Eagle feathers adorn a Siletz dancer. Strands of shell necklaces decorate other members of the coastal tribe. Deer hides wrap around men’s waists.
All cultures prize ceremonial dress, whether for weddings, feasts or other special events, but information about regalia among Oregon’s Native Americans is lacking. A new book will help fill that gap by exploring how Oregon’s tribal communities use their most treasured possessions to renewand reinvent their traditions, today.
“The Art of Ceremony: Conversations With Oregon Tribes” will explore regalia from all nine of Oregon’s tribal groups, says author Rebecca Dobkins, professor of anthropology at Willamette University. A grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust enables her to research and write the book, which theUniversity of Washington Press will publish in 2017.
“Oregon has a terrible vacuum of information about its native people,” she says.
The book stems from a major exhibition of tribal regalia that Dobkins curated at Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art in 2008.
For “The Art of Ceremony,” Dobkins has asked each tribal group to select one ceremony as a snapshot of its regalia.For the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, she will write about the Canoe Journey, an annual paddle trip that attracts up to 10,000 tribal members. Some participants wear cedar bark hats and use paddles carved by hand — dance paddles, ceremonial paddles. The event brings tribes together from around the region to celebrate their heritage and share songs, dance and food.
For the Confederated Umatilla Tribes, Dobkins is writing about the sweat lodge, the “least adorned” ceremony, she says. In place of fancy beads and other regalia, participants use rocks carried from sacred places such as volcanic areas of the Cascade mountains.
Other regalia Dobkins will write about make extensive use of beads, feathers, shells, plants and animal skins.
“The resources come from the abundant offerings of forests, rivers, and ocean,” Dobkins writes about the Siletz. “Plants—beargrass, pine nuts, hazel sticks, maidenhair fern, maple bark—are incorporated into basket caps and dance skirts. Animal hides and skins from deer, river otter, ermine, ringtail cat and even sea otter become transfigured into dance skirts and aprons, hair ties, men’s wraps, cloaks, and headdress ornamentation. Birds provide feathers and scalps for adorning headgear especially. The ocean yields iridescent abalone, clamshell, and prized dentalium. Volcanic outfl ows in mountains and deserts hold stores of obsidian for blades.”
Tribal ceremonies are fundamental to their societies, Dobkins says. They connect people and land, a relationship that has been ruptured.
“You can’t conduct the feather dance without knowing something about traditional beargrass,” she says. “You have to learn where it grows, how to collect it and make it into a cap. You have to know the language to say the prayers and the kids have to learn how to sing the songs.It’s not merely a nostalgia tour. It’s not a static process. It’s renewing relationships with one another. Tribes in the 21st century are engaged in nation building and their populations are growing and their economies are growing and contracting as all ours are. Ceremony works out all these issues and builds trust.”
All Oregonians can learn about their state through Native American ceremonies, Dobkins says.
“If we can understand more about the land and the memory of the land, we can have a different dimension to our view today,” she says. “It can add to our rootedness. We see only a tiny fraction of the surface. We can all learn by understanding tribes and their ceremony, what it meant tobe here 10, 15,000 years ago.”
Story by David Stabler
Photo by Frank Miller