A brief history
The term Siletz is an umbrella for approximately 30 small bands, numbering 15,000 in all, that existed for thousands of years on or near the coast of northern California and up to southern Washington. Larger tribes from south to north were the Cheteo, Shastacosta, Makanontni, Tututini, Joshua, Six, Takelma, Coquille, Coos, Siuslaw, Alsea and Tillamook. Several other tribes no longer exist. Their languages were derived from five linguistic stocks: Salishan, Yakonan, Kusan, Takelman and Athapascan.
The bands held much in common. Their dwellings, constructed of cedar planks, were partially sunken for warmth. They also fashioned dugout canoes of cedar logs. The women wore cedar bark fiber skirts. The men wore deerskin garments. They ate a supportive diet of acorns, berries, camas root, fish (especially salmon), grasshoppers and game. Among their tools, the bow was the weapon of choice and intricately woven baskets served several purposes. The natives used the dentalium shell as a trade medium. Except for captives from other bands who became slaves, their polity was democratic and descent was paternal. Among their ceremonies, the Indians held a dance for girls coming of age and celebrated an acorn festival. They passed down creation stories whose main character typically readied the land and water for human occupation.
In the late 1700s, European trading vessels arrived, whose crewmembers inadvertently introduced diseases to which the natives had no natural immunity. At that time, a sweeping smallpox epidemic wiped out better than a third of the indigenous population in northern Oregon. Fever and measles in the first quarter of the 1800s annihilated entire bands. By the middle of the century, there were an estimated 6,000 natives still alive.
In 1850, the Rogue River area in southern Oregon yielded gold to white prospectors and the news triggered a flood of incoming miners. The natives resisted the encroachment and disruption of their lives, which resulted in the bloody Rogue River Wars that wore on for half a dozen years. The natives lost their struggle, many having been killed in direct fighting or died later from wounds, starvation and exposure.
Most of the survivors were forced by the U.S. Army to relocate to the Siletz reservation that ran about 90 miles along the coast. Some went to the Ronde Reservation. Later, opening the central part of the Siletz to white settlement caused the reservation to be divided into the Siletz agency in the north and the Alsea subagency to the south. The subagency was eliminated in 1876 and the Indians there were moved to the northern agency.
Life on the reservation and elsewhere was miserable because of the near-total breakup of the indigenous people's social and economic structures. Methodist and Catholic missionaries labored to improve the natives' lives. For the following half a century, the people of the Siletz Reservation were subjected to a conversion to white ways by the federal government.
Through the 1956 Public Law 588, the government terminated recognition of the Siletz tribe, basically declaring them to be non-existent. The remaining Siletz lands were sold and the million-acre reservation was reduced to a 36-acre cemetery. Subsistence fishing and hunting rights were nullified. The natives became subject to property taxes, but most could ill afford to pay up. The result was loss of property to whites and a gross deterioration of quality of life for many.
In 1977, the government reversed its stance and restored legal recognition of the Siletz. Self-governance followed in 1992, which ushered in tribal control over funding and programs.
The Siletz today
The Confederated Tribes of Siletz today is constituted of 27 bands.
The confederation government consists of a tribal council with a chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer and five other members.
The council exercises oversight over such member services as education, including Head Start and the Siletz Valley School; Indian child welfare, employment services, alcohol/drug counseling, a housing program, public information, including The Siletz News; and affiliation with Onaben, a Native American business network. The confederation's member service area extends into 11 western Oregon counties. A central office is located in Siletz and branch offices exist in Eugene, Salem and Portland.
The tribal council also supervises a natural resources component consisting of forestry, water, fish, wildlife, and environmental management on the 3,666-acre Siletz Reservation in Lincoln County.
The confederation maintains the Siletz Tribal Center, a repository of historical documents and artifacts,* and the Siletz Community Health Clinic, which dispenses outpatient health care and information. The Chinook Winds Casino, an economic mainstay, offers gaming, family dining, entertainment and convention space to the members and general public.
Powwows are held annually to preserve and celebrate the culture and traditions of the Siletz, as well as commemorate the restoration to tribal status in 1977.
The winter and summer solstice celebrations are esteemed events as part of the ways the Siletz honor the seasons.
Events such as the Miss Native American Oregon Pageant and the Holiday Festival of Ice are held at the Chinook Winds Casino for all to enjoy.
*The history of the Siletz also can be explored at the Siletz History Museum, an independent facility in Lincoln City.