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These tribes are at the junction of the Northwest Coast and California cultural complexes. This means that in the eyes of anthropologists, the traditional cultures here have characteristics of both groups.

Villages and seasonal camps
Politically, each village had a headman (also called a chief) and was independent from the other villages, although some chiefs were held in higher esteem, and therefore had a greater influence than others.

The permanent winter villages were concentrated, for the most part, along larger rivers and streams. A freshwater spring or stream needed to be nearby for drinking water. They built houses from cedar plank. They began by digging a pit 4 to 6 feet deep. The pit was lined with planks taken from cedar trees, and support posts were placed in the ground as well. Planks and posts were lashed together with tough spruce roots, hazel and cedar withes. The walls came up out of the ground and were covered by a roof with a smoke hole. A plank ladder went down from the door to the floor. The door was covered with a tule mat or hides. Tule mats on the walls and floor provided extra insulation and comfort. A fire pit, lined with rocks, was built in the middle of the house, or more often several fire pits were included, as more than one family often resided inside a plankhouse.

Other buildings in the village included a storage and work shed. It was built rather like a small house, although it might have one wall open. It was used to store tools they didn’t want to keep in the house, such as stone and bone tools and some basketry materials. There were small houses used as playhouses for children. Men and women each had their own sweat lodges, which they used to help keep clean and healthy. Men’s sweat lodges were larger, as the men often gathered together there for meetings.

Each village generally consisted of an extended family group - a person was related to almost everyone else in his or her village by blood or marriage. Each plank house held one or more nuclear families. When a young person was old enough to be married, he or she usually sought a spouse from another village, even from another tribe, since one was usually related to most people within the home village. Women usually went to live at their husband’s village with his family. Marriages were arranged between the parents of the prospective bride and groom. The groom and his family had to pay an agreed-upon price to marry the bride. This established a relationship not just between the betrothed couple, but their families as well. Gifts would continue to be exchanged between the in-laws.

People also had seasonal camps far upriver to follow the migration of salmon and eels (the lamprey). Many of the fish that were caught were dried so they could be stored and eaten during other seasons of the year.
In spring and summer, women would go out to the prairies and into the hills to harvest a variety of roots, young greens, nuts, and berries. Some roots, nuts and berries were dried and stored in large baskets in the house for winter food. Men went out on trips in summer and early fall to hunt elk and deer.

The people had a rich diet available to them which also included flounder, sturgeon, herring, seals, whales, sea bird eggs, crab, mussels, clams, elk, deer, seaweed, roots, and berries.

There were several plants with edible roots available. the staple throughout the northwest was camas. Camas is a plant that blooms in the spring, and has beautiful purple and blue flowers. Women would go to camas meadows, dig up the roots, and bake them in earth ovens. Earth ovens were shallow holes lined with rocks, heated by fire, lined with fern leaves, western sweetgrass, the roots, more leaves, then insulated with earth and a fire built on top of that. Camas was baked for one full day. Bracken ferns, cat tails, skunk cabbage, spingbank clover, shore lupine, chocolate lily, wapato and Pacific silverweed are other plants with edible roots.

The Native people gathered just about every berry there was to eat. Some berries were gathered especially for drying, so they could be eaten later in winter. Blackberries, Black huckleberries, crab apples and salal were especially popular for drying and storage. They laid the berries out on hide blankets or tule mats to dry in the sun. Salmon berries, red huckleberries, strawberries, black caps, red and blue elderberries, blueberries, thimbleberries, currants and goose berries were usually just eaten fresh while they were in season. Young spring shoots of salmonberry and thimbleberry were gathered, peeled and eaten.

Tools and Utensils
There were a wide variety of natural resources to create tools, utensils, and clothes.

Cedar, with its straight-splitting wood, was used to build plank houses and canoes. Canoes were very important ot he native people. They traveled in them far upriver and back down again, and out into the ocean too. Cedar logs were hollowed out and shaped by mauls and chisels of bone and stone. Sometimes the finished canoe was painted with red clay paint. Sometimes a person would buy a canoe he liked from a craftsman in another village or tribe. Paddles were carved from the local hardwoods, ash and maple. Poles, for going up riffles, were made from hazels.

Strips of red cedar bark were peeled from trees in spring. The inner bark was separated from the outer bark, dried, later soaked and split, and used as a basket material. Maple bark was peeled and treated in a similar manner, and was also used in basketry and for making skirts.

