Oral History

Narrator: Jeff Van Pelt
Interviewer: Donna Sinclair
Date: March 16, 1999
Place: Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Building

Jeff Van Pelt works in Cultural Resources in the Department of Natural Resources on the Umatilla Reservation. Van Pelt is of Umatilla descent. He states at the end of the interview that the following is his opinion and not necessarily the opinion of the Confederated Tribes.

[Side A, Tape 1 of 1 Ė the machine did not record the first five minutes of the interview]

JVP: [JVP is asked to talk about the impact of the dams on Native American communities. Begins by talking about his role in the tribe. Not a trained archaeologist, but learned archaeological methods in the field]

. . . of my work and what I do so that when I do get into these things, you know itís observations that have came from the last twelve years that Iíve done this profession for the tribes. Um, I started working out on a program that was called the Nuclear Waste Study Program, which was involved in uh, considering Hanford as a high level nuclear waste depository. And because of that our tribe was designated as an affected tribe, so we got a grant from the Department of Energy to start gathering baseline data to be able to measure impacts that that would have on our treaty, on our culture, on our lifestyles, and just on the community in general. And as I started that in 1987 I um, started out as an archaeological technician, but the program was set up to bring in an archaeologist, that his job was basically to train Indian people to one day manage that program for the tribe. Well that went seven and a half months and then the Department of Energy decided to uh, choose Yucca Mountain for the depository, so therefore I was laid off and out of a job, and the program went just a few months more after that, and when that happened the archaeologist and myself got together and wanted to continue the program. The tribe didnít have any dollars to do that, so we started pursuing out contracts, um, through federal agencies such as the United States Forest Service to start bringing in dollars and then he was going to start a process of educating me and employing me and giving me opportunities to learn the field of archaeology. So we got some contracts and started going up in the field on a one on one and he was teaching me everything there was to know about archaeology. How to read maps, how to come up with a methodology on how to survey areas, how to find the sites, how to map the sites, how to reap compasses, how to read topographic maps is what I mentioned earlier. As well as how to survive up there and maneuver up there to fill the responsibilities of deliverables under these contracts. And then we also were seeking dollars here through the tribe to start the program back up. And this went for a number, well it went for about two years of trying to create dollars for the program that we just couldnít find. And then I got an opportunity to come back to the work for the tribe in 1989 through the Gorge National Scenic Area Act, which was an act designating an area within the Columbia River Gorge as a scenic area which had certain mandates, which one of them was to protect the cultural values, cultural resource values of the gorge as well as the natural resources. So we got some dollars from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get involved in that process, and um, since that time I worked on a number of different projects. But basically started developing an expertise and going out and pursuing contracts for federal agencies to provide historical ethnographic, oral history, surveys, everything that is in the big realm of archaeology or cultural resource management, on behalf of the tribe, providing them with that service. And today, twelve years later, um, we average anywhere from, right around a million dollars of contracts a year, that the tribe does within the six point four million acres that we ceded to the United States government during the Treaty of 1855. So our program is very active in establishing an archive of all the written literature through the anthropological, archaeological community. Weíve got a pretty large, um, starting point for oral histories, that have everything to do from impacts to projects that, um, range from building a road to building a power plant to um, to just a whole host of federal projects that are mandated by laws to identify impacts to significant cultural resources. Weíve done studies on impacts the dams have had on our cultures. Weíve worked with different programs within the department doing analysis of impacts to wildlife habitat caused to the dams. So weíve done a lot of scientific studies of impacts its had to the dam. And all that information is available. Itís all public information that Iím sure that you can get at if you contact the right people.

But thatís not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about today is something that you canít get anywhere. And thatís basically something that nobody understands. And thatís impacts that these dams have had on our culture itself, and the way of life that weíve always lived. Indian people have always lived. Our, our people was not moved to a, to a foreign lands when we negotiated the treaty. We stayed right where we were. This is the homelands of my ancestors for the past, time immemorial. Archaeologists will tell you weíve been in the area for approximately twelve thousand years, but our stories takes us back much much longer than that, since the beginning of time.

