Confederated Tribes say Tamastslikt Institute a monument to survival 4-13-07

by Mark Baker
Pendleton, Oregon (AP)

Their numbers may have dwindled over the years, their way of life and their culture tarnished and decimated over the centuries, they say, by a continuous infringement upon their land and people. But the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla are not going anywhere, Bobbie Conner says.

That’s why they are still here. That’s why they built this place.

“It’s a monument to our survival, and our legacy as a people,” says Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. “This place is to let people know we don’t intend to leave. This is a living culture. This is not a monument to antiquity, this is a monument to the future.”

The 45,000-square-foot institute just east of the city limits is owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla – the Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse – and opened in the summer of 1998 on the Umatilla Indian Reservation that also includes the Wildhorse Resort Casino and an 18-hole championship golf course.

The institute is housed in a sprawling, modern building down a mile-long winding road. There is a reason for the entry road’s twists and turns, Conner says. It’s symbolic of a different path, culture and way of life the tribes do not want forgotten.

“This is a story as much about a place as it is about a people,” Conner says of the institute.

The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes once numbered more than 8,000 and trace their roots in this area back 10,000 years. The confederation now numbers about 2,200. They say they are bound together by “blood, culture and history,” and have maintained their traditional songs, dances, art, languages, clothing and religion despite the many intrusions to their way of life.

The name Tamastslikt (pronounced Tah-must-slicked) means “to translate,” or “turn over,” or “turn around” in Wallulapum, the native language of the Walla Walla Indians.

The institute is one of five interpretive centers along Interstate 84 on the Oregon National Historic Trail between Ontario and Oregon City, and it is the only one that is American Indian-owned and the only one that tells the story from the indigenous point of view – in the words of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people.

About 20,000 to 25,000 people visit the institute annually, Conner says, and an added 20,000 use the library, gift store and cafe.

In addition to the “We Were” gallery, the other two galleries in the institute’s permanent exhibit are the “We Are” and “We Will Be” galleries.

The exhibit experience begins with a walk at the base of the Blue Mountains, leading to the permanent gallery where the tribes’ story is shared through exhibits designed by British Columbia artist and museum display creator Jean Jacque Andre.

In addition to the permanent exhibit, a couple of fresh exhibits are on display every six months or so. Through June 10, you can see “Pawiy·lst’aksha Way·mna: Memorializing the Death of the Sound of the Falls,” and “Discovering the Rivers of Lewis and Clark.”

The first honors the 50th anniversary of the damming of Celilo Falls east of The Dalles, where American Indians fished for thousands of years until The Dalles Dam was built. Black-and-white photographs fill the walls of the exhibit area. There is a huge aerial photograph of the falls taken in 1935. There’s a canoe carved out of a tree by members of Wanapum Tribe of Priest Rapids, Wash., sitting in the middle of the room. You can watch old films of Indians fishing the falls for 100-pound salmon. And there is a map where people can mark where they used to fish and write a description of their experience.

“Discovering the Rivers of Lewis and Clark” is a traveling exhibit produced by the American Rivers Council to enhance public interest in river conservation and to encourage citizen involvement in key decisions affecting the future of the rivers Lewis and Clark traveled. The exhibit covers the four main Western rivers – the Missouri, Yellowstone, Snake and Columbia – navigated by Lewis and Clark as they were, as they are today after years of exposure to modern human beings, and as they might be if current efforts to restore the rivers are successful.

There are also photographs, art reproductions and excerpts from Lewis and Clark journals and maps.

In the “We Were” gallery, a journey through Fort Nez Perce near Walla Walla and the Mission Church precede tales of the massive migration of immigrants that brought wars, hangings and government treaties until the tribes’ horse herds and languages were nearly wiped out.

“It did not take long for our people to become disenchanted by the missionary enterprise,” says an exhibit about the “zeal to save Indian souls in the 1830s and ’40s. We began to view these messengers of God as common, mundane men and women possessing human weaknesses.”

At first, the Indians’ view of the immigration was mixed, according to a history of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. “Tribesmen saw the travelers as poor people moving through the country,” it says on the tribes’ Web site. “Their horses and cattle were as exhausted as the immigrants themselves. For the most part, both races viewed each other as inferior people.”

Relations between settlers and Indians were mostly friendly until the Indians became strained by continual immigration onto their land, loss of resources, disease and other pressures.

“Certainly there were cultural differences between Indians and non-Indians but in the beginning there was diplomacy, communication and consideration,” the tribes’ history says. “Treaties would be the tool to move all Indians to reservations.”

An 1855 treaty between the U.S. government and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla brought the tribes together on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, where many of their descendants still live.

Conner says exhibits at the institute are educational in their focus, and optimistic in their tone and feel.

“Being angry doesn’t achieve anything,” she says. “Every one of us has no choice but to be optimistic, because the only other choice is to give up.”

If You Go:

What: An interpretive center owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla explaining the history of the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse Indian tribes of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington.

Where: Just east of Pendleton.

Exhibits through June 10: Celilo Falls exhibit – “Memorializing the Death of the Sound of the Falls” and “Discovering the Rivers of Lewis and Clark.”

Admission: $6 adults; $4 seniors, students and children; family up to five, $12; free 5 and younger. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Directions: From Interstate 84 take Exit 216 to Highway 331 and follow the signs.

Contact: (541) 966-9748;

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