The Villager Newsletter
Our Villager Newsletter Committee: Guenter Ambron Joan Gulibert Susan Lovig Linda Meier Suzanne Vautier
Our first article is from Suzanne Vautier, titled Sisikyou Diversity
You hear the word “diversity” used a lot during discussions about the Siskiyou Mountain Region of southwest Oregon and northern California. But what does that really mean and how did it come about? And maybe more importantly, will it continue into the future?
The diversity of this region begins with the complex geography of the Siskiyou Mountains which creates a variety of microclimates within a small area, as anyone who has driven down the Hwy 199 on a cold winter’s day and observed a house and yard covered in white frost when all the countryside around it is green, can attest to. I live on the north side of a mountain, so my property retains snow long after the people across the road can see their grass again. Had I moved to the south side of the mountain, spring would come earlier; a quirk I had not given much consideration when purchasing the land. But I have learned the north side has its plusses as well as minuses, such as the fact I can harvest many spring edibles later in the year than those in the flatlands across the road.
Another way the mountains affect the region and its habitats are the very rocks they are made of. There are several types of rocks composing the Siskiyous, but most important for the plants and animals of this region are the sheets of serpentine rocks which contain little calcium and a lot of heavy metals. The soils that come from this parent rock affect the plants that grow upon it. Some plant families will not grow on serpentine soils at all and many of the species that do grow on it are especially adapted to the soil and its lack of nutrients. For example our famous Darlingtonia Pitcher Plant eats insects to supplement nutrients lacking in the soil. There are other means of adaption too, for example several species of oaks grow on serpentine soils, but they are stunted. A tree a hundred years old may be no more than the size of a bush and only a few inches in diameter. Outside O’Brien there are forests of tiny Tanoaks no taller than I, that produce beautiful big acorns at easy picking level. In other areas without the serpentine soils, Tanoaks tower above the forest floor and rain acorns down onto the mountainsides.
Water is another important feature adding to the diversity of ecosystems in the bioregion of the Siskiyou Mountains. Rivers and their tributaries carve their way through the mountains to the sea, creating valleys. There are many small valleys in the Siskiyous, but the waters are generally swift, with few places where it lingers. Water or lack of it, is a major determining factor in the type of habitat created in this land of hot dry summers.
It is a mix of these and other factors in the Siskiyous that create and maintain the diverse habitats and the unique plants and animals they support. Serpentine soils have created a niche for many diverse plant species, some that developed into unique species found nowhere else in the world. People travel from afar to come see the diversity of species here that includes many rare and beautiful plants.
Diversity is a word that can also be used to describe the native people of the region as well. A variety of languages were spoken in southwestern Oregon and northern California, representing tribes of very different origins- Karuk, Yurok, Takelma, Dakubetede, Shasta, and many others, some whose names have not been recorded. It seems like almost every valley had a different language spoken. Villages were autonomous, generally male relatives with their wives and families, ruled by a chief. Wives usually came from a different village, and many spoke a language different from their husband’s family. Many villages collaborated, but these relationships were not necessarily along linguistic lines. Collaboration could be between villages that did not speak the same language, and wars could flare up between villages that spoke a shared language. There was no central organization on the tribal level as we define it today. And attempts today to define historic native borders along linguistic lines are complicated further since these borders were historically often malleable, with shared land and resources in the areas between villages, and the migration of peoples over time.
Little was recorded of the native peoples of our region before the discovery of gold in 1850-51. With the rush of people lusting for gold and the resulting Rogue Indian War, in just a few short years the native peoples were scattered, dead or sent to walk the long Trail of Tears to the reservations of Siletz and Grande Ronde. What was written down during this time period was in an atmosphere of war that fostered a distorted view of cultural practices, tribal territories and their boundaries. Many written accounts of this time period simply called the Indians of this region “Rogues,” lumping them all together without regard for the language they spoke. A quick look at the word “rogue” in the dictionary shows it to be a label born from hostilities between the native peoples and the invaders. While these historical accounts can add to our understanding of the people of this region, their habit of lumping diverse peoples under one derogatory label stirs up a murkiness of confusion that lingers to this day.
Many years after the Indian Wars, anthropologists visited the native peoples far up north at Siletz and Grande Ronde, collecting what evidence as they could from the people themselves. However, following such an intense period of sustained conflict and ethnic cleansing, few survivors remained for anthropologists to interview. Still, the interviews that resulted give us glimpses of a large puzzle, with tantalizing clues (sometimes contradictory) as to what it was like in our region less than 200 years ago. Because of these factors, the subject of exactly who the people were in the Illinois Valley and which native language they spoke is not a simple straight forward one. However, there is evidence that they spoke an Athapaskan dialect mutually intelligible to the Galice Applegate peoples.
