“Gourmand’s Paradise”: The Once and Future Willamette Valley?

European explorers and fur traders nicknamed the Willamette Valley, the “gourmand’s paradise”. When they ran low on food, they traveled to this fertile and abundant valley to stock up again. Here migrating birds darkened the sky and as one Willamette Valley pioneer rather gracelessly put it, deer were so “easy to kill” a man could “make more money shooting them for skins than working at a job”. There were nuts, fruits and vegetables to be had everywhere–not to mention, fish.

There is some question just how prolific salmon runs were once migrating salmon made it past the falls at Oregon City to run up the Willamette, but pioneers watched them jump the falls in amazement.  And oral tradition about the stretching of fishnets at the present site of Black Canyon Park indicates they swam on in substantial numbers to places like Salmon Creek Falls upriver from the modern day Oakridge.

What the explorers and the pioneers (who came after the self-sufficient and capable Kalaypuya had been hit by disease and moved to reservations at Grand Ronde and Siletz) did not note was that this “gourmand’s paradise” resulted from the partnership local peoples had fostered with their land for thousands of years. As with indigenous peoples throughout the Northwest, the Kalapuya had so intimate a relationship with their land that they named themselves for it. When a pioneer asked a group near the Santiam who they were, they gave him the name of the place where they stood: Kalapuya: “the valley of the long grasses”.

In Environment and Experience, Peter Boag documents how native practices expanded the rich habitat ecologists call “edges” in the central Willamette Valley, where their controlled burning resulted in innumerable ponds, marshes and wetlands that provided habitat for migrating bird flocks. Kalapuya practices encouraged the abundance of tar weed seeds, acorn, and the flourishing of roots crops such as camas. Indeed, as did the women to the north and south of them, Kalapuya women dug root crops with a method that both preserved the prairies and spread the roots as they harvested them. By the time the pioneers came to the Willamette Valley, camas was so abundant that pioneers termed the places it grew, “camas lakes”, since its prolific blooms looked like water shimmering in the sun.

Kalapuya elder and educator Esther Stutzman noted that their burning practices also roasted the native sunflower seeds and seasoned the hazel twigs used for basketry, which were at their prime the second season after they were burned. Wapato, an important Native root crop, also grew in the wetlands along the Willamette River. Forest islands protected from burning provided habitat for seasonal elk visitation as well as for resident deer. Boag noted the cooperation and care necessary to keep such never-burned areas clear of fire for hundreds of years. All in all, as Boag concluded, “The first whites in the Willamette Valley did not tame a wilderness; they inherited a park.”

Stutzman (an enrolled member at Siletz) noted that shortly after emigrants suppressed Kalapuya burning, a series of grasshopper plagues devastated their crops. Traditionally, burning had roasted valley grasshoppers, which were consumed by the Kalapuya, besides maintaining the oak savanna, keeping down the underbrush (including poison oak), and inviting elk and deer to live in valleys near Kalapuya villages, so hunters “didn’t have to go off and look for them”.

According to Stutzman, western Oregon’s peoples had a spiritual partnership with the deer whose habitat they fostered. A hunter participated in ceremony for five days before going on a hunt. During the hunt, he would sing a song to the deer honoring it and declaring his intentions. He sang, “Run! A man is coming to get you, but if you let us get you, we will treat you right.” Another five days of ceremony followed a successful hunt. In using deer’s gifts, the people must never “waste a thing.” If they were so careless as to throw something away, elk and deer would never come again to Kalapuya territory.

There was for Esther Stutzman’s Oregon ancestors special joy in seeing the tail of a deer as it lept away–that deer would carry away all one’s negative feelings with it. In the context of their affection for the deer, Kalapuya hunters not only utilized their kill carefully—they also chose their kill in such a way as to guarantee the robust quality of future herds. Early emigrants on the Santiam witnessed a traditional hunt in which the Kalapuya encircled a herd of deer and picked out the finest animals to release before they took their own kill.

