Dead Horses

The complicated education of a White person growing up among the Siletz

Born in a tiny hospital overlooking Alsea Bay and the Pacific Ocean, I entered the world on an unusual snowy night. My father was home on leave and scheduled to serve the US Army Air Corps in faraway Alaska, where Japanese troops had occupied a pair of remote islands. I didn’t know any of that, of course. I wasn’t aware that my mother and I were living with her parents and her two youngest sisters. Nor was I aware when that house burned to the ground six weeks later. I’m told my twelve-year-old aunt ran back into the house to rescue me and the family dog. 

Grandpa, who had been a commercial fisherman on Alsea Bay for many years, had finally succumbed to competition from sport fishermen and taken a sawmill job in the Siletz country. We moved to be with him in a tiny, two-room house that had been a neighborhood schoolhouse in early reservation days. Eventually, he was able to build a new home on a beautiful plot of land that had been part of the original Siletz Reservation, also called the Coast Reservation. The property was divided by the gravel road that ran from the City of Siletz (formerly known as “Agency Farm”) east toward the Upper Farm/Logsden area. My father sent money home to purchase the property on the north side of the highway, where I eventually lived with my parents and my four siblings, mostly oblivious to the historic world I had been carried into. It would be decades before I began to understand the horrific history of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

In 1856, nearly thirty tribes and bands were forced from their homelands in Southern Oregon, Northern California, and the Willamette Valley after being defeated by US troops sent to clear out the people they considered savages to make way for miners, settlers, and so-called pioneers eager to get the free land stolen from the tribes.

Deceived by the promises made in treaties, the battered, despondent, sick, and starving people arrived in the valley of the Siletz River to find no homes, no supplies. Many of the people were, if not enemies, harboring old hostilities.

In their former homelands, mostly centered around the Rogue Valley and Rogue River area on or near the southern coast, the tribes were free. In The People Are Dancing Again: The History of the Siletz Tribe of Western Oregon, Charles Wilkinson wrote, “Western Oregon Indians understandably revered these landscapes that fed their people . . . and they had their sovereignty, their right to follow their own star, the self-determination for which indigenous and ethnic cultures the world over yearned. All this stood in the starkest contrast to what was to come.”

There was nothing in Siletz of the old freedoms. No way to protect or feed the families. No shelters. Though the river and streams teemed with fish, crawdads, and eels, and the forest sheltered plenty of deer that would provide venison for the starving people, the tribes were denied any rights to hunting or fishing. They were to assimilate into White culture, and the government seemed to believe the first step was for them to become potato farmers.

Those early years must have been horrific beyond description. In 1862, six years after arriving on the new reservation, Chief George of the Sixes Tribe told a visiting government representative, “Our people have had to eat frozen potatoes, that are rotten, and the carcasses of dead horses. They are dying very fast, and my heart is sick. I think rotten potatoes are not good for any people.” 

Six years! The tribes that had thrived upon hunting, fishing, and gathering had no experience farming, and fields often failed. Treaties remained unsigned by the US government. Food was sparse and seldom arrived. William, chief of the Chetco Tribe, reported that when a supply of flour arrived at Fort Hoskins, at the eastern edge of the one-million-plus-acre reservation, or at Depot Slough, nearly ten miles from Siletz, tribal women were “packed like mules” to carry it to the Siletz agency. 

After the chiefs made their complaints in 1862, the agent approved some passes for hunting on their ancestral lands. But then a ruthless new agent, Ben Simpson, arrived, and he had other plans. There was much suffering by those whom he whipped for violations.

Some of the people had made homes near the Yaquina Bay (now Newport), where they could gather Native foods like crab, clams, perch, oysters, mussels, and salmon. Conniving settlers wanted access to the harbor. Senator James Nesmith, a former Superintendent of Indian Affairs, lied to the Secretary of the Interior and President Andrew Johnson, saying the bay was not used or needed by the people of the reservation. In 1864 the government stole 300 square miles of the Coast Reservation. It was the beginning of numerous similar thefts by the federal government: in 1875, the Siletz Reservation was reduced to 225,000 acres; then, the General Allotment Act of 1887 forced the Siletz people to sell 192,000 acres. 

