For Oregon tribes, retracing the Rogue River Trail of Tears helps heal old wounds


Forged by an explosive volcanic eruption in southwest Oregon, Table Rocks took their shape over millions of years, carved by the steady waters of the Rogue River, which now flows more than 800 feet below the rim.

Every autumn, as temperatures drop and rainclouds return, acorns fall from oak trees that surround the pair of flat-topped mesas. The return of the acorns precedes the return of Native peoples, who gather the bitter nuts, grind them up and turn them into a nutritious mush – a practice that goes back millennia.

In recent years, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians have created opportunities for members to reforge connections to the lands their ancestors knew intimately. Their removal from this place in 1856, an event some historians call the Rogue River Trail of Tears, has become a road map that many tribal members are retracing into the future.

In the fall, the two tribes come together to gather acorns at an event called Acorn Camp in southwest Oregon. This June, they will host their first joint Camas Camp, where they will harvest camas lilies and other spring plants. And, just after Memorial Day Weekend, the Siletz tribe will host its annual Run to the Rogue marathon, a 216-mile relay down the coastline and up the Rogue River.

Greg Archuleta, cultural policy analyst with the Grand Ronde tribe, said the current focus is on refamiliarizing tribal members with the places of their ancestors, as well as passing down practices that have survived for generations.

“Our primary focus right now is really to get tribal members out on the landscape,” Archuleta said. “It’s all about presence.”

That presence has also created a new sense of home for many Indigenous families who have spent generations living elsewhere – on reservations far away, in bigger cities or out of the region altogether.

“It’s kind of like meeting a relative that you’ve heard about for a long time but never had a chance to meet,” Robert Kentta, tribal council member for the Siletz tribe, said of returning to southwest Oregon. “That connection is still there.”


For tribal members, revisiting Table Rocks isn’t always easy. There is trauma there, buried in the ground, filling the recesses of the hard, volcanic rock.

At the start of the 19th century, the region was home to the Takelma, Shastan and Athabaskan peoples who had lived in the area for untold generations. But it was also becoming home to a growing number of non-Indigenous settlers. The first to arrive, French fur trappers called the Indigenous people in the region “rogues,” a derogatory nickname that was often used as a justification for violence, according to historian Gray Whaley in “Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee.”

When gold miners showed up in 1849, they treated the “rogues” as a threat, and waged an open campaign of extermination, according to historical documents. That first year, a militia killed 60 Indigenous people after allegedly finding an Indigenous man “secreted” in a white woman’s home, according to Whaley. Tribal historians say their ancestors suffered violence both casual and organized, by both local militias and the U.S. Army.

“Pretty much the whole philosophy was to exterminate the Indians,” Archuleta said. “It was something that was pretty extreme during that time.”

In 1853, many of the Rogue River peoples gathered at Table Rocks to sign a treaty with the U.S. government in which they agreed to cede the lands in exchange for a permanent reservation, where they might be safe. Violence from militias continued during the treaty negotiations, an attempt to derail the process, tribal historians said. After signing the treaty, the people were removed to a temporary reservation at Table Rocks, where hardships continued.

Being forced to remain in one location kept the Rogue River peoples from their traditionally mobile practices of gathering, hunting and creating seasonal homes, resulting in starvation in addition to disease and continued attacks, according to historians. Those who left the reservation were often hunted down and killed by local militias.

The situation came to a head in 1855, when the deaths of two packers were blamed on Indigenous men. A white militia seeking to avenge the deaths left under the cover of darkness to the Table Rock Reservation, where they killed about 25 people sleeping by the banks of the river, according to historical accounts. As they left, the militiamen killed another 50 to 80 Indigenous people in the area, most of whom were women and children.

The violence was particularly brutal. One witness recalled seeing two elderly women who were bashed to death with clubs and a child who was “taken by the heels and its brains dashed out against a tree.” According to Whaley, one attacker later said that while the extermination made him feel bad, “the understanding was that [the Indians] were all to be killed. So we did that work.”

In response to the attacks, a group of Indigenous leaders retaliated with raids on homesteads and settlements. In less than a year, roughly 250 Indigenous people were killed, along with some 50 non-Indigenous soldiers and 44 civilians, according to historical records.

Tribal members have been holding those horrific memories for generations.

“We have these historical legal traumas as well as physical and emotional and spiritual traumas,” which metastasized into issues like substance abuse and domestic violence, Kentta said. “We often hear about elders who don’t want to be hugged.”

Kentta’s great-grandfather was 7 or 8 years old when his people were removed from their homelands. After the boy’s father was killed, his mother left him with his paternal grandparents while she left to find her family. She never returned. The boy left southwest Oregon as an orphan.

In February 1856, amid the fighting, U.S. soldiers led by Bureau of Indian Affairs agent George Ambrose moved 325 people by foot from the Table Rocks Reservation to a place that would become the Grand Ronde Reservation, 263 miles away. The 33-day journey went over mountains and along rivers, north through the Willamette Valley, roughly following the future Interstate 5 corridor, and up into the Coast Range.

Aside from the rugged environment, winter weather and generally poor conditions, the captive travelers also faced the constant threat of violence from militiamen stalking the group. Ambrose, who apprehended one man, eventually dissuaded militias from murdering members of the group, though casualties still mounted. According to Ambrose’s journal, the journey saw eight deaths among the captives – as well as eight births.

The Rogue River people who chose to stay and fight against removal held out until that summer, eventually surrendering after brutal losses. The surviving holdouts were taken to both the Grand Ronde and Siletz/Coast reservations, according to tribal historians.

Despite generations of oppression and the attempted genocide of a people, leaders in the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes said they prefer a frame of resilience.