But the impact the dams have had, a lot of people are looking at a lot of economic, a lot of the social impacts, and a lot of the impacts of taking the dams out. Um, considering most of the impacts that theyíre going to have on themselves, and what I want to talk about today is things that nobody seems to think about or realize, and thatís the impact that these dams have had on a way of life. Um, thousands of village sites, hundreds of burial sites, being removed, being excavated by archaeologists, with the tribes opposing that. Sacred sites, areas where for hundreds of generations I would take my son to go and teach him the ways of our people, um our culture, our history, um, you know the true educational benefits of being on a place where your people have been for thousands of years is a physical connection that allows you to take your spirit back to a time when our people lived by what we call the old laws Ė the laws of respect, the laws of the natural world, the laws that we are only a part of the natural world. In fact that basically dictate that the natural world is our teachers and teaches us who we are. All of the knowledge within the creation is within the natural world. And we were brought here on this world as ignorant human beings to learn who the creator was, and what the creation was and how we fit into that creation. And our teachers were the very natural resources that were around us. And those who have been here before through gaining the knowledge and passing to the other side, work through the natural resources to educate and train us. By losing that, severing that connection between us and the natural world, by severing us and our children from the physical places that we shared these kinds of things, by severing us from the very way that we taught and learned it through the assimilation process of the United States Government, of the Christian organization, the Catholic and Presbyterian and learning the English language, and learning to be assimilated into the system, completely severed us from all of them things.

The dams themselves, in covering them areas that I would take my son, in my native language would teach him of that place, by the name, which specifically talked about the area and how the area was used, and how long the area was used. The language itself carried a lot of our teaching that canít be translated with the English language. If I was to tell you a story in Indian, and you understood the Indian, and then I translated it in English, there would be two different stories with two different meanings. So a lot of the time even trying to share a lot of these things with you, and these values and these teachings, because I think itís important that people . . . quit looking at impacts to them, and start understanding that theyíve been impacting my people from the time of the conception of them being over here, 1480 or 1490, or how long. My people have done nothing but took the back seat to other peopleís needs, to progress, to other peopleís development, and itís time that people started learning that um, the non-Indians have been managing these resources for about 150 years now, and I donít think it takes a rocket scientist to take a look around outside and realize somethingís wrong, because our people have managed these resources for thousands and thousands of years and never had endangered species, and never had sites being looted and robbed and destroyed, and never had polluted water that you couldnít drink anywhere, even in the mountains. These are things that, now that us as Indian people can believe the old ways that we used to believe, are starting to incorporate into natural resource management. We see that we canít make it another 150 years allowing the non-Indians to manage these resources. So weíve come up with a new concept called co-management where weíre trying to use a lot of the traditional philosophies and ways of life and to use, and to incorporate trying to fix the problems that other people, through their own greed, and thatís basically what weíre taking about here is greed. You talk about the dams, youíre talking about the cash machine for the United States Government and Bonneville Power Administration, that theyíre generating billions of dollars a day through running the dams through them generators, creating a large amount of subsidized power that they donít need. Subsidizing things like aluminum factories so that theyíll be, theyíre using that power. Barging. When we have other ways that we could be utilizing and subsidizing them same services and not have the dams here. So the United States government when they built them dams, they created a need around the dams by giving irrigation to the farmers. Farmers pump water on dry, stubbled lands, to log up their water so that they can continue to use it, because if they donít use it they lose it. So they pump it out on dry land, stubbled land. Sucked the water out of the Umatilla River. Itís completely dry at certain parts of years so our salmon canít come back and spawn. So thereís a dire need for the Native American philosophy to be incorporated into resource management. But what about the hundreds and hundreds of people that have been affected because my father didnít get to teach me the old ways that he was taught. And vice-versa. Weíre talking about three generations of Indian people that have been impacted because of the assimilation process. In our teachings if we donít learn the ways of respect and follow them old laws, we donít go to the next place where our ancestors are. Well, where are the spirit of them people? Where are they today? Are they lost? Are they floating around? Are they depending on us younger people to bring back these teachings and hand them down to our children so we can continue on together. But how will we continue on in these teachings when I go to the other side. And I am over there. How am I to come back and to help teach and guide my children? Through polluted water? Through salmon that ainít there? Through eagles that are gone, through wolves that are gone, through bears that are gone? All of the animals that are our teachers are a threat to this system that is managing our resources today. I mean us as Indian people are no more, anything more than the wolf or the coyote or the grizzly bear that is a threat to the non-Indian and their lifestyles. And as that threat, theyíve tried to wipe us out just like they did the grizzly bear, just like they did the wolf, just like theyíre trying to do to the coyote. When you take the salmon out of the river which gives food and nutrients to many other animals, the eagles, the hawks, the bears, the coyotes, the wolves. All these things fed off that animal. You take that animal out of the river all of them other animals are gone.

