native history of western Oregon. He gives talks, lectures at Chemeketa Community College in Dallas and supports educational efforts like putting up signs in parks to inform visitors about Native peoples. Over the past few years, he said, he has been starting to see the effect of the work he and others from the Grand Ronde tribe have been doing.

“I think a lot of people are very interested in the original Native history here,” Lewis said. “It’s not really offered that well in schools, so people haven’t learned very much about Native peoples. And there’s a real hunger out there for people to know more about their history and the place they live.”

Hill spoke similarly of her work as a museum educator. She travels to local schools to talk about Native history.

“One of the other outreach coordinators would teach the Oregon Trail, and she was really busy,” Hill said. “And I was busy, but she was really busy. And now it’s really shifted. She’s not doing as much, because less people are only focusing on that. They’re creating more of a balanced perspective.”

Lewis’ lecture is part of the Washington County Museum’s Crossroad Lecture series. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors, youth and active military, and free for museum members. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for the lecture.