Baskets were made from a variety of materials, like the roots of spruce, red cedar and other conifers, bear grass, tule, cattail, hazel, willow, cherry bark, eelgrass, and sedges. Large pack baskets were used to carry firewood, mussels, and so forth. Large storage baskets held dried foods, or clothes, and were kept in the houses. Berry baskets with strings to go around the neck made for convenient picking. Tightly woven baskets of spruce and cedar roots were made for carrying water, or boiling food. There were baskets for trapping fish and crawfish. Clothes like capes, skirts, and women’s hats were woven from soft materials. Basketry was almost exclusively a skill cultivated by women, except for trap baskets, which were also made by men.

Red elderberry heartwood and ocean spray were often used to make arrow shafts. The tip was finished of with a sharpened stick of ocean spray, flint, or obsidian. Douglas fir was used to make the shafts of fish spears.

Mauls, hammers, fish net weights, anchors, and axe heads were shaped from rocks. Schist, available from the lower Coquille River, was traded for and carefully shaped and polished into adzes for canoe carving and shaping house planks.

Elk and deer hides made blankets or clothes. Elk antlers were carved into digging stick handles, wedges, and spoons. The bones of deer and elk were used to carve harpoon points and fish hooks. Sinew was used as a sewing thread, fine cordage, and bowstrings.

Mussel shells were used as spoons, and freshwater mussel shells were sharpened into knives for butchering salmon and eels.

Men did not wear much for every day clothes, unless the weather was cold or very wet. Men wore a buckskin breechclout, and a hat made of some animal or bird hide. In colder weather they wore hide capes or capes woven of cattail, leggings, and moccasins. Cattail capes were used as raincoats.

Women wore capes and skirts made from a variety of materials. Maple bark made nice every day skirts. Sedges made good skirts for working around water. Buckskin dresses don’t do well in wet climates, but they were worn for special occasions, such as dances hosted in the chief’s plank house. Women from wealthy families bought fireweed fiber collected from poorer women. The fiber was woven into a fine cordage and used to make a fine skirt. One rich woman bought fiber from several poor women so she would have enough to make a skirt.

Women made basket hats, finely woven and decorated with geometric designs in black, red brown, yellow, and white. The colors came from dying basket materials. Black was the natural color of eel grass and maidenhair fern, or other materials were buried in black mud for weeks. Red was made by pounding the inner bark of alder, mixing with some water, and soaking the material, at the surface of this mixture. The old-fashioned way is to chew the alder bark and spit it onto the material, but this doesn’t taste very good. The other way is easier. Some cultures made yellow dye from the roots of Oregon grape. At Coos Bay the women liked to make a yellow dye from chittam bark. White was the natural color of bear grass, after it had been dried and bleached in the sun.

Personal decoration
Many Athabaskan tribes in southern Oregon tattooed three lines on a women’s chin. Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw women rarely tattooed their faces. Like other tribes in western Oregon and northern California, men and women had tattoo marks on their upper arm to measure standard lengths of dentalium shells, which were used like money. The women of the Coos tattooed rows of dots on the back of their hands at puberty. Some also tattooed designs on their lower legs. The Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw did not seem to tattoo themselves quite as much. However, if a man or woman dreamed ‘something’, they would follow their dream and tattoo themselves. So occasionally someone had an unusual tattoo on his or her face or body, in accordance with their dream.

Women painted their faces with red ochre, and used it to protect their skin from sunburn and wind. Other kinds of face painting were reserved for dances.

Women also wore earring of shells, and after European contact, mixed in colorful glass beads as well. One trader noted that the Umpqua were particularly fond of green beads. Cobalt blue and red were also popular colors among coastal Indians. Nose pendent were very rare, remembered as being worn by only a few elderly men and women. Nose pendent were decorated with dentalium shells or abalone.

Dentalium is white shell that is somewhat tusk-shaped. These shells were highly valued and used in trade like money by tribes up and down the coast. The shells can be very short in length or over 3 inches long. The longer the shell had greater value. These shells were widely used as decoration for earrings, hats, necklaces, and sewed on clothes. Longer dentalium shells were sometimes decorated by incising geometric designs on the shell.

Beads were made from a kind of white clam shell in California. Through trade, they came north and were used by our Tribes as decorations on clothing. Pine nuts, also from California, were used to make dance aprons and necklaces.

Olivella shells, gathered locally here on beaches, were not considered valuable by our tribes but were traded to inland tribes. Some were used as decorations on clothes, and on baby cradles.

