4 Jun 2009, 11:06pm
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

A Cultural Renaissance

Report on the 2009 Native American Ecological Education Symposium

by Bob Zybach, Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc.

The Native American Ecological Education Symposium is held every two years at Southern Oregon University (SOU) in Ashland, Oregon.  This year’s symposium took place on May 22 and 23.  The symposia were first held annually, beginning shortly after the turn of the century, and this was the sixth such event to take place.

The Symposia feature mostly Native American elders and scientists, Native traditional technology and lifeway experts, educators, a few non-Indians who specialize in studies related to American Indians, singing, drumming, communal meals, revitalization of ancient arts and technologies, and lots of independent discussions. The featured speaker of this year’s event was M. Kat Anderson, noted author of Tending the Wild [review here] and co-editor of Omer Stewart’s Forgotten Fires [review here]. Event organizers included SOU student Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne and Publicity Director for the Ecology Center of the Siskiyous (ECOS), Maymi Preston, Karuk, and Co-Chair of Native American Student Union (NASU), Dan Frye, Co-Chair of ECOS, and rest of the ECOS and NASU teams.

A core group of the same thirty to fifty speakers and participants seem to attend these affairs most years, creating a situation that Tribal elder Bob Tom likens to “preaching to the choir.” He then notes that even the very best choirs get that way through practice, and that these events are good practice for spreading information between symposia to a wider audience among our respective agencies, campuses, Tribes, families, and communities.

There was a different feeling at this year’s Symposium, though.  Earlier events seemed to focus on recapturing Tribal culture via the sciences and social networking, with emphasis on anthropology, archaeology, singing, dancing, basketweaving, lithics, and history.  This year’s event touched upon all of those aspects as well, but also focused on the landscape, native foods, and resource management technologies as ways to learn and teach Traditional Ecological Knowledge and –- perhaps more importantly –- as methods of communicating “horizontally” between generations, cultures, races, sexes, scientists, resource managers, teachers, and students.

The Symposium began with a field trip to the Deer Creek Center, an 850-acre field research facility recently purchased by Southern Oregon University and The Siskiyou Field Institute.  Participants toured the facilities and discussed the ecology of serpentine soils, exotic plant invasions, native languages, and the historical, educational, and cultural values of native plant restoration projects.

Afternoon activities were preceded by drumming, singing, a blessing, and lunch, with lots of informal discussions. David West, Potawatomi, drummer, singer, and long-time Director of the SOU Native American Studies program, served as Master of Ceremonies and presided over the formal portions of the Symposium.

Eirik Thorsgard, Grand Ronde Tribal Cultural Resource Protection Coordinator, SOU alumni, and doctoral student gave the first formal presentation. Thorsgard was one of the founding members of the NAEES while a student at SOU, and his talk featured an historical overview of relationships between the US and State governments, local Oregon Tribes, their terminations and restorations, and implications for management of cultural resources.  This overview provided context for his current work with the Grand Ronde: protecting historical sites and exploring cultural landscapes for their spiritual and educational values.

Bob Tom, well-known Tribal elder of the Siletz and Grand Ronde Tribes, then presented his developing qualifications as a “grandfather” and the need for a common vision for the future.  He described the growing Cultural Renaissance; the need for communication bridges between scientists and traditional practitioners, between old and young, and between cultures; and the necessity for “horizontal” dialogue in building such bridges. Common visions were themes and touchstones for many of the remaining conference speakers.

Dr. Bob Zybach, Ph.D., then gave a PowerPoint presentation on the uses of fire by Kalapuyan people of the Willamette Valley for raising and processing food, and for heating and lighting purposes: Food and; Fire: How Kalapuyans Managed Native Plants on a Sustainable Basis.  The presentation file, based in part on his PhD research on Indian burning patterns at Oregon State University, can be downloaded [here].

Lynn Schonchin, Klamath elder, spoke of the importance of education, and the devastating effect of termination on his Tribe and family.  He also spoke of his personal history as an educator, and the responsibility of Tribal leaders to educate the young regarding family and Tribal history and traditions.

Georgiana Myers, a Yurok Tribal member and language teacher, gave an impassioned presentation on behalf of Klamath Riverkeepers (a Symposium co-sponsor) concerning the need to remove dams along the Klamath River.  Myers’ family is deeply involved in issues of Tribal culture and subsistence fishing, and she sees the return of spawning salmon to the Klamath headwaters as one of the most important issues of her life.