As was the case with their indigenous neighbors, Kalapuya environmental strategies were carried out under the auspices of religious leaders with an intimate knowledge of the local landscape. Such religious leaders (who were usually women), discerned the optimal time for burning by forecasting the immanent arrival of the fall rains, so that burned areas might immediately turn green with new growth.

A few years ago, Esther Stutzman sang a Kalapuya song that had not been sung in public for one hundred and fifty years at the dedication of the Whilamut Natural Area marked by “talking stones” etched with Kalapuya words and placed along a path in Alton Baker Park in Eugene, Oregon. The name Whilamut designated areas of the river “where the water turns and runs fast”.

More recently Stutzman oversaw the creation and launching of a traditional Kalapuya canoe at Island Park in Springfield, Oregon. I was fortunate to watch that canoe dart smoothly through the rapids amidst the less agile craft that shared the river that day. Before it was launched the canoe was named and blessed, and it took to the river like a thing alive, lithe and fluid. It was obvious it was made for this river.

Those of us who live in the Willamette Valley today no longer manage game as our primary meat source, nor do we harvest an abundance of wild vegetables in wetland areas. Indeed, wetlands along the Willamette River have been drastically reduced, and the oak savanna that predominated in indigenous times is an endangered habitat. We need to protect ancient habitat as a library of knowledge about the operation of healthy ecosystems that might otherwise be lost forever.

Though many changes have come to the Willamette Valley in the past one hundred and fifty years, it might still be possible to revive its legacy as the “gourmand’s paradise” by restoring and protecting local ecosystems if we act quickly and with commitment. This is the vision for instance, of the many farms and community groups listed in this spring’s edition of “Locally Grown” , which also contains Dan Armstrong’s article outlining the potential of local food resources. Measuring the caloric needs of today’s population against the productive capacity of current farmland in Lane County, he estimates that that farmland could provide for all of our vegetable, fruit, and grain needs, as well as eighty per cent of our dairy needs.

We haven’t fulfilled this potential for local production. A substantial portion of our prime agricultural land currently grows grass seed. And much of it is under development pressure. But as Armstrong notes, with world droughts, oil shortages, and rising food prices, it is a good time to look to our local resources to sustain us.

In turn, our land sustains us only when we care for it. Enacting time-honored values such as respect and reciprocity that resulted in thousands of years of sustainability is certainly a tradition worth reviving.


The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition works on increasing local food production today.

Esther Stutzman is a traditional storykeeper of the Kommema (Yoncalla) Kalapuya.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to use it. Thanks.

The One that Got Away and Other Stories of Sustainability

The next time a fisherman tells you he let that big one get away you might congratulate him on his sustainability practice. The bigger the fish that got away the better, as indicated by the research publicized by OSU professor Mark Hixon, multi-award winning marine biologist. It seems that fishing folklore that enshrines the wily old fish too smart to be caught had something to it. As the research cited by Hixon indicates, larger and older female fish need protection in offshore reserves, since they are the ones most likely to breed-as well as to pass on the best survival genes.

Hixon is at the forefront of scientific research, but as chair of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, he grappled with the distressing anti-science mentality of the recent Bush US administration. He is not alone. The results of the survey released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that over half of the 1600 EPA professionals who filled out the Union’s detailed questionnaire reported incidents of political interference in their work, in which they were pressured by superiors to skew their findings.

If he worked as a knowledgeable elder whose job was to oversee the delicate balance of human and natural (spiritual) resources in traditional Northern California, Hixon would have had more community authority and support. Yurok/Klamath elder Lucy Thompson explained the “laws of the fish dam” overseen by traditional leaders in a book she self published in 1916. In a report confirmed by an anthropological study, she explained how traditional fish traps were open on one side to allow a number of salmon to escape upriver. The shaman also mandated that the trap could only be used for a short period of time, after which was taken down so that the entire run could pass to its spawning grounds.

Thompson noted that US conservation laws had gone into effect on the Klamath River, but they weren’t working very well. These laws prohibited nets from stretching all the way across the river, but because they only applied to individuals, they didn’t take into consideration the overall picture, which yielded a gauntlet of nets very few salmon could make it through.

