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