For dances, a variety of feathered headdresses were worn. Men values headdresses decorated with the red-feathered heads of the pileated woodpecker. Mallard feathers could also be sued, but were not considered as valuable. Other feathered headbands included eagle, flicker, or duck feathers sewed onto buckskin. Women also wore headbands with feathers sewed on.

In essence, the world was believed to be full of spirits. Everything had a spirit - animals, plants, rocks - everything. Spirit powers could take pity on a person, give that person songs and dreams, and guide and protect the individual through his or her lifetime. Around the time of puberty, both boys and girls went out on vision quests to find their spirit power.

Shamans, also known as Indian doctors, had to have at least five powers.

People would travel to gatherings at different villages and play all sorts of games, as well as having feasts. Hand games like dice games using carved bone or sticks were played. These kinds of games could be played indoors during winter.

Active outdoor games were usually played in good weather. These were sporting events that included foot races, canoe races, target shooting competitions, and shinny. Shinny is a kind of Indian field hockey, and tribes throughout the far west played several variations of it.


The affects of the Europeans and their Euro-American descendants and immigrants were probably felt before the coastal tribes ever met a white person. Foreign diseases, most notably small pox, that their medicines and immune systems were unprepared for swept ahead of white explorers, trappers, and settlers.

Spaniards sailed up and down the Pacific Coast from Mexico beginning in the mid-sixteenth century. The British soon followed. Neither took much of an interest in the rugged coastline of northern California and Oregon. Only in the late 1700s did contact begin to become more regular. In 1791 and 1792, Lower Umpqua rowed out to ships who stopped at the mouth of the Umpqua to trade meat for goods.

Overland fur trapping expeditions began to pass through southern Oregon in the early 1800s. One of the first recorded contacts between one of our tribes, the Siuslaw, and fur trappers occurred in 1826, with a party from Hudson’s Bay Company searching for beaver hides. The party met with a Siuslaw chief from the mouth of North Fork, whom they dubbed Little Chief. Little Chief was at first puzzled by the high value white placed on beaver hides. To the Siuslaw, they had little value. He told them that there was a stream on the Umpqua that had many beaver - the creek today known as Mill Creek - but the party turned around and went back north.

The most famous fur trapping company to pass through was the Jedediah Smith party in 1828. They had the misfortune to incur the wrath of the Lower Umpqua, and most of their party were killed.

In 1836, Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading fort, Fort Umpqua, near the modern town of Elkton. The fort closed in 1854. In the time it was operating, many Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw traded hides for goods there. There was an Indian trail from Coos River to Ash Valley and on to the Umpqua River, and upriver to the Fort.

By 1850, a few settlers were coming into the region looking to build permanent homes. Coos Bay had the potential to be an excellent harbor, and in 1853 the Coos Bay Commercial Company was formed to promote white settlement of the area.

There was one major problem for the settlers. At that time, there was no treaty with the Indians. And by federal law, a ratified treaty had to be negotiated with an Indian tribe to ‘extinguish’ their title and make the land available for settlement.

In 1855, Indian Agent Joel Palmer negotiated a treaty with every tribe of the Oregon coast except for the Clatsop, who were included in a different treaty. The United States government wished to remove the entire coast Indians onto one reservation, the Siletz Reservation, on the central Oregon coast.

By 1856, a full-scale war had broken out with the Indians south of Coos Bay and the whites, the Rogue River War. The settlers near Coos Bay feared that the Coos and Lower Umpqua would join this war. As a preemptive strike, the military rounded up most of the Coos Indians and held them at an encampment near Empire. Within months, they were moved to the north spit of the Umpqua River next to the hastily built military Fort Umpqua. The Lower Umpqua and Coos were held here until 1860, when they were moved to the Alsea sub agency at Yachats.

The Alsea, Coos, and Lower Umpqua at Yachats had a hard time, especially in the early years. They were not allowed to travel far enough to supply themselves with adequate provisions, and the crops they were forced to grow so close to the ocean often failed. Many people starved or died from disease. Cruel and corrupt Indian agents stole supplies, and even whipped Indians. By the 1870s, things had started to improve. Farming had been moved well upriver and was more successful. The Indians had finally settled in and had dreams of passing their homes and fishing places on to their children. It was not to be.

During this time, the Siuslaw River was officially part of the southern extreme of the Siletz Reservation, so they were left alone. Jean Baptiste Gagnier, former captain of the HBC fort and married to a Lower Umpqua woman, lived among the Siuslaw Indians and taught them some Euro-American farming techniques. The Siuslaw River was largely left alone by settlers until the 1876, when the Alsea sub agency and the Siuslaw was removed from the reservation and opened to white settlement.

