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Legislation may finally let two tribes based in Oregon do traditional food gathering on their lands

 People digging in field.
Brian Bull
A group of people comprised largely of Native Americans recently dug for camas bulbs in a field on the outskirts of Eugene. The event coordinator was a Siletz tribal member whose people are currently not allowed to gather, fish, or hunt on their ancestral lands up north due to a consent decree signed over four decades ago.

In a tall, grassy field in West Eugene recently, a small group of Native Americans dug for a traditional food: camas bulbs.

In the setting sunlight as traffic passed by in the distance, there were moments of discovery…and also of regret.

 Camas bulbs held in palm of hand.
Brian Bull
A participant of the camas dig showed off several bulbs he unearthed in a field. The bulbs ranged from pea-sized to nearly the diameter of a golf ball. Many regional Native American tribes used camas for food.

“There they are,” said Joe Scott, examining a shovel load of dirt. Small bulbs protruded from a mass of reeds and roots.

“I think I cut mine in half, unfortunately,” said one woman, gingerly holding a split bulb.

“A casualty,” Scott responded.

Scott is a Siletz tribal member, who directs the Traditional Ecological Inquiry Program for the Long Tom Watershed Council. He told KLCC that he enjoys educating people about Indigenous practices, including the gathering and preparation of camas, which is often baked in an earthen oven and pounded into cakes. And he said this particular patch is beautiful, and filled him with good feelings.

“At the same time, we’re by a highway, it’s next to a development, the surroundings are a little industrial," he observed. "Frankly, it’s property that was slated for development and hasn’t happened yet.”

Which means this field could soon be dug up and made into apartments.

One might ask why Scott just can’t go dig up camas bulbs on Siletz ancestral lands up north.

Turns out, he can’t. That's thanks to an agreement his tribe signed with the state of Oregon more than 40 years ago.

The CTSI and CTGR share a burden

Of more than 570 federally-recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., two currently lack the right to hunt, gather, and fish on their ancestral lands. And both are located inside Oregon’s boundaries.

Indigenous digging utensil.
Brian Bull
Joe Scott presented a digging tool he crafted, which would have been like many used by Indigenous people through the generations to uproot plants including camas bulbs.

“In the 43 years since the consent decree became law, our people’s ability to hunt and fish and gather our First Foods has languished,” Bud Lane, the vice-chair of the Siletz Tribal Council, testified before Congress in June. “My people have been treated like criminals in their own land for simply gathering our traditional foods.”

Lane was referring to an agreement signed with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1980 that limited hunting and fishing, during a time when tensions over the so-called Indian Fishing Wars were high. The consent decree was part of reinstating the Siletz after federal termination ended their tribal status in 1954.

“It’s an unjust and racist policy that I believe needs to be changed immediately,” said Oregon U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Springfield. Her bill, HR 2839, would restore those rights.

“HR 2839 is about fairness," she said. "Siletz tribal members should be able to hunt, fish, trap, and gather like they have traditionally done for thousands of years. They should be treated as other tribes are.”

 Man standing in field backlit by setting sun.
Brian Bull
Joe Scott, a Siletz tribal member and program director for Traditional Ecological Inquiry Project (TEIP) guided the camas diggers in the early evening activity.

Another Oregon tribe–the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde–has a similar agreement in place. Their tribal chair, Cheryle Kennedy, testified last year in support of a bill sponsored by Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. It would restore her people’s fishing, hunting, and gathering rights if passed. Like the Siletz, the Grand Ronde had its tribal status terminated, then reinstated decades later for a price.

Kennedy said back in 1986, her tribe had to approve their consent decree in order to get reservation lands back.

“Grand Ronde leaders were left with no choice but to sign an agreement," she said. "I was on the tribal council during this time and agreed with other tribal members who believed that this bargain with the state was one made with a gun to our heads.”

On July 19, Merkley and Hoyle’s bills passed unanimously through the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and the House Natural Resources Committee, respectively.

A return to tradition…and the land?

Back at the field in West Eugene, the camas diggers were having fun, unearthing bulbs ranging from the size of peas to golf balls. The woman who had the split one earlier had discovered a perfect one, and showed it to the others.

“I love watching people just have their hands in the dirt,” said Scott, with a smile. “Everyone’s got their own moment going on where they’re learning something about the things that live under the ground.”

Scott and others at the digging project worried whether or not the camas patch will be here next year, or if there’ll be a row of apartments and a parking lot, instead. But if legislation for the Siletz and Grande Ronde continues to enjoy support, they could soon be able to legally use their traditional lands to gather, hunt, and fish.

Copyright 2023, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.