The Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe ceded 448,000 acres of its ancestral home 160 years ago and received shoes, socks, thread and other miscellaneous items, including two small houses.
The 1853 treaty negotiated with the Oregon Territory’s superintendent of Indian affairs, Joel Palmer, also promised the tribe a reservation
The tribe still awaits the federal government to complete the deal.
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley last week proposed honoring the agreement by transferring 17,519 acres of federal timberland south of Canyonville to the Roseburg-based tribe.
The land would be carved out of the 2.4 million acres of Oregon & California Railroad land that 18 Oregon counties, including Douglas County, rely on to fund government services.
A companion proposal would provide nearly 15,000 acres of O&C lands near the coast to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, a tribe displaced by settlers.
The Cow Creeks say the tribe would be careful stewards, managing the land for timber production while enhancing the environment.
The tribe — which runs Seven Feathers Casino Resort, Umpqua Indian Foods, Rio Networks and several other enterprises — estimates it could create 70 to 80 new jobs. Forest management would have to follow federal laws, including a ban on exporting raw logs, according to the senators’ proposal.
Groups as different as Umpqua Watersheds and the Douglas Timber Operators have shown support for granting the Cow Creek tribe a land base.
But the proposal provoked a negative reaction from O&C counties, which saw the plan as another setback to their push to capture more revenue from O&C lands. Wyden sought to assure counties other federal lands would be shuffled so that counties didn’t lose revenue, though no specifics have been offered.
Meanwhile, tribal officials see the land as the righting of a historical wrong.
The tribe’s CEO, Michael Rondeau, said he grew up hearing about the treaty and its unfilled promise.
“There was discussion about the treaty all the time,” he said.
The treaty was signed at the confluence of Cow and Canyon creeks southwest of Riddle.
For giving up more than 700 square miles, the tribe received 18 hickory shirts, pants, shoes and hats, three coats, vests, neckerchiefs and three pairs of socks, along with a couple hundred yards of fabric, 12 dozen buttons, two pounds of thread, 10 needles, seed potatoes, a fenced and plowed field and the two houses.
Rondeau and other tribal officials say they believe the promise of land simply got lost in the shuffle.
Palmer negotiated several treaties in a short period of time, and the Rogue Indian Wars in Southern Oregon began less than two years after the Cow Creek treaty was signed.
The Cow Creeks were drawn into the wars, and survivors marched 150 miles northwest to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856. By 1954, the federal government declared there were no Native Americans left in Western Oregon. The Cow Creeks and other tribes were decertified as tribes, setting off a decades-long battle to win federal recognition.
In 1982, the tribe was once again certified as an active tribe. Two years later, the tribe received $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit over the value of the tribal lands taken after the 1853 treaty was signed.
The tribe successfully fought a federal order to distribute the money to it members. Then-tribal Chairwoman Sue Shaffer insisted the money be invested in tribal businesses.
The issue of granting the tribe a land base, however, has gone unresolved.
Rondeau said he believes Palmer, who later became speaker of the Oregon House and barely lost a bid for governor, meant well.
Palmer has been criticized for sending Native Americans to reservations, but Rondeau said he believes he did it to protect Indians from white settlers.
“Gen. Palmer really did his best to do what he could to protect the Indians,” Rondeau said. “He was afraid the terminators — people who were going to take care of the Indians by killing them — would prevail.”
Palmer, a Quaker who made the first recorded climb of Mount Hood, angered settlers because of his defense of Native Americans, according to the Oregon Historical Society.
The conflict came to a head in 1855 when he moved Rogue River Indians to the Grande Ronde Reservation, land that settlers wanted. The Legislature successfully petitioned the federal government to remove Palmer from his position.
The Cow Creek treaty was negotiated quickly, within a day, Rondeau said.
Palmer met with Quin-li-oo-san, also known as Bighead, the principal Cow Creek chief, and other tribal officials. The two-page document was signed a few miles west of present-day Canyonville.
While the spot is now on private land, it’s near the forestland that would be turned over to the Cow Creeks if the legislation passes. That’s symbolically important, Rondeau said.
He said he often thinks of tribal members who worked to receive federal recognition and who dreamed of one day obtaining reservation land.
If the plan gets through Congress and is signed into law, the tribe wants to introduce innovative management to improve the quality of the forest and allow for logging and traditional gathering of nuts and berries, Rondeau said.
“This isn’t just a timber deal. We want to work on stream restoration, monitor water quality and help with endangered species,” he said. “We want to restore the land and make it more healthy.”
Two forest experts are looking over the land and preparing a report for the tribe on its condition and recommendations on increasing its productivity.
One of the four authors of the Northwest Forest Plan, former Yale forestry professor John Gordon, visited the forest Thursday, along with Oregon State University forestry professor John Sessions.
“We’re trying to get a feel for the land and what could be done here,” Gordon said. “We have a lot of maps and databases, but it’s good to see it on the ground.”
The two scientists found Douglas firs, Ponderosa, Jeffrey and sugar pines, along with oaks, madrones, incense cedar and numerous varieties of shrubs.
Most of the land rates a Class 3, the middle of a five-step scale that grades a forest’s productivity.
“The tribe will combine traditional knowledge with cutting-edge technique. It could serve as a model for other landowners,” said Tim Vredenburg, the tribe’s director of forest management.
Rondeau said incorporating forest management techniques supported by both the timber industry and conservationists will be exciting.
“Our resources need to be properly managed, and we’re certainly interested in doing that,” he said.
Rondeau said he thinks those who came before the current group of tribal members would look favorably at the tribe’s plans.
“I hope they’re proud of what we’re doing,” he said.
• You can reach reporter John Sowell at 541-957-4209 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We want to restore the land and make it more healthy.
CEO of Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe