The name Siletz (pronounced SIGH-lets) comes from the name of the river on which the Siletz tribe lived. The origin of the name is unknown. The Siletz people called themselves Se-la-gees, meaning “crooked river.” They were also called Tsä Shnádsh amím.
The Siletz lived along the Pacific Coast in northern Oregon, in parts of what are now Tillamook, Lincoln, and Lane counties. They were part of a larger group of Native Americans called the Tillamook, whose lands stretched from Tillamook Head in Clatsop County to the Siletz River in Lincoln County, Oregon. They built villages along the mouths of principal rivers that flow west from the Pacific Coast Range. In the early twenty-first century the Siletz reservation is located in western Oregon, mainly in Lincoln County, but 35 acres are Marion County. The tribe also serves an eleven-county area of western Oregon.
In 1855, after tremendous depopulation due to epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease) and starvation, there were only 21 Siletz. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon formed when 27 bands of Native Americans were forced onto the Siletz Reservation in 1856. After the tribes were relocated, they were no longer counted separately, so a 1934 census (count of the population) did not identify any Siletz at all. However, in the 2000 census 1,830 people identified themselves as Siletz, and 2,746 people claimed to have some Siletz heritage. Most, if not all, of those who called themselves Siletz may have been members of the bands who adopted the tribal name in the mid-1800s. In 2004 the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs showed tribal enrollment on the Siletz reservation as 4,077.
Origins and group affiliations
Some historians believe that Salishan speakers were part of the first wave of people who migrated across the Bering Strait from Russia to the New World about ten thousand years ago. The Siletz were a part of the Tillamook tribe. Lewis and Clark mentioned that all the tribes of that area traded with each other regularly. The Tillamook took prisoners from tribes to the south of them and sold them to northern tribes such as the Clatsop and Chehalis. In 1856 the Siletz were moved the reservation that bears their name along with 26 other tribes. Some of the main tribes sharing the reservation were the Tillamook, Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Coquille, Takelma or Upper Rogue River, Six, Joshua, Tututini, Mackanotni, Shastacosta, Cheteo. The Athapascan and Takelman tribes were called Rogue River Indians.
The Siletz were a proud river people. For thousands of years they roamed undisturbed through the western portion of present-day Oregon. By the time the U.S. government established a reservation in the heart of their territory in 1855, there were only 21 Siletz people known to be alive. The forcible relocation of the Siletz and more than two dozen other Coastal tribes proved disastrous. In the end most of the original Siletz tribe may have perished, but the reservation bearing their name still thrives.
First European contact
Of the Pacific Northwest groups who spoke the Salishan languages, the Siletz were members of the southernmost branch. They were living along the coast, next to the Siletz River in present-day Oregon, when the first whites crossed into their territory in 1805. The men were part of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–6), the first navigators to make a large-scale exploration of what would become the western United States. This and other early contacts between the Siletz and whites were brief, but the consequences for the tribe were devastating.
European fur trappers soon followed the expedition, bringing deadly diseases to which the Siletz had no immunity. In 1828 and 1833 measles and smallpox epidemics swept through the region, killing many. A series of destructive fires compounded problems for the tribe in the late 1840s. The Siletz had set the fires deliberately, according to their annual practice of slashing and burning some of their land to promote better growth of food resources. But these fires burned out of control and did tremendous damage. By 1850 the Siletz tribe, weakened by diseases and starvation, had suffered a severe loss of population.
1805: Lewis and Clark expedition explores Siletz territory.
1850: Gold is discovered in Oregon, leading to white takeover of Native American lands.
1855: Rogue River Wars begin between whites and Natives; Siletz Reservation is established on the Siletz homeland.
1856: The Siletz and more than two dozen other tribes are forcibly relocated to the Siletz Reservation.
1892: Reservation land is allotted (divided up); the remainder of the land is given to settlers.
1956: U.S. government terminates Siletz Confederation of Tribes and closes the reservation.
1977: The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon gains federal recognition and drafts a constitution.
2002: Tribe forms Siletz Tribal Business Corporation (STBC) to oversee economic development.
Settlers and miners arrive
White settlers arrived in the Oregon territory in the 1850s, drawn by the abundant furs, land suitable for plowing, and impressive forests of old growth timber. They were followed by gold miners. Relations with the Native inhabitants were hostile. The rapid growth of the white population caused serious problems for the Native Americans. Prospectors muddied the river with debris from their mining operations, game became scarce as animals were trapped for their furs, and important food sources disappeared when whites fenced off Native lands for cattle farms.
Tribes such as the Rogue River Indians (who lived south of the Siletz) were the most severely affected by the arrival of settlers in Oregon. The competition for resources, combined with robbing and looting by both whites and Natives, set off the Rogue River Wars in 1855.
Rogue River Wars
When gold was discovered in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley in the early 1850s, gold miners and settlers put pressure on the U.S. government to remove the Native Americans from their homelands. Hostilities erupted into war in October 1855, when a mob of miners killed more than two dozen Native Americans camping near the Table Rock Reservation. Many historians believe the war was started deliberately by bored and idle miners who were unable to pan for gold because of a drought. Land was not an underlying reason for the fighting; by the time the war started the Native people had already given up most of their land.
After enduring several bloody battles, the Native Americans who lived and fought in the mountains moved down the Rogue River to the Pacific Coast, probably to buy time because winter had set in and food was becoming scarce. They nearly succeeded in driving whites away from the coast, but by the following spring the white settlers were receiving extra help from the U.S. Army. The Native Americans were attacked by army troops from California and by volunteers. Although the Natives almost won the final battle, in the end the whites emerged victorious.
The defeated Native Americans were forcibly removed to a new reservation constructed under the authority of the federal government in 1855. Some were taken there by steamboat; others had to walk. Although the Native Americans were promised sufficient land to support themselves, their acreage was eventually reduced by three-quarters; no compensation was given to them until many years later.
Siletz Reservation founded
The U.S. government decided the best way to stop the violence between whites and Native Americans was to establish a reservation and relocate all of the Coastal Indians there. The government chose a 150-mile stretch of the Oregon coast for the reservation, including the entire Siletz homeland, and in 1855 the Siletz Reservation was founded.
Although they had nothing to do with the Rogue River Wars, the entire Siletz tribe (population now reduced to 21) was relocated onto the Siletz Reservation, along with 2,500 Native Americans from 26 other tribes. Many were forced to make a long overland march—in some cases walking more than 125 miles 201 kilometers).
The Native Americans faced new problems adjusting to life on the reservation. Free and autonomous (independent and self-governing) tribes were suddenly obliged to live among other Native peoples. Conflicts inevitably broke out. Within fifty years of the founding of the reservation, only 483 of the original group of 2,500 Native Americans remained. Some died of sickness and exhaustion caused by the forced march; others were killed by the devastating effects of overcrowding and introduced diseases; still others were victims of hopelessness and despair; and another segment of the Native population simply left the reservation..
The people who reside on the Siletz Reservation today are descendants of the many tribes who were moved there in the mid-1850s. During the late 1800s reservation land was allotted (divided up into smaller farming parcels), and each head of a household received one lot. The government sold the rest of the land to settlers, reducing tribally owned land from the original 1,440,000 acres to about 30,000 acres. During the early 1900s government policies and taxes caused many of the people on the Siletz reservation to lose their allotments. By the 1950s tribe members owned only 3,200 acres.
In 1954 the U.S. government ended its trust relationship with the Siletz Confederation of Tribes. Under this relationship, the federal government held reservation land in trust and oversaw it for the tribe. When this agreement ended, it dissolved tribal assets, which left the people with no reservation. It also ended the tribe’s official dealings with the government, meaning they could not receive federal money or benefits. In 1973 the Siletz formed a nonprofit organization to provide social services to tribal members. In 1977 the U.S. government once again federally recognized them as the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. (Federal recognition means that the tribes have a special, legal relationship with the U.S. government that entitles them to federal assistance if necessary.)
Siletz Reservation in the twenty-first century
The Siletz Reservation is situated on 4,580 noncontiguous [not next to each other] acres in the lush, damp coastal mountains of western Oregon. These tribal lands predominantly lie within Lincoln County, Oregon. Thirty-five acres are located in Marion County, Oregon. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz, however, serve a tribal population throughout an eleven-county area in western Oregon. The Town of Siletz, located along the north-south running State Highway 229, serves as the tribal headquarters.
The Siletz Tribal Business Corporation (STBC) was chartered in 2002 to oversee economic development and to manage tribal economic enterprises. STBC operates the Siletz Smoke House in Depoe Bay that sells fresh seafood and traditionally smoked salmon and tuna. The tribe’s economy is primarily supported by profits generated by the Chinook Winds Casino Resort and Hotel. The tribe itself is the largest employer in Lincoln County, with more than eight hundred individuals employed through its various enterprises, departments, and programs.
