Interview with Lauralee Svendsgaard and Jesse Beers
The Yachats Gazette met with Lauralee (former Yachats resident) and Jesse (Culture Director of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw) to discuss the annual Yachats Peace Hike. This will take place on Tuesday, January 1, 2019.
TYG: [to Lauralee] So, I understand you're one of the main people behind the project. Did you start it, or did you join it when it was already going?
Lauralee: I started it, and it came about as a result of the dedication of the Amanda Trail several years ago. It was, in very many ways, an important time for us in Yachats. At the end of the dedication, [we thought] people were going to be heading to the Commons for the potluck that we'd planned and promoted, [but] we learned that the Elders with the Confederated Tribes had brought a wreath, and they wanted an appropriate place to place that wreath. We realized that we could get them close enough to the Amanda statue that they could place the wreath there. Unbeknownst to us, there were so many people touched by their experience at the dedication that instead of going to the Commons, they hiked to the statue in the Amanda grotto. So when Joanne Kittel and I and the Elders arrived there, we found that at least 50 other people had already come to that space. Doc Slyter, the tribal flutist, was playing his flute in the grotto there, and Joanne and I gathered on the bridge. It was a miracle that in its decrepit state—even though we were assured that it was in good condition—that with so many people on that bridge, it didn't come down. But it was standing [between] Joanne and Caroline (Doc Slyter's mother, who just recently passed away)... She asked Doc if he'd play Amazing Grace. And with that, there were no dry eyes in that area. And standing where I was, I realized that it didn't matter what your heritage was. We had all come there with deep remorse for what had happened, and with that, the seeds of an opportunity—because this was the first time, officially, that the Tribe had been back to Yachats in 150 years, that it also signified the hope that we need to give strength to, that we could all recognize the wrongs of the past, and make a commitment to be strong in doing better in the future. What happened to the Native Americans in that area was happening to them all over the nation, and that that kind of treatment of other people has not stopped in the US and throughout the world. That's where I realized: we need to commemorate this moment and this feeling and bring ourselves back to a rememberance every year. I had some experience with New Year's Day hikes, and thought that that would be a wonderful way to start the new year, especially in Yachats. [To Jesse] So I wonder what your recollection of that day is?
Jesse: Well, my memory is not very good, but I will say though that the Tribes had actually been placing wreaths, not at the Amanda Trail, but annually when I was younger. They would go over kind of just in the brush, over next to the Alsea River, and just drop a wreath there. It wasn't ever a positive thing though like it is today; but for a number of years, after some folks passed on that kind of stuff happening. Then this happened, and I think that's why some folks brought a wreath, because other tribal members that are no longer with us used to do that. So like Lauralee said, it just kind of evolved into something that it was probably always meant to be, unbeknownst to everyone who was trying to plan things. [laughs] Ever since then, the community of Yachats, like Doc Slyter says: there's something either in the water here, or there's something not in the water here, because of the amount that the community just goes out of their way to try to, if you want, right the wrong, or heal that hurt, or however you want to word it—to educate the public on what happened here and assist tribal membership in coming back and healing for that. It used to be something where my wife used to make fun of me, because there are a lot of nice-looking places in Yachats, and she's always like, "Let's pull over here!" or whatever, because her folks live up in McMinnville. And I always avoided it like the plague. Because it's like, Great-grandma said this: "You don't stop here, lots of bad stuff happened—just drive through."
TYG: McMinnville, or Yachats?
Jesse: Oh, sorry, Yachats. So after all this, though, it's somewhere that not only do I feel comfortable, and other tribal members, other elders feel comfortable coming, but it's actually somewhere where we come on non-work days! [laughs] Or people like to come up for something casual, like this, or whatever.
Lauralee: So Allen, do you know the Amanda story?
TYG: I know the basics, but you should probably recount it for those who don't.
Jesse: I will share a story too: Our chief now, but years ago Chief Warren Brainard stopped by the little library that was here, and he asked for some books on the Native people that were held here. They told him that there were no Native people here at any time! [laughs] He's like, "Well, I beg to differ..." So that tells you how far the community has really come in such a short span of time.
So the Amanda story is just one of many [other] stories that didn't get written down. The lucky part about Amanda's story is that it was written down by one of the soldiers that was marching with the people up here. The whole story is a long story. [sighs] But the basic story of the Amanda part is that at the time, people were escaping from here, from the reservation, because it was not federally-funded by treaty or anything. People [who lived here] were passing at a high rate—over 50% of the people living here were starving to death and dying of disease. So many people would leave, or try to leave. And regiments would be sent after them in the Coos Bay area to go round them up and bring them back up north. At that time there were also people who were kind of hold-outs in different areas, hiding from the government, trying not to lose their lands. Amanda was one of those people. At the time, if a White man would marry a Native woman, they wouldn't have to go up the reservation. But for some reason, her partner, who she had a child with, wouldn't marry her. So she was taken from her daughter at the time and marched up here. She was described as being blind; we don't know if that meant legally blind or blind-blind—we don't know the exact medical diagnosis of that. But she was described as being blind; and over pretty ragged rocks, once you get up North of Florence, over Heceta Head and all that good stuff, over the ragged rocks she tore her feet pretty badly, and the soldiers described her as being able to be easily tracked from the amount of blood she was leaving behind. She did make it up to the reservation because she was in the rolls here, but past that we really don't know what happened to her. The statue of Amanda in the grotto there represent[s] not only her, but also all the other people that passed during that time, or had to make that march—there were hundreds of people that had to make that march. The Reservation was here from 1859 to 1876. It was much bigger, at one point. In 1859, when [the Coast reservation] was originally created by executive order, it was from 10 miles north of the Umpqua River and then clear up to Yaquina Head, and then east to the coastal mountain range. It was a huge area of land by modern standards and was called the Great Coast Reservation. In 1865, it was split into half because people from Corvallis wanted an outlet railroad into the new port, so that southern part became Alsea Sub-agency, and housed the Alsea, the Lower Umpqua, the Coos people, and the Siuslaw on the southern end—we're still kind of within our ancestral lands. Then they created the Siletz reservation to the north, which we still know of—it's just a lot smaller now. Then in 1875 it was decided that the Tribes weren't utilizing their lands here and the populations had gotten much smaller for some reason. [laughs sadly] So at that point the United States government decided they wanted to close the Alsea Sub-agency, but in the law it said they had to get all 19 headmen to sign off on the closure of that Alsea Sub-agency reservation being here at Yachats and the surrounding area. Not one of them actually conceded to that. In the minutes it notes that they all say no, and it's pretty inspiring to read their words, because for a lot of them, English wasn't their first language and a lot of them were translated; but just their thoughtful words are pretty powerful. But it was told to DC that they did in fact approve the closure of their reservation, and so it was shut down in 1876. From there the people were told that they needed to go up to Siletz, and some did. Actually, we're meeting with one of our cousins from up there, a Siuslaw tribal member that's up in the Siletz reservation. But many didn't—they traveled back south to their homelands to find out that other people were living there, because a good place to live is a good place to live. And all the villages were gone and burnt down, so they became kind of refugees in their own land, landless people in their own land. So a lot of people took up residence on the north fork of the Siuslaw; Ka'aich is the name of the village site that used to be there. It became kind of a Native farm community, and was actually called Indian Town by the residents of Florence because there were so many Natives there, and there was a big dance house there (until that was burned down). A lot of [the refugees] did take up residence with the people of the Coos, and a lot of them also went down to the South Slough and Coos Bay area and kind of just eked by as much as possible. Then we get into more modern history, with our government actually forming in 1919, Termination 54, where Native people were told they weren't Native people anymore, and then our restoration in 1984. And there are the boarding schools, there's all kinds of good fun stuff during that time also. But the Amanda Trail really comes from that reservation period from the 1850's through 1875. Long story short. [pained laugh]
Lauralee: But it's important, I think. And it's why it's so important to me that the New Year's Day Peace Hike continue, because it brings that close to home. And for those who join us, it gives an opportunity for us to commemorate an important time, but also to recognize that we have a responsibility to do better. It doesn't matter who you are or what your heritage is: we all know that what was done was wrong. But we need the strength of conviction in those little and big times, when you have to stand for the integrity that is you. Last year, I started introducing, as part of the set-up before we go down into the ravine where the ceremony takes place, don't just be thinking about how good peace is—peace marches, and the peace sign, and the fun kind of kitschy things. Think in terms of what it felt to be a young man your age [to the Publisher] and torn away from all that you had known; not be allowed to use your language; not be allowed to use your customs, your ways of life; to be forced into an area that you don't know and be told to farm there. They were expected to farm on the coast. And to ask mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters: put yourself in the place of those people, a hundred and fifty years ago, and imagine what it's like. You can understand, with it still happening other places in the world, it becomes a more serious cause, and not something that's just the fun, psychedelic, bright colors. It's something that we really need to commit ourselves to, and be stronger in voicing our opposition, whether it's to bullying, or derogatory names being used. There are all kinds of levels—keep your integrity. Just think about what your integrity is, and from this day forth, from New Year's Day through the rest of the year, commit yourself to live each day with integrity.