So where is it that Iím supposed to go with my son to teach him? A national park? Someplace set aside by the non-Indians so they can have a park to walk through and share a bit of nature? You know them kind of impacts are very devastating to a culture and to a way of life. And our people have never had the opportunity to talk about these things because theyíve publicly been flogged. Theyíve been centered out as troublemakers. Theyíve been centered out as evil by the religious cults. That person wonít let go of that old religion and that religion is evil, and therefore we need to put him in jail. . . we need to make an example out of him to scare the rest of the Indian people into going into learning English and Christianity and all these things. Those were very devastating impacts. That is a very strong form of cultural genocide. But people donít want to look at that. . . I really donít understand non-Indians, and I donít say white people, because I think non-Indians are much more than just white people. I havenít learned what a white person is yet because I havenít had a white person who can tell me who he is. . . I can tell you who I am, I can tell you where Iím from, and I can tell you my belief system for a long while back. . .

[talks about non-Indian lack of identity, doesnít understand the mindset of non-Indian peoples]

They seem to hold on to things like the Constitution of the United States. Do you know where the Constitution came from? It came from observations of Native American tribes that were back in the east. They observed their form of government and how they made decisions and based that and wrote the Constitution of the United States on that. Now people will hold that up and they will fight for it and they will die for it. But here weíve got treaties, that is a formal government, a contract between two sovereigns recognizing us as a government, that non-Indians want us to give up because itís an old document.

"That treaty is an old document. If you guys reserved fish in that treaty, well thatís old. Itís not worth anything anymore."

DS: Can you talk about the reserved treaty rights? What those mean to the tribes?

JVP: The treaty of 1855. To understand treaty rights is a very complex issue. And Iím not an attorney, Iím not a judge, but Iím going to talk about how I personally think treaty rights are by what Iíve been taught. Treaty rights canít be interpreted by the treaty language or the articles they were written under. The Supreme Court in looking at treaty rights had a very difficult time, so they developed guiding principles called the canons of constructions, and the canons of construction, basically in a laymanís kind of a summary as I understand it is, if I was going to contract with you, Iím a man. Iím stronger than you. Youíre a woman, youíre physically weaker. So if I was going to go into an agreement with you, if I was to grab your arm and pull it behind your back and say, "Alright, Iím going to give you ten percent of what weíre going to make, and Iím going to talk ninety percent." And I bent your arm till you agreed to it, would that be a formal, fair contract that you and me would go into?

