If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know much about the tribes whose villages once dotted Oregon’s South Coast. When you think “Indians,” you may imagine inhabitants of the Great Plains, bedecked in buckskin and war paint.
Local children soon may see a more authentic picture.
For the first time, local teachers will be equipped with lessons and materials about southwest Oregon’s own real-life Indians: People who rode canoes instead of ponies. People who made rain gear from cedar bark.
People whose descendants may live next door.
Senate Bill 13, adopted last year by the Oregon Legislature, calls for developing public-school curriculum about the Native American experience in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Education is working on statewide content, and money is budgeted for each of Oregon’s nine recognized tribes to create local supplements.
Bridgett Wheeler, culture and education director for the Coquille Indian Tribe, is excited by the prospect. Children often carry misperceptions that all Indians once lived in tepees and hunted buffalo, and that all tribal members should “look Indian.”
None of those things are true about the Coquille people. Wheeler, for instance, has freckles and auburn hair. Her sons are blond and blue-eyed. Their features reflect the Coquille people’s painful history.
Starting in the 18th century, European diseases devastated the indigenous population of Oregon’s South Coast. After miners and settlers began arriving in the 1850s, the government forced most of the surviving Indians onto a far-off reservation.
Just a handful of Coquille women who had white husbands were allowed to stay behind. A few other Coquilles eventually trickled back from the reservation, likewise intermarrying with whites. A century and a half later, these mixed-race families make up the Coquille Tribe.
“I look in the mirror and I see the history of my people,” Wheeler said. “My skin tells the story of survival. It’s the story of what an Indian woman did to save herself and her family.”
Wheeler is eager to share that story, because the heritage of local tribes is inseparable from the area’s overall history. The curriculum project recognizes that connection in its title: “Tribal History/Shared History.”
“For everybody that lives on this landscape – this is part of their history too,” Wheeler said.
Local tribes already partner with schools to provide one popular program, giving area fourth-graders a taste of Native culture and local history.
“People are truly interested in that story, and kids always want to hear it,” Wheeler said.
The Shared History project will go a big step further, putting educational materials from every Oregon tribe on a website for teachers to download. Nanette Hagen, superintendent of the Myrtle Point School District, thinks educators and students will welcome the new resources.
“Right now we’re trying to piece and parcel information together that actually may not be that accurate,” she said.
Hagen expects a few parents will object to highlighting the uglier chapters of local history. Some people will prefer to “put that in the past.” Overall, though, she predicts the Indian curriculum will be well-received, especially by the children.
“The younger the kids are, the more curious they are, and the more willing they are to be open-minded,” Hagen said.
Wheeler hopes the new curriculum’s impact eventually will reach far beyond the classroom. A generation from now, South Coast residents are likely to have a far more complete and balanced understanding of the area’s history.