Image above: what the Salmon Rock looks like today,
sitting along the old mouth of the Satiam River (center of photo)
Geology and myth intersected several years ago for members of the Cultural Resources Department of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, when they used the most modern of methods to locate a landmark familiar to native people for hundreds of years. The result was a confirmation of the way stories are supported by the Oregon ecology.
In addition to knowing many tales that have been maintained in community, David Harrelson, Department Manager and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Confederated Tribes and colleagues have long been acquainted with Coyote Was Going There, a collection of Indian literature of the Oregon Country gathered by Jarold Ramsey in 1977.
The book contains 500 stories handed down through the rich oral tradition of the Native Americans, Oregon’s first residents. The six sections present stories from each of six general ‘regions’ from the northeast Nez Perce to southwest Modoc, Klamath and Shasta tribes, and are tales that were gathered and written down more than 100 years ago by a wide variety of people who valued them.
One of the stories by the Clackamas Chinook, a people whose traditional homelands include the country near Oregon City and Portland, is “The Skookum and the Wonderful Boy.”
The story ends with a boy who has helped his people, changing himself into a fish and swimming up from the falls at Oregon City, up the Willamette past the many rivers that enter the lower Willamette, including the Mollala, the Yamhill and the Pudding rivers, in search of quiet. Finally he finds a place at the mouth of the Santiam and goes to sleep. Coyote sees him there and turns him to stone in the shape of a salmon.
That is why, the story concludes, salmon who climb above the Falls at Oregon City pass up many rivers that enter the Willamette until they reach the Santiam and see the fish-shaped rock. When they see it, they circle once in salute and then turn up the clear waters of the Santiam to spawn.
Because the story has been maintained in community in addition to being published, Harrelson, says, “We know the story. The community knows the story. We know that at the end, Coyote turns Wonderful Boy into a fish rock to signal to the fish to turn up the Santiam.”
Several years ago, the tribe was looking to acquire land for conservation, Harrelson says, “and fishing studies show the North Santiam is the best place for fish spawning to this day. So science fit the story, too. So we thought that was pretty cool.”
But, since the story is hundreds of years old, they asked, “Was the rock still there? Was it ever there? Or was it just a myth?” So tribal staff decided to see if the rock existed in the present day landscape.
A good portion of the work the Cultural Resources Department does involve reviewing maps, including with sophisticated mapping tools such as LiDAR imaging. Using a combination of maps, satellite imagery and old aerial photographs, Harrelson and others at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde studied waters of where the Santiam joins the Willamette, “but,” he says, “there was nothing at the mouth.”
The team reflected, Harrelson says. “We know that rivers change course, some rivers are dry now. What about looking at where the river was in the 1850’s, the 1860’s? We looked again, and we found it; not far from today’s confluence with the Willamette – there is a crescent-shaped rock.”
Locating the landmark is meaningful on many levels. “It’s amazing that we found it,” Harrelson says, especially given how many Willamette River rocks have been blasted over the years, beginning as early as the steamship era.
“One of the points of finding this rock is that it says that we as native people have been here a long time,” Harrelson says.
“There are different ways to get to knowing, and I think that’s a really valuable thing,” he adds, “The history of our ancestors is not written in books. It is written in the landscape and told in the landscape. Stories like these are supposed to be told while you’re out in a place, walking and looking.”
Finding that the rock is still there “shows the story has an ecological foundation; that’s where the fish are supposed to turn,” says Harrelson. “It is a story to be told when you are present in a landscape, and there is value in that.”