Keeping a Native Language and Culture Alive

Indigenous educator shares cultural traditions through language and art in Warm Springs.
Wahoo Films, Videographer,  Photographer
May 17, 2024
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Raised by his grandparents on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Jefferson Greene heard the melody of his ancestral language in the ceremonies his grandparents hosted in the traditional longhouse outside of their home. For them, and many Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs tribal elders in their generation, English is a second language. They grew up speaking Ichishkíin, one of the languages of the original inhabitants of the Columbia River Plateau. 

Today he helps revive the language — as well as a number of cultural arts — for the next generation as the executive director of the Columbia River Institute for Indigenous Development, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving, sharing and advancing Columbia River customs and language for tribal communities. The organization maintains the largest Ichishkíin language database and continues to reach elders and speakers of the Ichishkíin language. 

It’s easy to witness Greene’s efforts to keep his culture flourishing. On your next trip to Central Oregon, visit a tribal museum or casino resort, take a Native-guided fishing trip and taste traditional dishes at family-run restaurants. Here’s where to start, and be inspired by the journey of one local artist.

Making it Cool to Learn Culture

When Greene graduated from Portland State University and moved back home, he knew he wanted to give back. He felt that since there are many religions on the Warm Springs Reservation now, he didn’t want to push the traditional culture he learned from his grandparents on other people. He found he didn’t have to. People in the community came to him to share and hold knowledge — and the tribe supported him. He learned to bead and make drums and helped revive cultural traditions like the Warm Springs canoe family, N’chi Wanapum. He started teaching cultural programs for tribal youth to give what he had learned to the next generation, and eventually those lessons took root. 

“The kids started making it cool to know culture,” Greene says. “They started taking it to their schools, and then really started to blossom and sing loud and confident and proud.” 

The elders in the community were happy to see the work and hear the kids sing, Greene says, but they also nudged his work further along. “In an encouraging way, they would remind us that we didn’t know the language, and we might find some enlightenment if we learned some more of it.” 

And so Greene did. For three years, he narrowed his life down to the study of the Indigenous Central Oregon dialect of Ichishkíin. Teasing apart the nuances of a language spoken only by a few tribal elders was grueling and required respect and care for the aging native speakers. But as he spoke more Ichishkíin during ceremonies, community appreciation grew. 

“Elders would say, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to be talking in a foreign language, because it’s just so different,’” Greene says. “The plants and animals and seasons, none of them speak English.” 

Visitors to the reservation can experience some of this vibrant living culture in Warm Springs. Greene explains the deeper significance of many publicly accessible places in which his culture thrives. 

Museum at Warm Springs

Engage With Past and Present at the Museum at Warm Springs

Any stop in Warm Springs should include the wonderful Museum at Warm Springs, one of Oregon’s finest repositories of cultural artifacts. It’s one of the largest collections of any Indigenous museum and also has more than 5,000 archival photographs. Built with the basalt rock that is emblematic of the Columbia Plateau, the museum is modeled on traditional dwellings like the cedar plank house. Warm Springs tribal members lead the museum. 

“There is so much meaning and significance in the architecture,” Greene says. His grandmother and sisters helped bless the ground before construction began in the 1990s. Even the parking lot has intention — it’s filled with natural materials that were used by Columbia Plateau people for survival, like cottonwood trees, cattails and the tule reeds Greene builds canoes with. As you enter, listen for the drumbeat that represents the heartbeat of the land. The waterfall near the entrance represents Celilo Falls, an important cultural site for many Indigenous peoples of the Columbia Plateau. 

The museum offers visitors a chance to engage with Indigenous culture at events — including demonstrations of arts, history and culture by Warm Springs tribal members. Year-round, you can find locally made beadwork and art for sale at the gift shop.

Experience Outdoor Adventures on Reservation Lands

According to Greene, Indian Park should be the first place to visit outdoors on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The Deschutes River twists through high cliffs of columnar basalt near this spectacular desert campground, which is open to non-tribal members from April through October. At the right time of year, Greene says, the cliffs shine with waterfalls. Day users can enjoy the boating area and swim beach. Anglers, bring your poles, because the river in that area is brimming with trout, kokanee, smallmouth bass and northern pikeminnow — just be sure to get a tribal fishing permit first.

For a guided experience fly-fishing on the Warm Springs Reservation side of the Deschutes, book a trip with tribal members Alysia and Elke Littleleaf of Littleleaf Guides.

Another camping option along the Deschutes is the Dry Creek Campground, which offers premier birding — including frequent visits from uncommon birds — as well as fishing without the crowds at other spots on the Deschutes. When the midsummer heat sets in, head to the Warm Springs high country and camp at Trout Lake, where miles of hiking trails wind through high Cascades pine forest and the trout bite at five different lakes. 

Mural in Warm Springs painted by Jefferson Greene (Photo courtesy of Visit Central Oregon)

Must-See Cultural Attractions and Stay at a Historic Resort

For your fill of table games, slot machines, fun events and concerts, head to Indian Head Casino. The historic Kah-Nee-Ta resort — fully restored and scheduled to open in fall 2024 — will offer all kinds of family fun. Check the website for updates on the opening date. Visitors will be able to sleep in a tipi or a hotel suite, soak in a number of geothermal mineral hot springs, hike and bike on nearby trails, play on the sport courts, and float the Warm Springs River with a resort shuttle. There’s also a Wellness Polar Bear Plunge — if minus-37 degrees is more your thing. 

The best under-the-radar spot to visit, Greene says, is the Warm Springs Market. It’s a grocery and hardware store that also has a small museum in the back, including an impressive collection of basketry, beadwork, artifacts and historical photographs. An exhibit tells the story of the market’s longtime owners, the Macy family, and times when their customers would barter for tools and supplies before paper money was common. 

Some other local classics are the Twisted Teepee food truck, owned and staffed by a tribal nonprofit group that trains the local workforce and fries up delicious twists on traditional Indian fry bread. There’s also the venerable Eagle Crossing restaurant, known for its huckleberry pie, breakfasts, and specialties like elk burgers and fry-bread tacos. For coffee and smoothies, swing by Painted Pony Espresso, where you can also buy art and apparel made by local Warm Springs artists. 

On your way there, keep an eye out for the many murals across town. Each of them were made by a local Warm Springs artist, and each tells a different story of local culture and history — one of them on Paiute Avenue called “Shúkwat” was painted by Greene and tells his story. 

About The
Author

Riley Rice
Riley Rice is a multimedia storyteller from Southern Oregon's Umpqua Valley and a member of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians. He is interested in Oregon's Indigenous history, rural culture and ample outdoor opportunities. He's an expedition climber, avid backcountry splitboarder and casual mountain biker. When he's not working on a story, he teaches mountaineering at a wilderness school.

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