Terry Courtney is a Warm Springs elder of Alaskan heritage, who still fishes the lower Deschutes River at Shearer’s Bridge using traditional dipping nets.  He spoke of different ways in which his elders noted the changing of seasons and the arrival of salmon.  He also spoke of the importance of native foods in maintaining healthy children and families.

Local residents Benson Lanford, Cherokee, and Tom Smith, also Cherokee, of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, also gave brief presentations on native arts and technologies, including lithics, weaving, and beading.  Both men brought excellent displays of tools, arts, and crafts with them to the Symposium, and displayed them on tables throughout the conference, where they carried on discussions with other participants.

Agnes “Grandma Aggie” Baker Pilgrim, Takelma elder of the Siletz Tribe, gave the blessing and opening comments on Saturday morning.  Grandma Aggie is a fixture at traditional and educational gatherings in western Oregon, and is responsible for bringing the Sacred Salmon ceremony back to the Rogue River after an absence of more than 140 years. She is also Chairperson of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, and she invited NAEES participants to the 6th Council Gathering, to be held in the US this year in Lincoln City, August 3rd through 7th. Her comments were related to the importance of water to all people everywhere.

Dr. Mark Tveskov, PhD., is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Director at SOU.  He reported on the progress of a team of scientists working together on the Bandon Marsh Archaeology Project. Dr. Tveskov’s specialty is shell midden archaeology, and his work is being completed in collaboration with the Coquille Indian Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His PowerPoint slide presentation showed the relationship of land, changing river depths and locations, and people over time.

Robert Kentta, Siletz Tribe, is Director of Siletz Cultural Resources and a Tribal Council member. Kentta is a well-known singer, dancer, basketweaver, and is active in supporting and promoting Native heritage and cultural events, particularly in local schools.  He discussed the history of the Siletz Tribe in relation to SW Oregon, and built on the need to restore cultural landscape patterns via invasive weed control and other methods.

Dr. Frank Lake, PhD., a Karuk fire ecologist and salmon fisheries expert, provided a detailed look at his research for the US Forest Service and local Tribal and community groups in Northern California.  Dr. Lake’s PowerPoint presentation focused on the wide variety of disciplines and technical methodologies to form better understandings of the relationships between anadromous fish and landscape fires.  His satellite photos of wildfire smoke were shown, for example, to correlate closely with riverine water temperatures and species locations during spawning runs.

Perry Chocktoot, Director of the Culture and Heritage Department for Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin, discussed the importance of locating historical and cultural artifacts around the world, and returning them to their homeland.  He also focused on the need for children and other Tribal members to visit traditional root digging and berry picking grounds to restore ancestral foods and traditions to Klamath families today.  Chocktoot is also an artisan, using native materials for weaving, beading, and tool construction, and is teaching those skills to younger Tribal members.

Keynote speaker Dr. M. Kat Anderson, Ph.D., is author of Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and Management of California’s Natural Resources and co-author of Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians [review here]. She is an ethnoecologist with the NRCS at the National Plant Data Center in Davis, CA. Dr. Anderson’s work has involved extensive oral history interviews with a number of Sierra Nevada Indian men and women who still practice traditional methods of plant care, harvesting, food preparation, and basketweaving.  Much of her presentation focused on the theme of bridges between traditional and scientific cultures, with particular attention paid to teachings of individual Tribal elders she has worked with during the past 20 years.

Brent Florendo, Wasco member of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and Instructor for SOU Native American Studies program, led participants in a traditional closing circle dance.  Remaining Symposium participants then shared a steelhead and frybread dinner, with continuing discussions outdoors in beautiful weather, while listening to modern rhythm and blues performed by Florendo’s Shady Roots Band.

As David West noted in his concluding remarks, there were not as many students or members of the public present at the Symposium as organizers may have liked, “but everyone was there that needed to be there.”  Bridges were being built and horizontal discussions were held to build common visions for the future. The seeds of a Cultural Renaissance were indeed sown and nurtured for wider sharing, as speakers had encouraged.

9 Jun 2009, 12:56pm
by Bob Zybach


Thanks for your good work in editing and updating this column. As you know, I forwarded the link to a few dozen American Indian leaders, scientists, agency reps, and media and have received very positive feedback from several of them.

Maybe Bob Tom is right and maybe you are, too: we may be witnessing the beginnings of a true “cultural renaissance”; one that is based on a “new paradigm” of forestry, fire, anthropological, and wildlife biology sciences. I hope so.