The Siletz Reservation Forest Resource Management Plan calls for harvest of 1.74 million board feet (MMBF) of conifer timber each year from 1999 to 2005 and 1.86 MMBF each year from 2006 to 2010. The timber harvested is generally 130 to 140 years old and consists of Douglas fir, western red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka Spruce, red alder, and big leaf maple.
The tribe operates the Nesika Illahee fishery. It is a nonprofit operation that works toward stabilizing the fish population in the Siletz River and its tributaries. In cooperation with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, tribal members continue to participate in the traditional harvesting of lamprey eel at Willamette Falls. Although the population of eel has declined dramatically over the years, the state recognizes the significance of the harvest to tribal traditions and nutrition.
The Siletz called their supreme being Tk’a, which means “Transformer.” They believed he was their ancestor, the creator of the world and its people, and the being who gave them the gift of salmon. According to Siletz legend, Tk’a’s soul left the land of the living, and his body assumed the form of the Medicine Rocks, a site in Siletz territory that resembles three human heads.
The Siletz believed that after death good people went to the land in the sky and bad people went to the land below the Earth. The good souls lived in a world where land, fish, and game were plentiful. The bad souls became slaves and were mistreated in the afterlife.
The Ghost Dance religion was introduced to the Siletz Reservation in the 1870s. Believers performed the Ghost Dance to bring good fortune to the Native people. They were convinced that a time would come when the Earth would swallow up all whites, but Native Americans would be spared.
In 1923 the Indian Shaker Church opened on the reservation. A large number of Siletz became involved with this religion that combined elements of Christianity with Native beliefs. Bellringing, candles, dancing, and shaking all had a part in the services. Traditional Christian churches with their rigid, staid practices did not appeal to Native Americans who were used to lively, active worship, so the Indian Shaker Church soon had many converts. Quite a few people claimed to be cured by practicing the religion, which had started after John Slocum was healed by his wife’s prayers and shaking.
Siletz was part of the family of Tillamook (Hutyéyu) languages, one of the first Native American language families to die out. The last Tillamook speakers on the Siletz reservation died during the 1970s. Although some of the Tillamook language was recorded in the 1930s, the Siletz dialect (variety) of Salishan was never written down during the people’s lifetime, so not much is known about this extinct language. Franz Boas (1858—1942), a famous American anthropologist (someone who studies the cultures of different peoples), interviewed one of the last living members of the tribe and recorded some words. For example, the word for the carved stick or wand used by a healer is qelqaloxten.
A Siletz Creation Story
Franz Boas was an anthropologist who conducted interviews at the Siletz Reservation in 1890. He spoke to an old Siletz man, one of the very few survivors of the tribe who remembered the ancient language. The man told him the following story about how the Siletz were created.
The transformer Tk’a traveled all over the world. He was also called the master of salmon. He created everything and commanded the people to be good. When he came to the mouth of a river he tried to make a cascade [waterfall] at that place. When he was traveling about, he carried a bunch of arrows. When he came to a nice place he would take out some arrows, break them to pieces, and throw them down. Then he began to shout as though he were going to dance, and the arrows would be transformed into human beings and begin to dance. When day came he would take his quiver [carrying case] and the arrows would go back into it. This was his way of amusing himself; he did this every night whenever it pleased him. When he came to Siletz he called the people his relatives. When he left he transformed his body into the rock Tk’a, while his soul went to the country of the salmon from which the fish come every year.
Each Siletz community had a headman from the upper class who coordinated major activities. He first had to prove his bravery, his speaking ability, and his capacity for settling differences among the people. The headman’s leadership position was said to come from supernatural spirits. His main responsibilities were to plan and organize work parties and to serve as mediator. Often a headman paid fines for poor villagers who had offended someone. Because fines were the usual penalty for any infractions (including murder), his payments helped to maintain peace and friendly relations both within and outside the tribe.
On the Siletz Reservation in the early twenty-first century the tribal government has a nine-member tribal council, a general council, and an eight-member tribal court. Members of the tribal council serve for three years, but elections occur every year.
The Siletz economy was based on fishing and food gathering. Economic life revolved around the seasons. From April to June salmonberry sprouts were gathered. Camas (pronounced KAH-muss) roots (the edible part of certain lily plants) and lamprey (eel-like water animals) were harvested in June and July. Various berries were gathered in July and August. Chinook salmon were caught in August and September. Coho salmon were trapped in October. Elk hunting and the catching of chum salmon took place in November. December was the time for gathering lily roots and various berries, and from December to April fishers caught steelhead trout.
