A Cultural Renaissance:
Report on the 2009 Native American Ecological Education Symposium

by Bob Zybach

Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc.

(Published online June 6, 2009 by Western Institute for the Study of the Environment)

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 and co-editor of Omer Stewart’s Forgotten Fires. 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 was based in part on his PhD research on Indian burning patterns at Oregon State University.

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. 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.

© 2009 NW Maps Co.