No. Canons of constructions as the guiding principles were basically based on that kind of a concept, that a stronger government can go in and bully a weaker government around to get them to sign an agreement. Basically pretty simple. So the treaty negotiations have to be interpreted to mean that the tribe that was signing the treaty of the United States government had to know that they were giving or forfeiting them rights through the negotiations. There were certain things we specifically mention in the treaty. And remember the treaty is going through three to four different changes. You have Blackfeet, you have Yakama, you have Nez Perce, you have Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse. You have a whole host of different tribes of this treaty. There was a common language that was used as a very kind of really informal way of communicating. Sign language [Lifts middle finger]. If someone did that to you, you knew that they were angry with you. If someone did that to you, you knew they were being friendly with you. There was a certain way that we could talk and we could communicate. And also by using kind of a Chinookan language, which was a language that we used in a lot of our trade areas where multi groups would come together. So the Sahaptin people were up there speaking in the treaty, and at first it started out that Governor Stevens and Palmer got up and they would say, well this is what we want to do in this treaty and blah-blah-blah. Then they would get interpreter, Sahaptin interpreter, interpreted that, and one of the person within the tribe that understood Sahaptin, and then that person would turn around in that language, whether it was Blackfoot, Sahaptin or Cayuse or whatever, and would in turn tell it to that, and in turn it would go through them channels back to the non-Indian translation. So as you can understand, right off the bat thereís a big communication gap. The specific things that our people talked about that they wanted, and when I say ceded Ė we ceded 6.5 million acres to the United States government with reserved rights. We reserved certain rights through that treaty. And to really understand Indian people and this way of thinking that Iím talking about, how we think, how we live, our laws, you have to understand them to understand what they Indian people were giving up at that time. Um, we specifically mentioned that fish was very important to us, and if youíre gonna put us on that little bitty Indian reservation you need to understand that our economic base is very broad. We have many horses. We need to take care of the horses, we need pasturing areas for them horses. We need to have access to our usual and accustomed fishing areas where we always go to gather our fish. We need areas to go hunt. We need areas to go gather different kinds of foods and roots and berries. Those are things that specifically they take out into the articles of the treaty. But in reality what we were saying is, we want to continue our way of life as we always have. Weíll give up title to the land, but weíve always lived off the land. When we go to fish, I donít just go to fish for me and my family, what we need to eat. I go and take as much fish as I can, I harvest what I need to keep, and then I trade, barter and sell the rest of that resource for what I need to sustain my way of life. Um, the same way with hunting. Iíll go and hunt and hunt as much as I need, as much as my tribe needs. Weíll gather the rest of the hides and the rest of the things and then when we sit down with trade itís our cash, itís our economic base. We still need access to that stuff because youíre cramming us on a very small piece of land that we canít sustain a way of life there. The treaty rights have to give us access to our economic base. Also, did the Indian people think they were giving up the right to access the sacred sites, to continue on their ceremonial use, burial sites, sites that were mandated by [?] to take care of?

I donít think so. Did the tribes comprehend that in a hundred years down the road the salmon were going to be gone because they were going to put dams and pollute the rivers?

I donít think so. Is it an abrogation of treaty rights to build dams that kill fish that ainít there, and rights we reserved under a contract? Jeez, if I made a contract with you and we negotiated that I got a hundred cows and youíre going to give me them cows and Iím going to put them on my lands and Iím going to, every year that the calves are born you get fifty percent of the cows, I keep fifty percent of the cows. Thatís our agreement. Itís in writing. Lo and behold, I donít take care of the cows. I donít feed the cows, I donít move them around. Theyíre overgrazing the land, theyíre dying. You come back to me. Do you have a right to say, you are not fulfilling your end of the agreement. You owe me because all of my cows died. I did not fulfill my end of the agreement to take care of them cows as we agreed. You did not get what you negotiated within our contract. Thatís the same thing a treaty is. And if the United States government is killing the salmon because of the dams, because of the irrigation, because of all them things, then thereís actually an abrogation of treaty rights, a taking of a treaty right, without compensation. As well as all of the wildlife that was there Ė the bears, the wolves, the coyotes, the elks, the hawks. All of these different animals that would feed off them, that we actually use in them treaties. So thereís a big impact with treaty rights, but treaty rights were to reserve a way of life and a lifestyle that has been heavily impacted by all kinds of development. So we reserve the right to continue. A quote in the treaty minutes says, "As long as the grass grows and the water flows and the sun shines, this treaty will protect our way of life." Well, weíre not naïve enough to believe that, but we are strong enough to say that if we want to reserve these natural resources for our children we canít depend on the United States government to do it for us. Canít depend on land managers that donít even implement federal laws because theyíre unfunded mandates to do them. We have to get out there and knock on the doors and remind them of their responsibilities and be there to raise red flags when they arenít fulfilling the mandates under law. Thatís all we have right now is a system that the United States created, weíre learning to be able to maneuver in that system, to once again bring back a lot and preserve a lot of resources that our children and children is gonna need to be able to learn and follow the old laws that we have in our culture. And a lot of us that are going through this time of being able to now be Indian again, and not be punished for it, weíve got a lot of work to do so that one day our children will be able to go down to a site and say, "This site, this archaeological site at Umatilla is a village site where for thousands of years our people lived." We had thousands of people who lived here in this whole area Ė very sacred place. They lived here, they died here, they got married here, they fell in love here, they had ceremonies here, they went through ceremonies of young children becoming a man. Very sacred ceremony in our culture. They went through, my mother can sit back and tell me where my family tree goes back ten generations of people specifically talking about them being here and what their lives were at that time. A lot of that impact has come from as simple thing as the United States government opening up this country and pushing us off to the side thinking we were going to die out like the wolf, thinking we were going to die off like coyote, and thinking we were going to die off like the grizzly bear. But our elders reserved the right for me to be here through that treaty. If we hadnít negotiated the treaties, the non-Indians would have completely wiped us out like they did the grizzly bear. But to us the coyoteís a very powerful person within our legends, and he too hasnít gone away. Heíll survive if you put him in a city, heíll survive if you put him in a dump. Heíll survive you put him out where nothing else can live, the coyote will survive. And thatís why our people have still survived. So the elders had enough insight to reserve enough right for us to have that legal right, that legal doctrine of law they call the treaty, which is the Supreme Law for us to build around, thatís allowed us to use that to mandate federal agencies to start complying with their own federal laws, to come into agreement with us to address our concerns on the way these resources are managed, to help bring fish back into the river. I mean the Umatilla River is one of the few rivers in the Columbia Basin that has the success of the fish being extinct for seventy years, and the tribe brought them back in cooperation with these federal agencies by taking the lead role. By having that philosophy that these things are more important to us than just a resource. We donít want a fish farm to have fish to eat instead of fish in the river. The cycle the salmon go through when they come up and they spawn and they give birth, and they die and give life to other animals, and then go out and come back is similar to the cycle that we live through our laws. And you ruin that cycle, you take the salmon out, then the Indian people will be the next to go. Thatís why itís so important for us that them salmon are in there. A lot of people see the dams as being very beneficial because they irrigate water, because they have barging, because it provides general recreation for windsurfers and boaters and skiers and oh, itís just so great. But letís look at it, itís not a free-flowing river, itís a, itís a, itís one after the other, after the other, after the other, septic tanks, that has everything from nuclear waste to garbage to pollution, piling up on them dams. Who knows whatís down there. Itís a big sewer. Well, in all septic tanks someone at some time has to flush the toilet, and I think that needs to be done because it has created such an adverse effect to the ecosystem. And to Indian people, when you take one of them natural things that is our teacher away from it, it affects everything.