This was a major disruption for the Alsea, Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw. The Indian Agents wanted all of them to move to the main Siletz reservation. Many Coos and Lower Umpqua refused to go. They had heard too many broken promises already from the government - promises of food, of money, of assistance - which were rarely fulfilled. So many of them headed south to live next to their Siuslaw kinsmen on the Siuslaw River, and others headed back to the Umpqua and Coos Bay.

During those reservation years, there were also many Indians who were living on Coos Bay, especially South Slough. At that time, it was illegal for an Indian to be off-reservation unless she was married to a white man. In those days it was extraordinarily rare for an Indian man to be married to a white woman. So many of those families lived up South Slough. They also hid their kin who had run away from the reservation. There were also runaways from Siletz all over southern Oregon. Occasionally volunteers, agents, and soldiers were sent out to collect run away Indians. There are stories about those times.

There was a Milluk Coos man named Tarheel. He used to canoe up and down South Slough, bringing clothes and food to the families up there. Sometimes he also brought warnings of rumors of soldiers, so runaways should lay low for awhile. Once, they say, some soldiers spotted Tarheel’s canoe. He rowed as swiftly as he could up the slough to Valino Island. He hauled out his canoe and hid it in the brush. He hid there for several days, and when he emerged he was a bit ragged in appearance. The people nicknamed him Imukdeluk - pitiful young man - after that.

Tarheel’s sister was married to a white man named Talbot. Her mother built a small grass shack in the brush, and hid out there from time to time.
“Squaw Island”, the beautiful offshore island at Sunset Bay, got its name because another Indian woman used it as her hideout. She was a Lower Umpqua woman who lived with her common-law white husband. Her English nickname was ‘Indian Kate’, but her Indian nickname was Qochyax, Raven-like, because she was always talking. When soldiers were out on sweeps for runaway Indians, she would hide on that island.
When the Coos and Lower Umpqua left the reservation and returned to their homelands, their old homes had been taken over by new white landowners. Indians lived where they could, and some began to work at the margins of the new economy - as servants, fisherman, and farm workers. As time went on, they married frequently with non-Indians. Some even became ashamed of their Indian origins because of the prejudice they faced.

Many never forgot the suffering of their ancestors, and that a treaty had been signed in 1855 - a treaty that had never been honored. The Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw worked together to pursue the payment of land claims. A meeting was held in 1916 in Empire to organize and pursue these claims.

For years they wrote letters and lobbied Congress. In 1931, they finally got a land claims hearing in court. Several tribal elders testified in the court to the extent of lands held by the tribes, locations of villages and other important sites, and of their forced removal to Yachats. Several testified in their native language, using other tribal members as translators. The court rejected this testimony, and ruled against the Tribes’ land claims. The court said that those who testified had an interest in the outcome of the case, and therefore rejected their testimony. No other evidence being given, the court ruled against the tribes. Other Oregon tribes learned from this, and used outside experts, such as anthropologists and linguists, and won their cases.

Despite the setback, the Confederated Tribes did not give up. Several tribal members worked throughout the 1930s and 1940s on land claims. In 1941, on 6 acres of donated land in Empire, the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a Hall for the general use of the tribes. Here the Tribes held many meetings.

Federal Indian policy kept evolving, and was usually not for the better. With the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, conservative thinkers believed it was time to get rid of the ‘Indian problem’ - this time by simply declaring that tribes did not exist, and severing all government-to-government relationships with them. This policy was called termination. In 1956 Congress passed a bill terminating all the tribes of western Oregon plus the Klamath. Before the federal government abandoned this policy, numerous rancherias and tribes in California were terminated, as were a few tribes in Utah, and the Menominee in Wisconsin.

The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw vigorously opposed termination. The tribes had never been compensated for their lost lands. In spite of tribal opposition, the tribes were terminated.
A new battle was on: the fight to reverse termination. Eventually the federal government changed its policies and disavowed termination. The Menominee became the first tribe to be restored to a recognized status in the early 1970s. In Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz became the first Oregon tribe to be restored in 1977. The Cow Creek Band in 1982, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in 1983, our tribes in 1984, the Klamath Tribes in 1986, and the Coquille Indian Tribe in 1989 followed them.

Since restoration in 1984, tribal members have been working to improve the social and education status of our people and recapture our history and heritage as well.

We are able to do so, thanks to the hard work and strength of our ancestors.