Our Environmental Engagement class went on a trip to pursue different perspectives of past and current Oregon history as well as stances of environmental issues. We were given a presentation about the history of the Willamette Valley from Liza Schade, who is pursuing her masters in history at Portland State University, and a long time local, Judy Goldmann. Schade narrated history from the lens of both white settlers and indigenous populations. While their histories are deeply intertwined, they have vastly different experiences. White settlers came into Oregon believing they had superior technology and practices and negatively impacted the indigenous population.. The Kalapuya people of the Willamette Valley engaged with the land using practices they developed through years of coevolution. However, settlers disrupted these practices, causing repercussions that are still present today.
The beginning of the presentation discussed the creation of the Willamette Valley, and how this geological structure was viewed and utilized by these two populations. The Willamette Valley was created by the Missoula Floods which forged the deep crevices of the gorge and valley over the course of thousands of years, leaving fertile soil in its wake. The surrounding mountain ranges and Willamette and Columbia river deltas create the perfect Mediterranean climate for successful farming.
The Kalapuya people, who lived in the Willamette Valley were a focus of the presentation. It was clear they practiced sustainable production techniques and understood what they could give and take without destroying the valley. They practiced seasonal hunting and gathering, often moving in time with the harvest of different resources such as camas and wapato. Camas, the edible bulb of the Camassia flower, were particularly important, as the Kalapuya were not a fishing tribe, and would trade camas cakes. The women knew when to harvest the cama, and to always leave enough behind for regrowth for the next season. They participated in the Columbia Trade Networks, coming into contact with other tribes, fur traders, and missionaries. Contrary to popular belief at the time, the Kalapuya also practiced forest management. They used controlled burns to keep the forest floor clear of debris, chase game into the open, clean up after a harvest, and promote rich regrowth.
Western Pioneer History
As word of the rich soil of the Pacific Northwest spread, more and more settlers came to the Willamette Valley. Settlers disrupted the lives and practices of the Kalapuya people and other tribes in ways most do not learn about in a conventional history class. They were notorious for stealing valuable items from Kalapuya grave sites, which led to the practice of breaking valuables before burial. Settlers also drained many of the swampy wetlands which wapato–a wetland plant with an edible tuber used by indigenous tribes in the region–grew in, destroying the natives’ resources to instead grow onions. Many of the settlers’ actions were often justified in the name of “civilization”.
The lives of settlers are more well-documented and well-known than those of indigenous populations. The first white people to settle in the Willamette Valley were part of the Willamette Mission, the first non-commercial agricultural settlement established in the Willamette Valley in 1834. These groups of settlers were arriving in the area between 1834 and 1840. The mission had log cabins, a school, granary, and a store. This settlement was later destroyed by the Great Flood of 1861, which lasted December through January 1862. The next wave of settlers came in through the Oregon Trail, which was approximately 1,500 miles with a variety of different access routes. Up to half a million people followed the Oregon Trail and there are many diaries and letters recording the dangers and hard labor that the journey required. The desire to go on this journey was largely due to a quest for a utopia and access to “free land.” Little regulation on land claims resulted in a turbulent environment, with individuals often fighting over boundaries. The settlers worked quickly to develop the Willamette Valley. Joseph Gaston and Ben Holladay, two railroad executives, raced for the opportunity to build the railroad system out to Portland, Oregon. Once the East coast was connected to the West coast, booming agricultural and fishing industries ensued and the Oregon population grew exponentially. The Willamette Valley was soon transformed and we continue to see struggles between those wanting to develop the land and those wanting to conserve it.
Applying History to Engagement
We left the presentation with some important takeaways about engagement both in and outside of the Willamette Valley. One significant takeaway from the presentation is the importance of understanding all sides of history when determining how to address specific issues in the future. The history of the Willamette Valley highlights why it is especially important to consider underrepresented perspectives, like those of the local indigenous populations. They understood how to best engage with the land in a symbiotic relationship long before any white settlers arrived. Their knowledge of the needs of the ecosystem is evident from practices such as controlled burns and sustainable harvesting. Additionally, the history of exploitation, murder, and disregard for indigenous groups by white settlers makes it all the more essential to include and support them in future conversation and action taken about the Willamette Valley.
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to Liza Schade’s historical lecture. In the future, it would be great to have more engagement opportunities such as the lecture we received from Liza. While the lecture was more focused on absorbing information rather than having a conversation, the information we learned is vital in moving forward with engagement and having productive conversations.