DS: What kind of impacts have there been to the culture?

JVP: Cultural genocide, and thatís what I was getting to. If you were my daughter thereís things as a woman that you have to know thatís taught to you by your father, no one else, and I take you out to certain areas to teach you them things so that you can understand and someday teach your children. Well, where am I to take my daughter now? Because them areas were all the areas that are flooded and inundated by the dams now. Where do I take you? Do I take you out to the sewer place and say, "Under that water is a place that if we could stand there, you would feel something, and it would allow me to bring a voice to me to speak to you about the things that you need to know to be a woman, to be a human being, to make it to the next world you have to learn and carry yourself in a certain way. But I canít get to that."

[End Side A, Begin Side B]

JVP: I canít take you there, thereís a town now there, and I canít take you there. Maybe I can take you to the mountains. Well, theyíve cut all the trees in the mountains and thereís no water we can drink in the mountains and our foods have been destroyed through the cattle. Theyíre eating them. Where do I take you? As my daughter now to teach you? We would look around and there would be no place. Or where would I find the time to take you my daughter, to teach you? Maybe after you get off work, maybe spring break if youíre in school. Well, thereís no time to teach you. The system is a monster that gobbles up our time. Me and my wife work full time to take care of our four children and still canít do it adequately. When are we supposed to teach our children these ways? Theyíre all in sports, they all have got their school activity which we all support. The system has gobbled up our time not allowing us to have the time to make that connection with our own children, let alone you as a person out there that maybe you were sent to me for a teachings. When are we gonna have time? Maybe get an interview, maybe do it in a half hour. It has affected our culture and our whole way of life Ďcause itís gobbled up our time to make us survive in this system, which is a non-Indian system. If you as a professional want to survive, you have to give more than the other guy sitting on the side of you that is gonna also want to be successful. You are going to have to work more and more and more. Next thing you know your profession owns you, it owns your time. When you get old are you going to look back and realize that you learned what you were supposed to on this creation?

