One of my favorite things about the history/museum field is how incredibly awesome the people are. David Harrelson is one of them. I met David, who works for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, when I took my first-ever trip to Oregon to keynote the Oregon Heritage Conference. Like any good public historian/historic preservationist, his tour of the reservation and the work he was doing was interesting and insightful. More than that, was his passion and interest in the possibilities of his work inspired me. I hope it will do the same for you.
As you read David’s thoughts, consider what his work means to him as a public historian, but also as a Grand Ronde tribal member. As he says below, “The work that I do for my Tribe is about the persistence of our people. This is human rights work.”
Tell me about your background.
I am Kalapuya and a Grand Ronde tribal member from the Bean- Menard- Sengretta family. My ancestors are the people of the Willamette valley, the destination of the well-known Oregon Trail. I graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon where I studied History with a focus on the American West and the British Empire. I also hold a certificate in Cultural Resources with an emphasis on Archaeology through South Puget Sound Community College. During and after school I worked as a Wildland firefighter for eight seasons. Ten years ago I took a position in my Tribe’s Cultural Resources Department monitoring archaeological work.
What brought you to the world of history/history museums?
I came to the world of “history” through my own passion for the subject and into an applied profession of history through government consultation. I had an early opportunity in my career to intern in Washington, D.C. with an Oregon senator following college. This experience, along with my education prepared me for working with my Tribe doing government consultation.
Work in government consultation included review, research, and comment on projects throughout our Tribe’s approximately 14 million acres of homelands in western Oregon. I became our Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) and manager of Historic Preservation Office five years ago (in 2013).
Two years ago I became Cultural Resources department manager. This promotion resulted in gaining responsibility for Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center, including its development and construction as well as Cultural Education programs in addition to historic preservation. All together we have eighteen fulltime employees in our department.
Can you speak a little bit about the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, including the termination and later restoration of federal recognition?
The approximately 69,000 acre Grand Ronde Indian Reservation was established in 1857 by Executive Order in partial fulfillment of a number of treaties made with peoples of western Oregon, Northern California, and Southwest Washington. During removal and over the first winter at the reservation in 1856–57, 500 people died of disease, malnutrition, and exposure — nearly one-fifth of those the U.S. government removed to the reservation. Life on the reservation was difficult. For the first twenty years (approximately a generation) soldiers were stationed at Ft. Yamhill, positioned on the reservation border, to keep Indians on the reservation and settlers off. One of the ways people stayed alive was to get passes to leave the Reservation to do agricultural work on nearby farms in the Willamette Valley. The money earned from this work kept the people alive.
Through the ensuing years after establishment of the reservation, its acreage was diminished through federal programs and doctrine. One of the most known was the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act of 1887. The act established procedures and guidelines for the United States government to declare “surplus” land on previously established reservations. By the 1950s there were less than 500 acres in tribal ownership at Grand Ronde.
In the 1950s, prevailing sentiments of the early Cold War, including fear of those who could be identified as “the other,” took hold in America. Such sentiments contributed to the plan to terminate federal recognition of all Indian Tribes in the United States.
Fortunately for Indian people throughout the country, only the first of a three- phase plan was implemented. Grand Ronde was included in the first phase of termination. In 1956 the United States terminated recognition the Grand Ronde people, selling off any remaining land with one exception: the cemetery. This piece of land became a focal point of community pride, identity, and connection to place. In the 1970s, community members began efforts to pursue restoration. Public sentiment had become more favorable to Indian people following the civil rights movements across the United States in the 1960s and 70s.
In 1983, an Act of Congress restored tribal recognition. Since that time the Tribe has been rebuilding our nation. Today our membership includes over 5,000 people. We own and operate multiple businesses including Spirit Mountain Casino.
Talk about your work to share the history/heritage through your work as Cultural Resources Department Manager.