Each loss of reservation lands meant loss of Native access to the foods on those lands. It also meant loss of access to materials for the basket weaving that provided utensils for the tribal homes and a livelihood for the weavers. When the massive theft of reservation lands was finished, the tribes were left with a miniscule land base held in trust by the same government that had done the stealing.      

I learned nothing of this history in school. The establishment and taking of the Coast Reservation was long forgotten by the writers of Oregon’s school textbooks by the time I grew up on the section known as the Siletz Reservation.

A textbook approved for Lincoln County’s eighth graders in 1949, and still used when I was in that grade eight years later, spoke of Indians as people of the past: “the Indian is known only as he lived and worked and hunted and played when the white man first came.” (Philip H. Parrish, Historic Oregon.)

Parrish painted a grotesque picture of Native life: “The Indians boiled most of their food. They had baskets woven so tightly they would hold water. Into the baskets, filled with water and pieces of salmon, the red housewives would drop hot stones from the fireplace. . . . The men ate first. . . . A white man who knew Indian lodges well wrote that when the fires were lighted and the men, women, and children crowded inside, the place looked like a witches’ cave.”

Parrish concluded with one last insult: “and through all was the smell—the awful smell of the Indian lodge.”

Imagine being a tribal teen in a 1950s public school classroom on a reservation, surrounded by your friends, White and Indian, reading or listening to such descriptions.

My mother’s eldest brother, Mutt, married a Hupa tribal member. Phonola was from a California tribe but had spent most of her adult life in Siletz or north in Tillamook County, where she often was the deckhand on my uncle’s commercial fishing boats, Ella Mae and Phonola. When Dad returned at the end of World War II, he went back to his former job at Boeing, in Washington, and took my mother with him; Auntie Phonola raised me until they returned. According to family lore, they only reclaimed me when my grandfather gave them an ultimatum to either return or “give the baby to Auntie.”

Auntie remained a significant part of my life until she died in a car wreck, years after my own daughters were born. I wonder how much she instilled her culture into me in the years she had me as a tiny child. I know I ate fry bread and fresh or canned salmon at her home. In later years, she often spoke to me about “Indian things” and seemed to believe that I knew what she referenced. I know she was a believer in teaching young babies all that they needed to know for life, so I do not doubt that my lifelong interest in Native culture and history began with her. In later years, she taught me to can tuna and salmon, but never taught me to make fry bread. 

One of my mother’s sisters married a Siletz man and learned to make all the fascinating foods I saw at their home: fry bread, smoked fish, wiggly, snakey things Uncle Ed called “eels.” My cousin assured me it was “Indian food.” I never questioned him. Although he was only a year my senior, he had trained me to know there were certain things I couldn’t do because I wasn’t Indian. I could follow him around, but fishing, eating special foods, or touching the water of the Siletz River were not allowed. This auntie, Clara, made fabulous fish head soup and a clam casserole that I’m still trying to duplicate. But she didn’t teach me to make fry bread. 

At my family home, we ate venison stew or fried chicken, or a variety of German dishes my father remembered from his maternal grandparents in Iowa. I so wanted to eat the “Indian food” I knew was on the table in my cousins’ home. 

I was vaguely aware that something was happening in Siletz in 1954 when Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act, ending the government’s recognition of the Siletz tribes, but I was only eleven years old, too young to be told. Adults whispered more, and when school started in September, it felt strange—like everyone knew something that kids weren’t supposed to know. I noticed several families had moved away, but that wasn’t unusual; many came and went depending on whether logging jobs were available or the sawmills were running. Though I saw my cousins every day at school and often on weekends, neither of them ever mentioned that they had been determined by the government to no longer be Indians. It wasn’t until many years later, while helping to initiate the plan to seek federal recognition for the Siletz tribes, that I finally realized the devastation caused by termination. 


