There is a campfire glowing. It’s pitch dark but for the stars in the sky. A warm voice speaks: “Coyote went to sleep. He was snoring so loud, he could not hear the big monster coming up the river.” Coyote, the wise and rogue mythical figure of American Indian legends, weaves a creation story. “The monster was inhaling everything in its path. It was inhaling everything on the ground; it was inhaling everything in the river; it was even inhaling the animal people.” A coyote figure dances across the sky, lights flicker and the voice says, “Using his power, Coyote started a fire beneath the heart of the monster.”
When the story ends, the lights in the theater flip on to reveal that the campfire and the stars are not real, and the storyteller’s voice is just a recording — but our imaginations are ablaze.
This is my family’s first visit to Tamástslikt Cultural Institute (pronounced Tah-must-slickt) near Pendleton. We’ve driven through the same lands crossed by Lewis and Clark, waves of traders, 19th century Christian missionaries and Oregon Trail pioneers. But it wasn’t their land. These are lands that have belonged to the Columbia Plateau tribes for more than 10,000 years. I’ve brought my kids here to learn of these cultures, including the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla peoples.
I’ve read that this is the only interpretive center on the entire Oregon Trail to share a cultural history from the American Indians’ perspective. But I do not yet know that this museum is actually a time travel machine in disguise.
We pass through basalt columns marked with pictographs and enter a large, dimly lit exhibit space entitled “We Were.” At first, it sounds like there is a hush in the room, but my ear discerns birdcalls and the sounds of horses’ hooves.
I step into the “seasonal round,” where displays of baskets, bows and stone tools collectively impress me with a sense of abundance. Hunting, fishing and gathering have sustained tribal members through the cycle of the seasons and for thousands of years.
Our two school-aged kids are too busy to admire the skillful basketry and beadwork still practiced today. They beeline for the towering lodge constructed of a type of reed — called tule — formed into mats. My husband and I find them sitting on the benches on a faux dirt floor listening to the murmurings of a grandmother speaking in a native tongue. They could be her granddaughters, learning about the creator while grinding grain. This moveable home provides a sense of comfort, of place within a homeland that once extended 6.5 million acres.
All along one wall, there is a vivid mural of the Columbia River. While my family members charge ahead, I stand, entranced by the seeming three dimensionality of the painting rendered from the memories of a tribal elder. In the river there are islands, on the shore diverse grasses and sculptural shapes of the glacially carved rocks climbing above it. So, this is what the Columbia was like, I think, when it was wild with villages on the riverbank and ancient fishing grounds flooded with salmon.
I barely notice the wooden planks under my feet as I descend a ramp. Then, I hear speakers in a native language in conversation over the treaties, especially the Treaty of 1855, which severely diminished tribal lands but preserved Indian sovereignty. At the bottom of the ramp, I turn to find a schoolroom.
I look into the somber faces of American Indian school children in a photograph. The children are lined up in front of their Salem, Oregon boarding school. Their hair is cut short and they are in uniforms, and I wonder how foreign these desks, books and rules must’ve felt to them, so far away from home. As a bell clangs, I have the option of passing through two doors, one labeled “Protestant” and the other “Catholic” — symbolizing the same choices tribal people were given, with no option to continue practicing their own spirituality. I then turn my attention to replica of a clapboard church where parishioners sing hymns — ancient traditions challenged with these strange new beliefs.
As I pass through the modern-day exhibits of veterans continuing the warrior tradition and tribal governments adapting to contemporary challenges. A story of pride and hope overpowers the sense of loss. An elder in a video clip says, “Coyote is still here, still teaching. We have a lot more to learn. Listen.”
And then I come to the salmon display, the story of the tribes’ success in restoring the sacred fish to the rivers of the Columbia Plateau after 70 years. As the elders said, “If you do not take care of the land, then the land will not take care of you.”
We Will Be
I catch up with my family in a small theater showing videos of old and young tribal members describing their hopes for the future of a dynamic culture, this nation within a nation. There are quotations on the wall: “We live with nature and all things are connected” and “Know your language, know your religion, know your foods.”
Then, we slip out the door and circle back to the Coyote Theater, the journey complete — or continuous. The campfire still glows, the stars twinkle. The voice speaks again, concluding the coyote’s story: “Coyote used his power and the monster died. All the animals were saved. All the plants were saved. There was plenty of food for the people. We always give thanks to the Creator for the water, the land, and the animals. Welcome to the land of the Natitayt [the people].”
We are all transported. My family lingers in this space and the stories we’ve experienced here. We are in no rush to get back on the road.