COOS BAY — It’s a small group. Just five guys make up the representatives of the people who gave their collective name to local towns and colleges and bodies of water.
Those five: Josiah and Noah Niblett, Tristin Lemmons, Tandy Martin and Joey Ward are each members of various Native American tribes. The Niblett brothers and Ward are part of the Coquille Tribe, Lemmons is Lakota Sioux and Martin is Siletz.
Because of the harsh nature of the transition from indigenous peoples dominating the land to that of the white settlers, many tribe members are quite a bit removed from “full-blooded” claims.
The Nibletts’ great grandmother was half Coquille, meaning the brothers’ are even more diluted than that. But with the dwindling populations, the tribes still recognize those who are in those lines, allowing the traditions and ideas to live.
The Niblett brothers, at the urgency of their tribal worker mother, attend meetings on most Wednesdays for drum nights, taking part in traditional coastal Indian festivities, such as traditional dress and dances.
“We drum and dance and sing and stuff,” Josiah Niblett said.
At each solstice, two of the most important days of the year, meeting with the tribe is a requirement. It’s a commitment that one makes. Either you’re included and involved, or you’re not.
“I missed it once, ‘cause I had a basketball game,” Noah Niblett said. “That was an exception to my mom. She was gonna just say, ‘No,’ but I talked her into it. Other than that, though, you have to show up.”
“It’s only twice a year,” his brother Josiah added. “It’s a way to represent.”
Over time, tribes began to intermingle. Ward has some Blackfoot from his father, the Nibletts have some Sioux from their mother.
But they are able to experience their culture on the South Coast through the Coquille tribe. It’s a little harder for someone like Lemmons, whose middle name is Lone Eagle, to engage with his home culture, as the Lakota Sioux call the upper Midwest home.
As a small child, much of which he doesn’t remember, Lemmons lived on the Cheyenne River reservation in north-central South Dakota. He can only recall the openness of the rolling plains, the heat of the summer and biting cold of the winter.
Even so, Lemmons joins the Niblett brothers for cultural connections of his own.
“After Cheyenne River, I lived at the Coquille Indian Tribe,” Lemmons said. “(There was) praying, singing and dancing.”
“We all kind of do the same thing,” Noah Niblett said. “The songs might be different, but the songs and dances (are the same).”
“A lot of the things we do we got from more Midwestern tribes,” Josiah added.
The main difference, of course, is that of transportation. Whereas the coastal tribes moved around with canoes, the plains tribes rode horses. But the western drift of culture explains the similarities between seemingly isolated and distant groups across a vast continent.
But as Lemmons learns about the plight of the plains tribes, the history isn’t good. Lemmons has learned about things like the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Trail of Tears. His relatives tell stories, claiming to be relatives of the daughters the legendary chief Sitting Bull.
But there weren’t any ill feelings about the history endured by the native people. Instead, knowing history is important. To know where one came from, to know what those before you experienced and why things are the way they are now and why you still do these things passed down — some remembered, some long forgotten — is necessary.
“Most Native Americans believe in a Creator,” Noah Niblett said. “Everything happens for a reason. Even though we much rather wouldn’t have wanted the settlers to come over and take our lands and kill off a lot of our people, everything’s supposed to happen for a reason.”
Martin, who was born in Montana, only recently started to learn about his heritage from local family members.
“I wasn’t really around my culture (in Montana) as I am now,” Martin said. “I’ve just been learning about my culture through my cousins. Just learning about the Rogue River. I used to live in Agnes, so my cousin Victor Fry, he’s kinda told me quite a bit about what’s happened to the tribe, the wars, the Rogue River trail, what that means to people.”
Athletics is a big part of Native American life. Lacrosse, originally a sport played by the Iroquois in the northeast, has been a foundation of northeast indigenous life for centuries.
In other places in the country, basketball is king. Reservation schools in Montana follow the team around the giant state, forming caravans as the team makes its way from game to game.
As a purpose, athletics fills a cultural gap once necessary.
“I think sports are very important because they were all warriors,” Josiah Niblett said. “Nowadays you can’t really be a warrior, unless you’re playing football or a different sport. Especially with only the five tribal kids at Marshfield, I think it’s important that all of us play just to represent.”