Modern economy on the Siletz Reservation is overseen by the Siletz Tribal Business Corporation (STBC). The main sources of tribal income include a smokehouse that sells fresh and smoked fish, a casino and resort hotel, forestry, fisheries, and tourism and recreation. The tribe has some service, retail, and manufacturing businesses.
Three or four families often lived together in one large house. Families were made up of a man, his wife, their children, and sometimes a few other close relatives. Wealthy men often had more than one wife. The status of women was dependent on that of their parents, husbands, or other close relatives. Women enjoyed their greatest respect after their childbearing days were over.
The tribe’s permanent dwellings were rectangular winter houses made of cedar planks. Homes had a central hearth below ground level, and families slept in separate areas of the home, partitioned off by matting. Outside the house was a separate grass-covered structure used in the summer to store food. In warm weather temporary huts made of reed matting were erected near the sites where the Siletz gathered food.
Clothing and adornment
The Siletz wove much of their clothing, including rain capes and apronlike dresses, from plant fibers. Siletz women wore unusual woven hats that resembled baskets. Samples of these hats are on display at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. Both men and women pierced their ears and wore ankle and wrist bracelets.
Fish and seafood—mainly salmon, mussels, and clams—were the most important parts of the Siletz diet. The people caught freshwater fish in nets or traps called weirs and preserved them by drying them over a fire. Beaver, muskrat, bear, and other mammals were eaten fresh. They extracted salt from dried seaweed and used it to preserve elk meat for winter storage. Crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars were ground with berries and animal fat to make a nutritious winter food that would not spoil. Women prepared most foods by steaming them in an earth oven or boiling them in baskets or bowls using hot stones.
After the tribe moved to the reservation the government adopted a policy of assimilation, trying to make Native Americans more like whites. Children were sent to boarding or day schools, where they were not allowed to speak their native language or practice their tribal customs. In 1908 the Siletz Boarding School was closed and the land sold to settlers. The day school stayed open for about ten more years.
For much of the following century Siletz students attended public schools. The school on the reservation was poorly equipped with cast-off furniture and used books from other district schools. When that, too, was set to close in 2003, the tribe reopened it as a charter school. Since then the Siletz tribe has been active in promoting education. In addition to sponsoring a youth conference in 2004 that drew over 230 participants from all over the state of Oregon to learn about career and educational opportunities, they also initiated an Eagle Feather Ceremony to honor high school graduates. By rewarding students for staying in school, they hope to encourage more students to graduate and go on for higher education.
Healers called shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun) learned their craft from guardian spirits who appeared to them in dreams. A black bear, for example, was said to teach a female shaman how to cure serious ailments with water and song. Special sweathouses—secluded huts or caverns heated by steam and used by some Native peoples for ritual cleansing, meditation, and purification—were used only to cure sickness. These healing sweathouses were made of hemlock bark and covered with dirt.
Some illnesses were believed to be caused by objects lodged within the patient’s body. Shaman cured them by waving a carved wand, piercing the afflicted person’s skin, and sucking out the object that caused the illness (often something brought along by the shaman). Shaman also brewed potions to ensure long life, fertility, and luck in hunting. Being a shaman could be dangerous. Those who were unsuccessful in their healing attempts were often murdered.
Indian Shaker Church
After the Indian Shaker Church arrived on the reservation in the 1920s, some people turned to that for healing. (See “Religion”) Because the founder, John Slocum, claimed he had died and come back to life, many Native Americans saw the religion as a powerful force similar to that of the shaman. Following several accounts of miraculous healings, interest grew in the religion.
In one account from 1926, Jimmy Jack, a Klamath man who had moved to the Siletz Reservation, attended a service. A young man there shook his hands over Jack’s chest and told him he had seen blood clots there. This stranger did not know that for seventeen years Jack had suffered from a lung disorder that caused him to spit up blood. After that day Jack claimed he never had any trouble with his chest. He, and others who had been healed, converted to the Indian Shaker religion.
Like other Tillamook tribes, the Siletz people were divided into classes: freeborn individuals and a small group of slaves. When work needed to be done, the people were divided into groups based on their talents. Task leaders led these groups. The task leaders might include shaman (healers), headmen, and warriors. The highest class of people included those with great wealth, professionals such as doctors, and accomplished hunters.
