: Courtesy of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde

Oregon Tribal Spotlight: Grand Ronde

October 22, 2021
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Editor’s note: Face coverings (ages 5 and up) are required at all indoor public spaces statewide, regardless of vaccination status. Learn more here. 

Resting in the foothills of Oregon’s rugged Coast Range near the banks of the South Yamhill River, the reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde comprises 11,500 acres and is home to some 5,400 Tribal members. The reservation’s Yamhill Valley location is just 60 miles west of downtown Portland, within easy reach of the Coast as well as many of Oregon’s most celebrated vineyards.

The Grand Ronde are the proud peoples of 30 Tribes and Bands from Western Oregon, including the Umpqua, the Rogue River, the Molalla, the Kalapuya and the Chasta Tribes. The Confederated Tribes were created when the United States government forced member Tribes to cede their ancestral lands and created the 60,000-acre Grand Ronde Reservation near Oregon’s Coast Range. 

In February 1857, federal troops forced Tribal members to march from a temporary reservation at Table Rock in Southern Oregon to the new reservation near the current home of the Grande Ronde peoples, more than 260 miles away. The Rogue River and Chasta Tribes were the first to be taken from their ancestral lands; other Tribes and Bands were forced to join along the way. The terrain was difficult and many died along the 33-day winter journey. Today it’s known as Oregon’s Trail of Tears. 

That was just the beginning of many more decades of injustice, followed by triumphs — all due to the resilience they’ve demonstrated as they thrive and continue to celebrate their culture today.

From Termination to Self-Sufficiency

Over the years, the Tribes’ original 60,000-acre reservation was slowly diminished. It was nearly cut in half, to 33,000 acres, under the General Allotment Act of 1887; in 1901 all but 7 acres were declared as “surplus” and sold off to private landowners. In 1954 the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act stripped the Tribe of its federal status, leaving the Grand Ronde people without a land to call their own — an untenable situation that led to a scattered population and extreme deprivation.  

Against difficult odds, the Grand Ronde people endured as a community, nourished by close family connections. In the early 1970s, they began working toward reestablishing federal recognition. By 1983 the Tribe’s goal was realized, as President Ronald Reagan signed the Grand Ronde Restoration Act into law. In 1988 the Tribe regained nearly 10,000 acres of the original reservation allotment in the Coast Range, north of the community of Grand Ronde. At this time, Tribal members faced severe social and economic needs resulting from generations of poverty and discrimination. But Tribal leaders were committed to becoming self-sufficient. 

Timber harvest from Tribal lands in the early 1990s helped meet the Grand Ronde people’s short-term needs and created the capital necessary for future economic development. This included Spirit Mountain Casino, one of Oregon’s nine Tribal-owned casinos. The Tribe has since acquired additional land and built a community center, a health center and a Tribal governance center, and launched education, health care, housing and other programs for Tribal members.

Celebrating Successes

Even while they’ve been removed from their historic homelands, the Grand Ronde community has maintained a connection to their ancestral environs. The recent Tribal reclamation of the Blue Heron Paper Mill at Willamette Falls in Oregon City underscores this commitment. 

Once the site of the Clowewalla and Kosh-huk-shix villages of the Clackamas people, the land was ceded to the U.S. government in 1856. Historically, many Chinookan peoples would gather at Willamette Falls (or “Tumwata,” Chinook jargon for waterfall) to harvest lamprey and salmon. Tribal authorities plan to transform the old mill into a community center with a restaurant and space for Tribal members to conduct ceremonies. 

Here’s a guide to more Tribal successes — and how to support the Grand Ronde Tribe and its many enterprises throughout Oregon. 

Find world-class gaming and entertainment, an RV park, camping facilities and a 254-room hotel decorated with Tribal motifs at Spirit Mountain Casino.

Spirit Mountain Casino

Spirit Mountain Casino, near the heart of the Grand Ronde Reservation, is one of Oregon’s most popular Tribe-owned attractions, with entertainment options for the whole family. It’s home to extensive gaming opportunities, including more than 2,000 slots as well as keno, blackjack and poker. Visitors can find an RV park, camping facilities and a 254-room hotel decorated with Tribal motifs. Enjoy a meal at Spirit Mountain’s four restaurants, ranging from fine dining at Legends Restaurant to brats and burgers at Mountain View Sports Bar. Spirit Mountain is a great place for entertainment by renowned acts like Jay Leno, Cheech & Chong and Patti LaBelle.

Take a self-guided or staff-led tour of the exhibits and art at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center.

Chachalu Museum

The Yamhill Kalapuya people called this area “Chachalu,” which translates to “place of the burnt timbers”; a forest fire swept through the region in 1856, shortly before the reservation was established. Today the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde shares the story of how both the land and Tribe have been revitalized. Self-guided and staff-guided tours of the museum by Tribal members take visitors through galleries and artifacts of ceremonial items that are still used in rituals today. Visitors can try out the in-museum smartphone app, which features a selection of quizzes, games, songs and stories that expose visitors to the Chinuk Wawa language.

Campground and Trails

If you prefer roughing it, the Tribe maintains Big Buck Campground for about a dozen tents and RVs in Grand Ronde, along Agency Creek. A number of maintained hiking trails radiate out from Big Buck; more hiking trails are being developed along Yoncalla, Burton and Coast creeks. An interpretive trail at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area highlights 19th-century life in Yamhill Valley, from both Tribal and U.S. soldiers’ perspectives.

West Valley Veterans’ Memorial

Veterans and nonveterans alike will want to take a few moments to visit the West Valley Veterans Memorial, just off the Three Rivers Highway (Oregon Route 18). The memorial features a man and a woman dressed in traditional Native American clothing side-by-side, flanked by four granite pillars — one for each branch of the armed services. Each pillar is etched with the names of more than 2,000 Tribal members and non-Tribal residents who’ve given their lives in conflicts since World War I.

Rodeos and Powwows

The Grand Ronde Tribes host a number of public events that offer insight into Native traditions and modern Tribal life. At the Spirit Mountain Rodeo, held the second weekend in June, Native and non-Native riders compete for prizes. Early July marks the Veterans Powwow, which honors both Tribal and non-Tribal veterans. The gathering, held on the Uyxat Powwow Grounds in nearby Willamina, assembles people from many different walks of life — non-Tribal vets astride Harley-Davidson motorcycles enter the grounds next to Tribal members in full regalia — united in their service to the United States.

The biggest celebration on the Grand Ronde calendar is the Contest Powwow, typically held the third week in August; it’s the largest powwow in the western U.S. The powwow begins on Friday evening, when Tribal members serve all visitors a grand communal salmon dinner, part of the Pacific Northwest tradition of potlatch (a Chinook word for “gift” or “to give away”). Through the weekend, Native dancers from across North America compete for prizes in many categories, including several styles of Native dancing. Tribal food and crafts are available from attending vendors.

About The
Author

Chris Santella
Chris Santella is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Portland. He is the author of 23 books, including the "Fifty Places" series from Abrams Books. The most recent title in the series is Fifty Places To Practice Yoga Before You Die. Santella is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post and Trout. When he’s not writing or fly fishing, he plays guitar and sings in Catch & Release.

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