“There’s pride in the resilience of our ancestors,” Kentta said. “And some of it’s probably a stroke of luck that they didn’t get swept away.”


In the Grand Ronde Community, just a mile down the road from the tribe’s Spirit Mountain Casino, is a quiet place: the Uyxat Powwow Grounds, home to an outdoor arena lined with turf and a large ceremonial plankhouse named achaf-hammi.

Outside the plankhouse is a tall gray pole carved from a single western redcedar tree, marking this place as the end of the Rogue River Trail of Tears.

Travis Stewart, director of the tribe’s Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center, created the pole with a carving group for the plankhouse’s dedication in 2010. Standing at the base of the roughly 26-foot pole, he pointed out the headman at the top and coyote running down either side. The length of the pole is decorated with five tiers of faces representing five treaties signed by the tribe, he said, each face crying a stream of tears.

Those tears are not just from grief, Stewart explained, “they’re bringing their generational knowledge to this place and it’s coming out into the ground here.”

Traditional practices like carving and basket weaving, as well as harvesting plants for food and medicine, are now representations of the resiliency of Indigenous people throughout generations of hardship, Stewart said. The pole, the plankhouse, and events like Acorn Camp and Camas Camp are proof that this generational knowledge still exists.

“There was a lot of effort and sacrifice on behalf of those old people that made tough decisions ultimately in order to preserve that (knowledge),” Stewart said. “It’s a responsibility of ours to continue that.”

After the removal from southwest Oregon, the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations became home to more Indigenous survivors, people from neighboring lands who spoke different languages, ate different food and practiced their own customs. At first, most people kept to their own (going so far as to organize themselves geographically), according to tribal historians, but as the U.S. Government shrank the reservations – Siletz from 1.1 million acres to nearly 17,000 today, Grand Ronde from 61,000 acres to 11,500 today – the people came together, creating new tribal communities.

“We’ve made our footprint here,” said Chris Mercier, vice chair of the Grand Ronde tribal council. “It wasn’t under the best circumstances that the tribal people were ushered up here, but I like the fact that we’ve established this community, one that’s been existing for over 150 years now.”

Of the 5,700 enrolled members of the Grand Ronde tribe, only about 1,200 today live in or around Grand Ronde, Mercier said. But those who do enjoy a tight-knit community, where the past, present and future of the tribe seem to collide at every turn.

For several generations after removal, people didn’t want to directly confront the traumas of the past, tribal leaders said. That was in large part due to ongoing struggles, including being forced to send their children to boarding schools, which were rampant with abuse, and the 1954 termination of western Oregon tribes, during which the government severed all federal support.

Only in the past few decades have the tribes directly faced the past, they said, seeking healing through conversation, support and returning to places of tragedy.

In the mid 1990s, the Siletz tribe started Run to the Rogue, in which tribal members run and walk their way down the coastline, then up the Rogue River to a place called Oak Flat, about 50 miles from Table Rocks, where in 1856 several bands of the tribe’s ancestors surrendered to the U.S. Army.

Buddy Lane, cultural resources manager for the tribe, has been organizing the event since 2012. He said runners of all abilities participate to different degrees. The tribe’s youngest members take the first mile in Siletz, and the elders take the final mile to Oak Flat. The strongest runners take the hardest miles along U.S. 101 at Cape Perpetua, a stretch Lane has done before.

“The trek is a lot easier than it was for our ancestors,” Lane said.

Many tribal members follow runners along the route, supporting their effort and finding ways to reconnect with their roots, he said. Some pay visits to the lands where their families once lived, or gather in parks, staying up late into the night as runners come and go.

“It’s an emotionally charged event,” Lane said. “We’re not celebrating something, but we’re remembering things and making sure those folks with stories are not forgotten.”

The relay, along with the Acorn Camp and Camas Camp, represents a new generation of tribal members who are actively connecting with their past through new experiences in the present, they said. The fact that these homecoming events all include a return trip back home – to Siletz, Grand Ronde and other places – underlines a complex question: What is “home” to a displaced people?

For Kentta, who has lived his whole life in Siletz and whose ancestors are from the Applegate Valley as well as Finland, southwest Oregon is like a home away from home.

“Whenever I’m in the Rogue Valley it’s kind of an emotional feeling of like a connection, even though I didn’t grow up there,” he said. “It’s an ancestral home rather than my current home.”

Archuleta grew up primarily in east Portland and traces his ancestry to the Willamette Tumwater, Clackamas Chinook, Cascades Chinook, Santiam Kalapooia, Shasta and Rogue River peoples. He has family ties to the Warm Springs, Yakama, Siletz and Klamath tribes. “Pretty much all of western Oregon” is home, he said.

“It’s really each person, each family’s perspective of how they see it,” he said.

While many other places may be home, for these sister tribes, there’s still something special about the land in southwest Oregon. Table Rocks has always been an important place, a site of harvest and ritual, as well as the setting of creation stories, tribal historians said. Today, for non-Indigenous people, Lower Table Rock and Upper Table Rock are primarily places for recreation and conservation, managed by the Bureau of Land Management and environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy.

The area is home to more than 340 species of plants and 70 animals, including the tiny dwarf-wooly meadowfoam wildflower, which grows nowhere else in the world, as well as a threatened species of fairy shrimp, which hatches in vernal pools that form in the rocky soil every winter.

For the descendants of the Takelma, Shastan and Athabaskan people, it is also once again becoming a place to build community, while communing with a landscape that holds a rich and complicated history.

“Some of these activities that we’re doing is to bring back healing, bring back families together, and to connect to the landscape, and to continue that stewardship and responsibility to the land,” Archuleta said. “Just being able to fish in a place where your ancestor fished or gathered … it’s restoring what’s always been there, and what’s always been in our hearts and minds.”

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