Festivals and ceremonies
Most Siletz festivals were held in winter, when the cold weather reduced fishing activities. The Siletz celebrated the naming of children with a special ceremony in which the new young members were welcomed into the tribe. They were often named after dead relatives. All babies had their ears pierced, and boys also had their noses pierced, usually by a shaman using a bone needle. Feasting and dancing followed. The Siletz also held ceremonies to celebrate the onset of puberty, the beginning of salmon season, and lunar and solar eclipses.
After the tribes moved to the reservation, many of their individual traditional festivals and practices were lost, but people still gathered to celebrate. They held an annual Siletz Indian Fair. At hop picking time, they enjoyed fiddle dances and sometimes feather dances. In the early twenty-first century the Siletz Tribe holds three annual powwows (celebrations where people participate in Native singing and dancing). The Nesika Illahee Powwow in August features competitive dancing as well as arts and crafts. November’s powwow celebrates tribal restoration, and at New Year’s the Siletz hold a Clean and Sober Powwow.
When a girl had her first menstrual period, she went to a secluded place for four or five days. During this time she lay on some planks of wood while her mother explained to her about becoming a woman. The girl usually cooked for herself and danced during the evenings. Later she went on an overnight trip to the nearby mountains. She was washed with decayed wood and painted with a red dye upon her return. Then she was considered a woman.
Adolescent boys were sent into the mountains to find a guardian spirit to guide them through life. The spirit revealed to them whether they would be hunters, warriors, or shaman. The first food gathered by a young woman and the first animal caught by a young man after the puberty ritual were given as gifts of respect to the elderly of the tribe.
Courtship and marriage
The Siletz held two types of marriage ceremonies: special and common. Special marriages required that at least one of the parents be a person of some importance in the tribe, that the bride be childless, and that it be the first marriage for the groom. Many people attended these special marriages, which were held outdoors and featured elaborate gift-giving rituals. Common marriages were performed by “good talkers,” men with outstanding public-speaking skills. A common marriage bride was brought to the home of the groom’s family, gifts were exchanged, and a feast was held.
Promises of gifts for the newlyweds’ children were made—the wealthier the family, the more lavish the promises. Grooms were expected to be kind and sensitive to their new wives, and marital relations often did not occur for several nights after the marriage.
Specially trained women attended the birthing process. In early times the woman in labor sat on a board equipped with a horizontal gripping bar. Following the birth of her baby, the bar, the mother’s clothing, and the floor matting were thrown into the woods. The afterbirth (material that was expelled from the womb after the baby was born) was placed at the foot of a small spruce tree so that the child would grow tall and strong. When the newborn’s umbilical cord fell off, it was placed in a decorated cloth bag and was worn from the time the child was a toddler until about age six. The loss of this special bag was a bad omen, signaling that the child would become disobedient or foolish.
People usually had a shaman in attendance at their deathbeds. The shaman reassured the dying person that his or her belongings would be distributed properly and that the burial canoe would be prepared according to custom. After death the body was washed and dressed, the eyes were bandaged, and the face was painted red. Then the body was wrapped in a blanket, covered with cedar bark, and laid on a plank. At the two- or three-day wake that followed, songs were sung and attendants kept each other awake so the dead person would not take their souls. The body was later placed in a canoe, which was removed through a hole in the house and placed on supports at the burial ground. Another canoe was upended and placed over the one containing the body, and goods were placed near the grave. One year later the canoe might be reopened, the bones cleaned, and new grave goods added.
Current tribal issues
In 1956 the U.S. government terminated the Siletz Tribe’s federal recognition and sold the remaining Siletz lands. Thirty-nine acres, called Government Hill, went to the city of Siletz. The next twenty years were difficult for the people. They lost much of their culture and identity, but they continued to work for recognition. In 1977 they regained their federal recognition, making them eligible for federal benefits and funds again.
Next they needed to work on restoring the lands they had lost. In 1980 the Siletz Reservation Plan was approved, and in 1981 Government Hill was returned to the tribe. With that 39-acre plot and 3,630 acres of timber lands in Lincoln county, as well as several parcels purchased by tribe members, the Siletz began to reestablish their land base. By the early 2000s they had 4,580 acres. They are also working to revive their culture and language.
In the early twenty-first century tribal services are provided to members in eleven different counties in western Oregon including Lincoln, Tillamook, Linn, Benton, Lane, Yamhill, Polk, Marion, Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. Members are served by a central office located in Siletz and satellite offices in Portland, Salem, and Eugene.
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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California
Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University