[talks about general confusion in the system. The bottom line is weíre missing the boat by concentrating on accumulation of wealth]

. . . The whole teachings of who we are and what weíre supposed to be learning while weíre here is to prepare us for a journey after we leave, but we donít do that anymore. The system has taken us away from that, the dams have taken us away from that, the freeways, the highways, the planes, the fast pace of society we live in has taken us away from that. It is this big monster. The dams are only one example how thatís happened. So the real question becomes, how do we somehow try to fix this problem so that we can survive, not having the time to be able to do a lot of the things that we can with our children. Trying to fix by putting one tree in where the non-Indians destroyed it. One tree at a time, thatís the only way we can do it. One dam at a time, one fish at a time, one species at a time, one site at a time, is the only way that us as Indian people know how to approach this and thatís how weíve approached it. But it isnít a successful way and it is time that people out there understood that they impacted something that was very devastating. At sometime theyíre going to have to pay for it. You know Iím sick of people saying, "Jeff, it wasnít me that did that to your people. I didnít pass the United States policy that was the manifest destiny of American people to go over and abuse and find all of their wealth by taking all the natural resources and this is our destiny to do it. That wasnít me. I got a good heart."

Well, it wasnít you, but it was people like you, and how much are we supporting it by keeping going on? One simple concept is, you may say that wasnít you, but youíre a farmer thatís supporting not taking the dams out because you need it. Looks like youíre doing something to support that legacy to me. . . Anybody that supports not taking out the dams because of the dependency on the electricity and the brainwashing of the United States government to believe that we need that.

"Well Jeff, we take that dam out, you wonít be able to use your electricity." Bull! Weíve got so much excess power right now through them dams. Itís all propaganda that comes out on how much we need them. Most people out there in the general public donít realize the truth. If the truth did come out on how much we needed that. You know why we need it? Because it generates billions of dollars of cash for the United States government. One turbine, some years ago I was taught, it will bring in $175,000.00 if it turns all day Ė one turbine. Thereís usually what, anywhere from six to eight turbines in a dam. Thereís fourteen federal dams along the river. Add it up. It comes out to right around a billion dollars a day. Is it the fish and the cost of fish that is too expensive to come at it. No. They add up every number they can on them. When they have to turn turbines off, and how much theyíre going to have to replace job to people that donít work there. . . Weíll turn it off for one day, we lose a billion dollars. But, what about the $750 million dollars we have to pay the people that work to run the dams. Weíll have to shut the barging down and weíll have to pay them. Thatís how they come up with them numbers on salmon restoration cost. They add up all of that stuff, every dollar they can add on there, they add it up. And thatís why itís always this big balloon number that just freaks everybody out and says, "We donít need salmon! We can buy salmon in the market anytime. Thereís no shortage of salmon." So itís all propaganda by the United States government to keep that cash machine, that ATM matching flowing for them.

Thatís my personal belief, thatís what it is, and thatís why itís blown up to be that. I think we had as many people living on the Columbia River pre-Lewis & Clark that is living there today. So why do we got water that we canít drink? Water that has to be filtered and processed before we drink? We canít even drink water in the mountains anymore. Now I remember drinking water out of the mountain streams. I remember my father talking about dipping water out of Celilo in the fifties, the Columbia River, and drinking it. Can you imagine going down and let your kids drink water out of Celilo? The 1950s is fifty years, fifty years! That river has been so polluted we canít drink out of it. Well, my god, whatís going to happen in another fifty years? What are you going to leave your children? What are all of us going to leave our children? What are we doing to them? Yeah, you may be going on making a good living doing your job. You may be making all kinds of money, hell youíre putting money away and making investments and your kids, theyíre going to be in a secure place and your doing your job, but Jesus Christ, they ainít gonna have a bit of clean water to drink. They ainít gonna have no place to go to share things that, believe me, someday when you leave this place youíll know what the true teachings you were supposed to learn while you were here. If you make it that far and learn about it. Weíre leaving them nothing. Weíre killing the spirit of our children. So us as Indian people are worrying about them generations of people that were made to go into confusion and not follow the ways. Weíre worried about them people. Where are them spirits? But weíre also worried a lot more about our children having the opportunity to feel the feelings I get when I learn these ways, when I learn these teachings about who I am and how important these things are.

DS: How do you integrate the necessity for going out and being part of this world, part of this system? You have to get an education, you have to know how the system works with the old teachings so that you can maintain that sense of continuity with this place and with your identity.