As a teenager and student at Siletz High School, I became curious why no one talked about the Indian history of the town. Why were we only told about Plains Indians, Sacajawea, and Squanto? What were the old buildings on our town’s “Government Hill” used for in the past, especially the one called “The Old Hospital?” I saw no resemblance to my concept of a hospital. Who were the old women who lived in the tiny houses on that hill? What was the story of the Indian women gathering in the largest remaining building to can vegetables? Why couldn’t I eat “Indian food”?

In response to my questions, Uncle Ed said, “Baby, my family is Molala. We are from Kate Chantell’s family. We are Siletz, but our real tribe is Molala.” It took me years to sort that out.

There were too many unsolved mysteries for me to ignore. In my naivete, I decided to write a book about a young Indian boy who had come to the reservation in the distant past. A friend believed I could and loaned me her portable typewriter—probably the only one in Siletz.

I soon realized there were many ugly topics to explore. Why were my Indian friends and relatives so good to me, while my own father had made unkind comments about my prom date and asked if I was color-blind? I had not yet heard the word “racist,” but wondered at his frequent use of words like “squaw,” “injun,” and “siwash.” I noticed he never said them when my Siletz uncle or Hupa auntie were present. It was all very confusing.

Sometime in the late 1960s, while researching through twenty-one rolls of microfilmed Indian agent reports, I discovered the words of Chief George and others telling of the starving people in the early days of the government mandates to turn hunters and gatherers into potato farmers in an area that had been specifically chosen for its remoteness and reported lack of useful agricultural land. That report still comes to mind, even after years of involvement with the issues that have affected the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. 

Too few people know the tribe’s history still. Too few people know that, despite their horrendous struggles, despite their loss of hundreds of people to starvation due to the government’s failure to ratify treaties and to provide food and shelter, despite termination, the Siletz have persisted. In the 1970s, they won their battle for restoration of federal recognition and, later, the return of a tiny portion of their reservation lands. Since then, they have built an economic base and established numerous programs, including some that address issues of food sovereignty and justice.

Chief George’s living descendants are not eating dead, rotted horses today. The future looks promising, though work remains. The Siletz River appears to be ill, with crawdads and other small food mysteriously depleted. The tribe has cooperated with a community group trying to stop the City of Newport from dumping sewage waste on fields adjoining the river, a practice currently being fought by concerned citizens across the nation. Fish runs in the river are slow and not nearly as abundant as in prior years. 

I miss the smoked and baked lamprey eels of days gone by. Their runs have declined drastically. The tribe has a program to reintroduce them into the Siletz River and its tributaries. Programs have been developed for hunting and fishing on tribal lands and streams. Food distribution programs are in place. A cookbook is helping the nonprofit Siletz Tribal Arts and Heritage Society build funds for “A Place for the People,” where tribal history, culture, and Native foods will be featured. There is a community garden, and land has been purchased for an expanded garden project. 

Food sovereignty means the people have the right to healthy and culturally appropriate foods. It is a political, social, and cultural issue that requires time to sort it all out, but this tribe is working steadily on issues of food sovereignty, always aware of food justice—the belief that healthy food is a human right. 


5 comments have been posted.

This is so interesting! I lived in Siletz from second grade to eight grade! Loved the area and it's great people! Thank you!! Lola

Lola Cook Erhardt | January 2021 |

Thank you for your books, your writings here, and your facebook postings.

John Leslie Roe Jr. | January 2021 |

You bring everything to life. I enjoy reading everything you write. Thank you for telling the stories.

Joyce Retherford | January 2021 |

Well done. I am always at a loss for words when confronted with the callousness of those in the past. Your own story sounds interesting too. I look forward to future articles.

Gloria | January 2021 | Lincoln City

Fascinating story, well told. Thank you, Grace Elting Castle!

Evelyn | December 2020 |

Also in this Issue

From the Director: What It Means to Be Seen

Editor's Note: Feed

What's Growing in John Day

Kitchen Ghost

Stepping Up in Southern Oregon

Things Gleaned

Mama Will Feed You


Preserving Food, Cheating Death

Dead Horses

Eid al-Adha, Festival of Sacrifice


People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading