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Indigenous History of Oregon

A guide for learning about the histories of the Native peoples of Oregon, especially the Tualatin Kalapuya (Atfalati) tribe on whose land the Forest Grove & Hillsboro campuses of Pacific University stand.


"Elders remind us that there did not used to be Tribes as we know them today, Indian people were identified as so and so's people, were recognized by their family, or by where they come from." - History page, Umatilla Tribal Web Site

What is a tribe? Meanings include: 

  • Tribe as a modern nation of indigenous peoples
    These are modern self-governed tribes or tribal confederations. Legally, there are two major kinds of tribal nations in the U.S.: 
    • Federally Recognized Tribe
      Examples: Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Nez Perce Tribe
          These modern nations are "recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs" (see FAQ, Bureau of Indian Affairs). Federally recognized tribes in Oregon include the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and more. Some but not all of these tribes hold tribal reservation lands. 
    • Unrecognized or Terminated Tribe
      Example: Chinook Indian Nation
          These are modern, self-governing tribal groups with members from one or more tribes, which have either been terminated (i.e., their federally recognized status has been revoked), or have never been recognized by the United States. Many of Oregon's tribes were terminated by the U.S. Government in the 1950s-60s, and their reservation lands were seized or privatized; some (like Grand Ronde) were able to reverse this decision and be restored to federally recognized status. Other tribes such as the Chinook are still fighting for federal recognition. 
  • Tribe as a language group 
    Examples: Athabaskans, Sahaptins, Coast Salish
        Ethnographers and linguists often refer to Oregon's tribes by the language family to which they originally belonged. For example, all of Oregon's tribes who once spoke Athabaskan languages -- including the Tututni, Coquille, Chasta Costa, etc. -- are often lumped as together as "Athabaskans." Similary, the various Chinookan-speaking bands and villages of the Lower Columbia are often lumped together as "Chinookans;" Upper Columbia Sahaptin-speaking bands as "Sahaptins;" and so on. Maps of Oregon's tribes are especially likely to use language family areas as a stand-in for tribal territory. This is because of the issues outlined in this page, i.e. that what makes a "tribe" is not easily defined or understood, nor are traditional territories always known with certainty. 
        Although language groups have some relevance to indigenous life and culture, this has never been the primary way that Natives identify themselves. See the Languages page for more detail
  • Tribe as a broad ethnic group
    Examples: Kalapuyans, Wascos, Rogue River Tribes
        This definition brings together Natives who come from related ethnic groups, usually a combination of smaller tribes and/or bands who spoke related languages or lived in neighboring geographical areas. The designation of a particular group today as a "tribe" often relies on this definition. Yet many people are not aware that it derives (at least partially) from circumstances that arose in the post-contact period of the 1800s. When the peoples of the Willamette Valley were forcibly removed to Grand Ronde, for example, all of the people who spoke related Kalapuyan languages were called "Kalapuyans," even though they had not considered themselves to be one united people before that time.
        After Natives were forced to resettle on reservations, however, this meaning became relevant. People who spoke related languages and had related customs would often live together and intermarry, forming groups that are important to modern Native identities. This definition is often used by today's confederated tribes in order to acknowledge their original constituent peoples, such as the Umpqua, Mollala, Rogue River, Kalapuya and Shasta tribes of Grand Ronde.
  • Tribe as a group descended from related indigenous villages/bands
    Examples: Tualatins (or Atfalati), Yamhills, Wallowas (or Wal-lam-wat-kain)
        This definition of "tribe" is closer to what would have been recognized by many indigenous peoples before contact with Euro-Americans. Tribes such as the Tualatins commonly shared a language, customs, extended kinship, and traditional territory where they had rights to build villages, cultivate plants, fish, hunt and trade. Tribes such as these consisted of one or more villages or bands, each of which could have dozens or hundreds of members. The Tualatins, for example, had at least eight villages near the modern town of Gaston, with others spread throughout the Tualatin River watershed. Each village/band usually had a chief, and was the basic political unit for daily life. In Oregon, it was uncommon for a tribe to have a single head-chief with power over multiple bands. On the other hand, it was quite common for villages to form political alliances, trade and marry between bands, whether or not they were from the same "tribe." One's family, home village, or alliance to a particular chief was more immediately important. As the quote at the top of this page says: "Elders remind us that there did not used to be Tribes as we know them today, Indian people were identified as so and so's people, were recognized by their family, or by where they come from" (History page, Umatilla Tribal Web Site).


Further reading: For more on the Kalapuyan examples above, see the books/articles listed on the Tualatin Kalapuya page. For comparison with how villages on the Columbia were organized, see Aguilar, When the River ran Wild! (2005); for comparison with Tututni tribal structure, see Wilkinson, The People are Dancing Again (2010). For a generic discussion of the differences between tribes, bands, chiefdoms and nations, see the Britannica article, The Difference Between a Tribe and a Band.