JVP: Thatís very simple. Again we go back to the natural world because thereís a natural world that teaches us thereís a balance between the two worlds. Um, thereís legends and stories, and one specifically talks about the grizzly bear and itís a very long story that basically comes down to a summary as: Heís the strength of the natural world. You go into the forest, everybody respects the grizzly bear. He is the power and strength of the forest. But the grizzly bear also represents a balance of the two worlds, the animals that lived, thereís the four-legged ones as well as the two-legged ones which we are the two-legged ones. He represents that there is a balance between them two worlds. If you find that balance, through that balance of respect of the natural world you two-legged ones will learn from each animal a specific lesson that will allow you to grow as a person. And the more you grow, the more that you will become part of the four-legged world, which is really, we are evolving to that. We have been taught to look down on animals as being, they donít have spirits, they are lower than us, you know they are just in our way. Theyíre there for us to exploit and use along with all natural resources. But in our philosophy and way of thinking is, theyíre the greater power that we one day will become part of, that weíre here to learn from them enough that when weíve learned enough and we leave to the other side our spirit will be in that very natural world which we learn from. So the grizzly bear teaches us that thereís a balance between the two worlds that you must achieve before you learn from one and the other. This world is the same way. We have to find balance between the two worlds. I look at things as a warrior. If I was going out to battle, I wouldnít blindly go into the enemyís encampment swinging my war club ready to kick some butt. Probably get my ass kicked! I would sit back and I would look at the enemy, and look at how many horses heís got, and how many warriors heís got, and when they sleep and when they wake, and whenís their weak times. I would learn as much about the enemy as I could before I went in to do my battle with my enemy. And only respecting the enemy can you learn the things enough, not letting arrogance take over and make you screw up. You have to have respect for your enemy and not underestimate him. White people ainít our enemy. Their confusion is our enemy. The system isnít our enemy. Its confusion and how it engulfs peopleís time and energy is our enemy. So you have to learn the system, you have to learn your enemy if youíre going to fight the battle. You have to learn to maneuver in the system. Education. Youíre damn right, you better be educated. If youíre going to go out and make a difference, in this bureaucracy, in this big machine which we call a dinosaur. Thatís how we look at the bureaucracy of the United States government, as a big dinosaur, and you try to push a dinosaur to move it, you push in and all you do is sink into its fat. Pretty soon you look around and you canít even see anything, youíre engulfed by this fat, and the damn thing didnít even move an inch! You gotta run back out and kind of, damn, it didnít even move an inch. The United States government and all the federal agencies that we work with is a whole herd of dinosaurs that we somehow have to get to move, to protect the natural resources for everybodyís children because nobody else seems to be really concerned about what theyíre inheriting. You hear them say it all the time, but while theyíre saying it, youíre putting your arm around them, the other hand is in your pocket searching around for ways to get around that. And itís become a really big difficult time for us because weíve been manipulated by so many different people on who we can trust and who we canít trust, so we quit trusting everybody and started just getting out there and becoming managers ourselves, educating our people on how to maneuver within the system, going out and finding common grounds with other people on how we can get to this big picture of protecting this big picture of protecting the natural world because as long as the natural world is there the teaching will always be there. To us the non-Indian system has been the monster trying to kill the natural world like they killed the bear because it was in their way. . .

[talks about lack of trust and confusion in the system. Everyone looking out for their own interest]

Well, we reserved that right through the treaty. That was the one thing that our elders did for us, to have the vision to go to that contract, that existing contract that still is a valuable contract today, and it isnít just because itís old. Like I said, if youíre going to throw the treaty out you might as well throw the Constitution of the United States out, you might as well throw out freedom of speech, freedom of religion, all them other things that have been reserved. But no, thatís a sacred thing for the non-Indians, donít even talk about that! But at the same time, theyíll say these treaties are old. We never meant to keep them anyway when we negotiated them, so just abolish them and get rid of them.

DS: Have you had direct experience with people approaching it like that?