Jesse: For us, it's really a remembrance about being thankful for the people that did survive, because while over half the people passed, not everybody did, and a lot of people who survived those really bad reservation years and travelled back home were the most important informants for the culture that we live today. There were people that travelled up here when they were Jaida's age [Jaida is Jesse's daughter and was in the room for the interview]—seven, eight years old—and marching up here. When they were kicked off here, some had families and some didn't have families anymore; and when they came back home they were older people, and they were able to share what they witnessed as a really young person: what their elders were doing, and language, and village sites, and all these different things. And that really built the base for our government that we know today, our Tribal government; that really built the base for our language programs—all those survivors. Because not too many people were able to stay behind and not be found. Down there—it used to be called Squaw Island, it's called Qochyax Island now, kind of off the Gregory Point area, Qochyax means Women's and Children's Island. There was a cave on the back side of that that they used to hide in with the small babies, because the sound of the ocean would actually muffle the cries of the babies so that the soldiers wouldn't be able to hear [them]. So, there were people that were able to hold out, and there were people also that married in, like my family actually was one of the ones that decided to marry their native counterpart, and so that's where my line comes from. They didn't have to go to the reservation, although they were inside it. They did also participate in some of the negotiations afterwards.
TYG-Graphic Designer: Can you also remind us who built the statue?
Jesse: [to Lauralee] You know more about that than I do.
Lauralee: It's a local artist, Sy Meadow—he lives just near Angell Job Corps. He's a cement artist, but also has other mediums. [NB: From a post to the Facebook Yachats Community on May 4, 2016 by Joanne Kittel: "Originally commissioned by Joan Wikler and Beth Cook, Sy Meadow created two for Joan and Beth. Sy created a third one and gave the statue to his friend, George Copage. In 2003, George donated his statue to the Amanda Trail. Beth and Joan have generously and graciously donated one of theirs to the Trail" after the landslide buried the first statue.] [...] So, depending on your perception, there's another Amanda there. In my mind, I keep thinking that Amanda got tired, and decided to pass her task on, and that it's Julia that's there now.
TYG-GD: Who's Julia?
Jesse: [Amanda's] daughter.
Lauralee: That's her daughter that she had to leave behind. It's the child's spirit that is now there and guiding us. But that's my own [feeling].
Jesse: A lot of people were really upset when the landslide came through [in December 2015] and destroyed all that. I tried to console a few people by telling them about [...] a traditional ceremony. A lot of people give gifts to Amanda, but a lot of people give a lot of weight to Amanda, also. They really kind of unload sometimes, down there at the grotto. So we have a ceremony where you take grandfather rock, because he's a lot older than us, he's a lot stronger than us. This can be done with a rock, but usually it's on a big, large stone or something like that. It's a place where you kind of do that, where you unload your weight and discuss and talk, and sometimes tears come with that. Water is healing, and usually it's in a place where the water will rise over that rock and wash the rock. Then it's healed and ready for the next year of unloading. We do that with our youth at camps, but with hand-held rocks where we do a circle, then wash the rock down at the creek or in the ocean or wherever we are. So the thought being that she was Grandmother Rock in this case, and she had had enough, so the earth was taking her down to the water to be washed. So that's another way to look at it. People get through it by thinking about it in whatever way makes sense to them. But there are definite hold-outs, who say that we'll still find her. If we do, yay, but if not, there are other ways to cope.
TYG-GD: It's amazing that there were replicas to be had!
Lauralee: Yes, and they're all a little different. They're not perfect replicas, which is nice. [...]
TYG-GD: How do you see this moving forward in the future?
Jesse: I see it probably just continuing the way it is... It's a great way to start out the year, for sure. For a lot of people it probably keeps you a little healthier on New Year's Eve because you have to get up early and do something [laughter], and then also on the first it's just a great way to start out your year, whether it be healing for you, or sometimes kind of sad, or whatever you take from it or bring to it, it's a good way to kind of set your pace for the year. So I really enjoy it. We do also have separate—just Tribal—hikes that we take on the Amanda Trail with our camps, with our youth, with adults and stuff. Some of us during those choose to do it barefoot, to feel a hint of what she felt. Because [the trail] is very nice, now—it's dirt, and a path, and all that stuff.
TYG: It's not the best up at the top.
Jesse: Well, yes. There are places on the original trail that were known for losing horses and stuff. We didn't have horses here, traditionally. They didn't make it over this far because they're just not that usable on the Oregon Coast. The foot trails were pretty gnarly, and some places just weren't traveled. You would travel around these places with canoes, not travel by foot on these places.
TYG-GD: Like Heceta Head, right?
Jesse: Yes. There are just grooves carved out of stone where people would put their feet, and sometimes [the government soldiers] lost people. They didn't really care a whole lot at the time if they made it or not. So it was pretty gnarly back in the day. So some of us try to do that [barefoot], just to try and feel some of that [pain].
