BANDON - More than 400 Coquille Tribe members came home Saturday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the restoration of their tribe with drumming, dancing, sharing food with friends and gifting in the potlatch tradition.
"Celebrating this event is a very special occasion for the Coquille Tribe, on this land that Coquille people have walked on since time began," said Tribal Chairperson Brenda Meade to guests in a tent set up near ancestral burial grounds and former villages adjacent to the waterfront in Bandon's Old Town.
"It was important to the Coquille Tribal Council and our elders to make this time an important event to bring our tribal members home here today to celebrate," Meade added. "I'm so happy in my heart to see so many of them here."
The Coquille Tribe was one of 61 Oregon tribes officially terminated in 1954 when the Western Oregon Termination Act was enacted. Though the tribe suffered many hardships over the years since non-native settlers came to the area in 1826, including having their villages burned and being relocated to reservations, Meade described the Termination Act as the "worst thing that happened to the Coquille people."
In 1855 the tribe signed treaties with the U.S. government, giving over their land in exchange for promised benefits, but Congress never ratified the treaty. In 1856, the U.S. government transported the Coquille and other coastal Natives to reservations.
"With the best interests of the Coquille people in mind, Indian people were being gathered up and taken to the reservations," Meade said. "That was not so long ago. Since then, very effective assimilation programs, relocation programs and disease have decimated the people here."
"But the Coquille people are still here," she said.
The Termination Act, however, was the final blow. It declared that the tribes were no longer Indian, were no longer a people or recognized caretakers of the land.
"That day was not a good day," Meade said. "For us, 1954 was not so long ago."
Tribal elders fought for many years, sending members to Washington DC to lobby for their cause. They finally regained federally recognized status on June 28, 1989.
That called for a celebration. Coquille Tribe Chief Don Ivy remembers the day well. His mother called him where he was living in Portland.
"She said, 'We were just restored and you're cooking fish," Ivy said, pointing to the area across the street where the first pow wow and salmon potlatch was held after the Tribe's restoration.
Ivy recalls wrapping salmon in foil and burying it in the hot coals of the fire pit all day.
Each year, the Tribe returns with canoes to the Coquille River near Bullards to ceremoniously cook fish, share food and return the bones to the water.
Since being restored, the Coquille Tribe has become a strong element of Coos County’s economy and civic life. Its various enterprises, including The Mill Casino-Hotel & RV Park, make the tribe the area’s second-largest employer. The Coquille Tribal Community Fund is a leading source of charitable grants for local organizations and the tribe is active in many community projects.
"The who we were 30 years ago is not who we are today," Ivy said. "But for 30 years we haven't disengaged from this community. Today the tribe is successful and our success contributes to the success of the community."
Tribal members aren't rich and don't receive payouts from casino profits, Meade said. The Tribe focuses on education for its youth, healthcare for it people and assistance and respect for its elders, a time-honored tradition.
Meade is a fifth generation descendant of Old Whiskers from the Nasomah village complex on the Coquille River. He was a headman and a treaty signer who was marched to the reservation along with his children and many other Coquille people. He later returned to his homelands on the Coquille River. He and the others who returned are the reason the Tribe continues to gather on their ancestral homelands today.
Now, there are approximately 1,100 Coquille Tribe members with 70 percent of them living in Coos, Curry, Douglas, Lane and Jackson counties.
"This land holds so much history for the people today," Meade said. "Relocation caused a break in the family. If you take away the child, language and the cultural identity, you can get them to go away. But what they didn't know is that some of them would run away to come home."
"Today is really about remembering history, being stewards of the land and partnering with those doing good in the community," she added. "Our people are still scattered, but it's events like these that bring us home."