Whatever the language they spoke, we know all the native people of this region lived a similar material culture, shaped by the mild climate and the rich plant and animal resources available. The diversity of ecological niches produced a diversity of plants and animals, many which were used as food and material resources to sustain the native population. Salmon was one important food source that shaped the people. Permanent villages were oriented to the rivers, generally in places where a creek comes into a river, a place good for fishing. The pithouses were used to store food and supplies, and to pass the time during the rainy winter months. Following the yearly cycle, people traveled and lived the rest of the year in temporary camps, gathering food and materials as each came into season. Families traveled to their favorite patches to gather ripe berries every year. Each in its season, they burned patches of hazel and other plants to make the materials they need to create beautiful baskets which were important for everyday life for cooking, storage, and even for wearing as a basket cap. And generations of people tended their oak groves and gathered enough acorns to last them through the year. Then the people returned to the pithouses where they passed time during the long winter nights.
From the interviews we know that before the mid 1800’s the Illinois Valley was an important trade center, with the Athapaskans, Takelma and other peoples from around southern Oregon gathering here to trade. We know that trade back and forth between the Illinois Valley and the native people of northern California was also common. Camas was an important food and trade item in the region, and the Illinois Valley was called “Gusthlantun” by the local Athapaskan speaking peoples, meaning “lots of camas place.” Manufactured goods were important trade items as well. The Karuk were known for making the most desirable basket caps. And the people of the Illinois Valley were known for being skilled wood carvers.
The peoples along the Klamath River fared the gold rush a little better than those of the Illinois River. More of their people survived and were able to stay on the land. Today there is a tribal presence found among a diversity of peoples in northern California, such as the Karuk, Yurok and Shasta peoples. We know a lot about their material culture, and collections of baskets and dance regalia from the California side of the border have survived. They are made from a variety of local plants such as hazel, Beargrass, Maidenhair Fern and Woodwardia Fern woven into complex designs. Some of these important cultural items are on public display, on loan between traditional dances. A visit to see these amazing cultural pieces in person can give some appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the traditional cultures of our region. There is also a revival of culture and language among these diverse tribes today, who continue to hold ceremonies and create culturally significant pieces. It is through the continuation of these cultural traditions that they reinvigorate their connections to the place they live and their ancestors who came before them. There is no way to learn about traditional basketry better than to gather and prepare the materials, learning from the plants themselves why they are harvested at specific times of year.
Today the communities within the Illinois River Watershed are made up of a diversity of people from around the world. But the character of the region- the seasonal rainfall, water availability, wildfires, frost dates, soil character, etc. affects all of us in everything we do- not just the obvious such as the crops we grow, but all our social, economic and recreational activities are impacted by the environment of this place. As we live and work here, our communities are forged by our interactions with the region. Thus a diversity of unique communities have grown and taken root here in the Illinois Valley.
It is through the diversity of plants of the region that we as individuals can learn much about the land and the people who lived here before us. A glimpse of the blue flowers of camas tucked away in a quiet place whispers of days of glory, if only we stop and listen. Savoring of a ripe berry picked during a walk can focus your attention and connect you to the cycle of the seasons. And learning from the oaks by collecting and processing acorns, making food from it, taking that time to do it and feel what it is like, what it tastes like, can connect you to the place you live and the people who lived here before us. It is through this personal contact we can forge our own unique connections to the place that we live. The plants are there waiting for us, we only have to take the time and be attentive to what they have to teach.
You are invited to the 8th annual Acorn Festival at the Selma Center on Saturday, October 10th. Come and participate in hands-on acorn processing and crafts, learn from the oaks themselves! Watch Yurok basket weaver Lena Hurd cook in an acorn cooking basket and come taste the traditionally made acorn mush. View informative displays on traditional acorn processing. Shop at booths with crafts and medicines made from acorns. There will be fun and informative activities all day long. Learn lots of interesting facts about all things related to oaks and acorns. Come vote in the Scarecrow Contest. Fun for the entire family!
A feast of many dishes made with acorns will be served at 5pm. Some of the dishes are traditional foods that come from a diversity of cultures around the world. It is a potluck, so bring something to go along with the dinner. Meet people with a diversity of interests such as wild edibles, sustainable living, native plants, local history and Native American culture. Learn what is happening in today’s diverse community of the Illinois Valley. The Acorn Festival is open to the public from 11 am to 6pm. As always, it is a free event.
The Acorn Festival is hosted by the Cultural & Ecological Enhancement Network (CEEN)
For more information call Suzanne Vautier at 541-291-8860