JVP: [Laughs sardonically] Everyday of my life in managing cultural resources. People are saying, "Thatís mine. You donít have no rights to it. Donít talk about no treaty rights, this is my resource to manage." The Corps of Engineers, the BPA. We talk about taking out the dams, they see their money tree going around, they laugh, say them treaties ainít strong enough. You didnít reserve the right to have fish in the river forever. So yeah, everyday of our life in dealing with natural resource management. And Indian people have always only wanted to learn, to have the right to learn, and most importantly to learn from our older people and have the right for our children to learn from us, and to sustain a way of life that protected them so that they could have an opportunity to learn what they needed to to pass to the next side. But that was taken from us, and it was taken from us to a point only about thirty years ago we really got to start being Indian again, which in archaeological terms is one generation. So in the future generations our children are going to be looking stronger too.

DS: So you were raised, were you um, around when you started seeing that happen?

JVP: I was raised here till I was nine years old on the reservation and then moved to the cities until I was about 21 and came back as a young man searching for something because I could not find it through the Christian churches, couldnít find it through the cities. There was an evil there, there was a confusion there that I didnít understand, that I didnít want to be a part of. So I came back to the reservation very much educated on survival within the streets, within you know, social and economic structures all around me that was foreign to me. I didnít fit in. I was the only Indian in a high school of 12,000 students. Junior high I was the only Indian. There was some blacks and some Mexicans and then a lot of non-Indian white people, but I was always the Indian that was in a place he didnít belong. In our neighborhood we didnít belong. So I didnít belong in that city, but I learned to survive in the city. And when I came back home and I did learn who I was and there was teachings here, I excelled quickly and grasped that and realized how valuable it was because I never had it. Unlike maybe a lot of other folks on the Res. that was raised around it that are fighting to get into the cities because they think, jobs, money, thatís the place to be. Well, when I came back here to the home on the Res. there was no housing, there was no jobs, there was no money, but in the short twenty years that Iíve been back home weíve done a very good job and are growing, knowing the non-Indian system, maneuvering in it, planning, preparing, watching the enemy as he sleeps, watching him as he works, strategizing on how to go in to defeat the enemy, which is that confusion that gobbles up and kills natural resources and destroys them for greed.

DS: To what do you attribute the ability to do that? Twenty years ago, I mean.

JVP: The very connection, my ancestry. Those whoíve been here before crying out for justification for those who are coming, reaching out for me because they didnít make it to the other side, just like theyíre reaching out to a lot of other younger people. Grabbing them and telling them, shaking them, reminding us of who we are and the old laws and if we donít learn these ways and start practicing these ways, there will be no future for our people. All of them things, that belief system, that respect for the natural world, it all came back, and it came back and grabbed me and showed me that I have a purpose in this world thatís much more greater than just making money and having the nicest house on the block.

DS: Do you think that the ability of the tribes to join together and actually do, I mean a great deal has been done here. Do you attribute some of that to the civil rights movement? To the changes that occurred on a broader social level, or?

JVP: I think the civil rights movement was the start of the movement to allowing Indian people to be Indian again. So, yes, I think they had very much. I think the civil rights movement, I think the movement for womenís rights, for minority rights. We werenít even allowed off reservation in the fifties. People think we didnít have any rights off the reservations and the non-Indians around here thought that they still had rights to everything that we had on the reservation. The Dawes Allotment Act, the allotment act that allowed the city of Pendleton to have some of our reservation. Not the allotment act, but the federal piece of legislation for the eastern expansion of Pendleton. The federal legislation for the McKay Reservoir Act, the Dawes Allotment Act. Those are three federal pieces of legislation that took the richest farm land in the country away from us, and gave it to good white folk who know what to do with it Ďcause them Indians donít know what to do with it! So they came in and thatís why that [points to a map on the wall] map is checkerboard. Thatís why half the reservation was taken over and given to non-Indian people. Thatís why the water was sucked up in a dam at the McKay Reservoir for irrigation. Once the farmers got the land. And then once they got the land they farmed it and got the money from it and got the irrigation for it. Their communities grew and they wanted more land for Pendleton, for their stores, for their goals. So basically they encouraged into our land when they very, could have easily went the other way.

"But them damn Indians donít deserve that land. Us people should have that. We know what to do with it."

But itís getting late and thatís what I wanted to cover is something youíre not going to hear anybody else. And again for the record, this is the opinion of one man, one Umatilla tribal member. It is not the official position of my program, nor is the official position of the tribe. But these are the things that I have learned in working for the tribe, in working in cultural resource management.

[Interview ends]

Photo Archive * Documents Archive
Oral History Archive    
Bibliography & Web Resources