The work that I do for my Tribe is about the persistence of our people. This is human rights work. Our people have been identified as “the other” and marginalized within the greater society that has come to exist within our people’s homelands. Understanding and familiarity with our story is needed.
The work we do is based on creating understanding for our people and others to protect the living legacy of our ancestors.
You recently worked with the British Museum to bring a number of tribal artifacts home. Tell me a little bit about that process and what it means to the members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.
After nearly 20 years of interaction and work with the British Museum we have brought 16 belongings of our ancestor’s home to Grand Ronde. It took the concerted efforts of many people over the course of 18 months to ensure conditions of contracts, shipping, and space for display were met. These belongings are on loan for twelve months.
They were made by ancestors of our people that we can identify by name. We know where they lived and who their parents and children were. These belongings were collected on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in the 1870s by Reverend Robert Summers, an Episcopal priest who kept a detailed journal of his interactions and transactions with our ancestors. The exhibit Rise of the Collectors, of which these belongings are featured, is about reclaiming our ancestor’s belongings as living objects. They were selected from approximately 260 items acquired at Grand Ronde because of their ability to represent the diverse peoples removed to our reservation, for the desire of our artisans to recreate them, and in doing so keep cultural practices and an art form living.
The return of these belongings has been a homecoming. For the community, their presence grounds our people and practices in the past and reminds us of our ancestor’s efforts to persist, while also reassuring us as we move forward into the future.
What does it mean to you personally?
It is a relief that these objects have arrived and are fulfilling a purpose as living objects for our people. The doubt and worry of whether it was possible is gone.
What do you love most about your work?
Every day reveals something new or challenging that directly relates to the application of history, a passion of mine. In addition, the ability to propose and execute creative solutions to real world problems is satisfying. Yet most valued to me is the opportunity to work with equally impassioned people.
Collectively, we have planted seeds that today have germinated and are bearing fruit throughout the community and elsewhere in Indian Country.
Are there challenges you face at a tribal institution that your peers at non-tribal museums don’t?
Every Tribe operates in ways that fit their own needs and system of protocols and traditions. At Grand Ronde, for any challenge we face there are at least twice as many benefits to working for the tribal institution compared to a non-tribal one. I think people who have not worked in a tribal community before can find it surprising that your visitors, stakeholders, and staff are all related — if not the same people. In addition, everyone expects and deserves to be treated like shareholders or board members. It can feel like small town community work, however it is different because the work is more broadly applicable than the immediate locale. The Tribe’s involvement projects beyond the Reservation to the extent of the tribe’s approximately 14 million acres of homelands and beyond.
Decolonization is becoming a major topic of discussion in museum circles these days. What does it mean to you and why is it important?
For me as an indigenous person to believe there is a future for my people, there must be efforts to decolonize. The theory, rationalization, and justifications behind previous, as well as ongoing, acts of colonialism leave no place for our equal participation in the society that occupies our homelands.
Colonization is based on the debasement and marginalization of indigenous people. The imbalance is rooted in an “us vs. them” or “self vs. other” relationship. The result is a stage set for actions that separate people from place and marginalize some for the benefit of others. In doing this, those who are marginalized are thought to lack the capacity attributed to humanity.
By calling for and ensuring efforts exist to decolonize there becomes a place for us as equals, if only in our minds. We are a reminder to ourselves and others that we are not lost or relegated to the past; we are here now and have a future.
Why do you believe the study of history is important? Why are museums important?
Knowing who we are, where we come from, and what a place can mean has the ability to motivate, inspire, and calm those who may possess aspects of it. Good history and museums help us understand. With that understanding we have the opportunity to become more fulfilled and productive members of society. Museums provide a venue for conveying knowledge and understanding that can be received through text, visual, auditory, and experiential paths. The hope is to see informed understanding of the Tribe shared outward through its visitors.
Any final thoughts you want to share?
No matter where you live, you are on indigenous land. Seek out and know your area’s indigenous people.
Thanks, David, for sharing your thoughts with us!
A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.