9 Jun 2009, 2:53pm
by Mike

The “new paradigm” and the “cultural renaissance” spring from the same source: recognition of historical human influences in the environment.

Bob Tom, Kat Anderson, and many others are bringing old information to light, and the modern implications are multi-disciplinary, pan-ethnic, and far-ranging. We all are indebted to those who strive to rescue heritage.

10 Jun 2009, 9:59pm
by bear bait

The issue of tribal elders and scholars assembling the information to discuss “horizontally” the chain of events from the Creator until now is vital to the discussion of forest management.

One would hope that seminars and discussions of this nature would somehow bring to light that “forests” are not all about trees. Forests are about a litany of landscapes molded into a working organism to nurture man. Forests and man are tied to each other, and one without the other is good for neither.

So it continues to amaze me that people have to get together to discuss what should be evident to all, that forests are, in fact, a creation of man, maintained and nurtured by man, and in our respect and dependence, ultimately protected by man. This circle of actions that don’t have a beginning nor an end, that is a forest. Cut out any part of the equation, and you have some land with more trees than not. Ho hum. Or just another burn on its way to pucker brush.

The European ideal, in this century, in this country, of a forest, is this designated place to find contemplation and refuge from the travails of our urban existence, which is what the West is really about, urban life. The West is the most urban part of the US. The highest percentage of people living in urban areas is in the West. And in some sort of entitlement attitude the urbanites feel that only they know forests, and their ways can protect forests, and they are the voting majority. The tyranny of the urban majority is a quintessential Western malady.

The Native American history with the forest, the range, the wildlands, whatever you want to call them, is beyond history and the historical record. From all indications, people like Dr. Tom Bonnicksen would lead us to believe that forests and Native Americans evolved on this land in concert beginning with the end of the last Ice Age, and were here to manipulate and tend the forests as they pioneered land recently relieved of perpetual snow and ice. Native Americans created the forests that were found by European explorers and manifest-destiny-driven immigrants. This land of milk and honey, of grand trees and being able to ride a horse anywhere you wanted to travel, was not an accident. It was not some granted wish from God. It was a timeless, carefully created vehicle to ride from birth to death with some sort of knowledge that food and shelter was there to be used, to be tended, to be nurtured. And that manifested itself in a wonderful landscape which was almost immediately changed by musket, saw, and plow. Not a thing to be proud of, perhaps, but recognition of fact.

So now we are here, in a changed world, and a changed West. To a Coos tribal member of 150 years ago, this has certainly been a science fiction nightmare of unbelievable proportion. On the other hand, the difference between my grade school years and the school years my grandchildren are immersed in, could be as fascinating to me as it was for Coquelle Thompson in his lifetime. And I was a friend and a schoolmate of his grandson, Snooks. The changes in a lifetime are so great as to not be fathomable.

Much of the forested land in Oregon was not forested 150 years ago. It was open land, kept that way by constant fire and tending. Dr. Zybach can tell you the myriad plants and animals that were used by Native Oregonians. And the forests were open, and the dead wood was picked up and used in campfires to cook and keep warm. The whole of the landscape was carefully tended to provide for the humans who lived here.

I would hope that gatherings with the intention of leading to a cultural renaissance would take the time to address the insanity of unseasonable fire allowed to burn. I would hope that the cultural and natural importance of human-set tending fires that maintained prairies and open land in rainforests and on mountainous ridges could be defended and recreated. Purposeful fire, at provident times, to tend the wild. Those were places of food and fiber gathering, and of fire breaks, and like the Mann Gulch survivors would learn the hard way, a place of easy refuge from fire not unlike the alpine hutches and shelters of the Alps are refuge from blizzards and inclement weather. There is a belief that those openings were maintained and kept in not a random, but specific pattern, to be refuge areas. Those were not clearcuts. In clearcuts trees are allowed to grow back. On the balds and prairies, trees were burned off with regularity.

So, while legislators and earth science folks look at forests from a biological point of view, practicing the “best science”, we have lost sight of the view that forests are cultural artifacts, and should be tended with that in mind. Forests are controlled biology, much like a dairy or an orchard, and have been so for millennia, and should so be noted as part of creation of a cultural renaissance. Native American horizontal communications in pursuit of cultural awareness have to stress their role in landscape management. Forests are cultural, more so than biological. They are created art as opposed to some random occurrence of vegetational response.

And let’s have a cheer for Southern Oregon… College when I got my history degree there… University now.



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