So Lauralee's moving away. She's the one that started it, but the community of Yachats is a strong Community, and I'm sure it will continue in the future. And now we're involved also, the Tribes are involved; Doc Slyter, Tribal member, council member now, really wants to keep it going as well. There are many other tribal members, including myself, who want to keep it going.
Lauralee: And I have thought about that question just the last several months. We're now living in Medford, and I'm involved in a lot of projects, doing a lot of trail things. But in my mind, this is the most important thing I do. There isn't anything that touches as deeply a connection to people and to setting the tone for the year as this. [...] I'm committed to continuing this as long as I possibly can. We had our first (and only) planning meeting two or three weeks ago now. Usually I get six people coming and I feel that okay, we're good, it's a good start—because I know a lot of other people are interested; they're just wanting marching orders. But this last meeting, we had over twenty people come. To me, that was really inspiring. So I've been thinking, "What's the next phase?" Because we're limited in space here, and I don't want this to become a superficial, kind of token [event]. It has to be small enough to have the meaning. But I know we get people coming from all over for this hike, and it occurs to me that there are a number of other communities throughout Oregon that sincerely want to make the effort to begin building the bridges and joining together in hopes of reconciliation and commemorating. I think it's important that we recognize the atrocities, but commit [ourselves] to doing better. It's occurring to me to talk to people in other communities and their Tribes, and see about getting more New Year's Day hikes taking place throughout Oregon. I think we're ready for it. [...] I feel strongly that [White] folks that came during the settlement period and after—I feel that a lot of them, and in particular the younger generations, recognize that there are some things that need to be atoned for. We need to be showing some stronger respect and stronger support for what Tribal people are struggling to achieve, whatever that is for them. [...] We want this [Peace Hike] be a recognition, but also we want to walk away from this feeling that we have done something, on this first day of the year, that has touched our hearts in a warming way, in a positive way, in order to commit us to take each step in the next year with peace in our heart and the strength to fight for that.
Jesse: Yes, that's a great point. People are coming to this from all over the place; a lot of people from Eugene, especially. [Other hikes are] interesting to think about. There were Kalapuya people that were there [in Eugene], and they were driven to the Grande Ronde. So there could be something happening over that way too. This is three tribes here on the coast: this is their march, their hike; talking about their history. But where is Indian Country? It's the Americas, right? This kind of thing happened all over the United States, Canada, South America—it's still happening in South Central America and in the southern area of the United States today. So that's a good point, and something to bring up.
Lauralee: So what were you wanting for this article?
TYG: This kind of important discussion and history: this is exactly what we wanted.
Lauralee: Let me make certain that we do share with you that there will be a Peace Hike this New Year's Day, barring inclement weather. Everybody who does the hike needs to check in at the Commons Kitchen: we'll be running check-in from 9:15 am to 10:15 am. From 9:30 am until 10:00 am, at the Little Log Church, Doc Slyter and Jesse will be telling the Amanda story, and immediately after that the candlelight vigil will start in the Little Log Church. Not everybody can or wants to hike on a cold, freezing New Year's Day morning, but the Little Log Church will be open. We create an altar to Amanda there, and people are invited to come between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm to light a candle and meditate for peace on their own. At about 12:30 pm, Doc Slyter and some of the other Tribal musicians will be at the Church for the last half hour for some music. At 11:15 am, in Joanne Kittel's driveway, is where the peace ceremony begins. [The driveway is located at 1356 Highway 101 south. No parking will be allowed at the end of the driveway that morning and early afternoon of the Peace Hike.] Wake and Kinlen Wheeler guide that ceremony; they're locals from Yachats. Then once we are in our place of peace, all of us walk in silence down to the grotto, and that's where the fire ceremony takes place. When you check in at the Kitchen, one of the things you're given is a sprig of cedar, and you carry that with you [on the hike]. You're putting your hopes and prayers for peace in that sprig, and when you come down to the grotto there's a fire, and you put your sprig in the fire. That smoke then goes up into the universe, and circulates around the planet; the thinking being that your hopes will spread around the Earth. [...] Everything is planned to end at 1 o'clock. The hike will be cancelled if there are heavy rains, or winds exceeding 25 miles per hour predicted for New Year's Day. [...]
TYG: Thank you so much for your time!
NB: Some useful links:
OregonHikers.org: Amanda's Trail Hike
YachatsOregon.org: The Amanda Trail Story
Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siletz
TrailKeepersOfOregon: Amanda's Trail
Amanda’s Trail and the Forced Relocation of Oregon Peoples by John Sparks, March 14 2018