Without a more comprehensive conservation policy, she predicted that the young California society would not protect the salmon resources as her people had done for thousands of years.

Throughout the Northwest, native spokespeople for those that US culture rendered “voiceless’, as Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim puts it, spoke out on behalf of the salmon. In 1846 a Chinook representative at the mouth of the Columbia told treaty negotiator Anson Dart his people would not sign until the pioneer commercial activity that disturbed the salmon was removed from the mouth of the river.

His plea was ignored, though earlier fur traders like Alexander Ross, who was reliant on native resources and good will, could not ignore native strictures for taking the salmon with care and respect. They were strictures which native peoples all over the Northwest held the early whites to. Fur traders on the Columbia as well as on Grays Harbor and Puget Sound encountered native protest against the pioneer method of fishing, which seemed bent on “catching them all”– even if they couldn’t use them.

In the early 1900s, Henry Cultee witnessed a fish cannery operation that blockaded the Humptulips and backed up the salmon so thickly they couldn’t be canned fast enough to keep them all from spoiling. Thus the canners hired scows to tow boatloads of the rotted fish out to sea to dump them. “It would have done a lot of good”, Cultee remarked, if they had let these salmon run upriver instead.

Letting some go was the perennial strategy of the native people wherever the salmon ran in the Pacific Northwest, out of courtesy to the people upriver as well as out of fundamental respect for the salmon themselves. The native strategy resulted in the fish runs so prolific they “embarrassed” pioneer Ezra Meeker on Puget Sound, who could hardly move his boat through the millions of salmon he encountered in such a run there. In one Columbia River camp in 1805, Lewis and Clark counted 107 bundles of salmon that Clark estimated to weigh ten thousand pounds. Altogether, the fifty thousand Indians who lived along the Columbia took an estimated forty-two million pounds of salmon a year from the great river of the West. Notably, this take was at least seven times the contemporary harvest. This stunning pre-contact catch harmed neither the abundance nor sustainability of the salmon runs.

This did not happen accidentally. Native fishing practices were governed by the belief that the salmon were kin with whom humans could and should engage in interpersonal partnerships. This partnership has recently been re-asserted by Takelma-Siletz elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker. Others, like Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr., have worked for years with Washington state officials and other fisherman to protect salmon resources in western Washington.

Grandma Aggie’s own work is paying off. Salmon runs have been coming back along the Applegate and Rogue Rivers, the traditional territory of her ancestors and the site of the salmon ceremony she recently revived. Her spirituality is linked to pragmatic action– “walking your talk”. She expresses satisfaction that the dam will soon be coming off the Applegate River just upriver from the salmon ceremony site–and another dam is coming off the Rogue shortly thereafter. She worked on a local citizen committee to help bring this about.

Letting the best go for the future was not only a strategy applied to the salmon. In the Willamette Valley, a pioneer witnessed a traditional Kalapuya hunt in which the people encircled the deer. Before they took any, they let the biggest and strongest go. This is the opposite strategy from hunting the biggest deer or elk to place its “rack” on a wall.

But the indigenous peoples who lived sustainably in the Northwest for thousands of years had the time and inclination to learn from nature. Theirs was not an attitude of domination of the natural world– or of gaining the trophies to express this. Instead, they worked to establish a reciprocal partnership with the other natural beings who share our lives.

That is as simple and wise a strategy as saving the best seeds for future crops– or passing on a better world for our children and their children.

To get involved in saving the Northwest’s fish resources:

Locally, OSPRIG’s campaign supporting marine reserves in Oregon is coordinated here. UNESCO has a recent report on the importance of local knowledge in sustaining fisheries.

Update:  in 2009, the Oregon Legislature approved a bill to protect two offshore areas as marine reserves.

For a detailed scholarly report of the environmental strategies of the indigenous peoples of California, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild.

An analysis of traditional indigenous ecological practices in the Pacific Northwest is here.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.
Feel free to contact me if you wish to copy it in any other form than a link to this page. Thanks.