Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve - By Professor Douglas Deur

Traditional Lands, Ceremonies and Gatherings

Oregon Caves Chateau
The historic Oregon Caves Chateau was built in the 1930s and is now a national landmark. It’s undergoing extensive renovation and is expected to reopen for the 2024-2025 season. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)

​​​​​​​​​​​Much the same can be said of Oregon Caves National Monument, which sits on a high mountain ridge only 30 miles to the west of Cascade-Siskiyou. Many tribes, Athabaskan communities such as the Dakubetede, Takelmas, and even Shastas and Karuks from the middle Klamath River—have traditional lands intersecting in these high mountains. Here, the forest is somewhat wetter than Cascade-Siskiyou, with dense conifer forests of Douglas fir and other species, the highest lands dotted by montane meadows and rocky ridgetops. The astonishing botanical diversity of southwest Oregon’s high mountain ridges extends to this Monument too, the area abounding in plants used for food, medicines and materials, and for all manner of other cultural and spiritual purposes. Small camas prairies and patches of beargrass are found in these high mountains, apparently sustained and tended over generations—the camas producing edible bulbs that, when roasted, contributed to the diet even during extended stays in the high country. In drier scrub forests downslope, acorn-bearing oaks were once abundant on the forest-meadow margin, with acorn grinding stones still hidden alongside longstanding harvesting sites. ​​​​

The mountains are more jagged here, with deep river and stream valleys below. Historically, trails crisscrossed these mountains, often following ridgelines to avoid the deeply-dissected terrain. They are echoed somewhat by modern park trails. Precontact trails linked the densely-settled valleys, but also led to major sites in the mountains: berry patches, places for harvesting basket materials, hunting sites and camas meadows. As one modern elder asserts “almost everything you needed was along that trail.” So too, traditional spiritual practitioners have ascended these trails, viewing culturally-significant peaks in the distance and showing respects to the terrain and its many inhabitants as they go.

The tribes traditionally held gatherings in the valleys far below, often at settlements near falls and fishing riffles. Taking place in these settlements were large dances, uniting people far and wide to trade, visit, carry out ceremonies, fish, and feast. At these events, young people met those they would marry from other tribes and villages—families intentionally marrying their young people into other communities, helping to sustain social, economic, and strategic ties across this mountainous and culturally variegated corner of the state. People from the Klamath River might travel through the mountains near Oregon Caves to visit tribes in the Illinois and Applegate River Basins – carrying dentalium money shells, tobacco grown in small cultivated plots, or pine nut beads, for example, to trade for camas, acorns, and many other goods with local tribes. As they traveled through these montane trails, people often camped in places where they could find protection from the wind and sun of the high country, often visiting springs issuing cold cold water even in the hottest times of the year.

Non-Native Settlers, War and Rediscovery

Among the tribes of the state, caves hold many kinds of significance: as places to seek temporary shelter, to pray, to store or chill foods, to hunt, and to do many other things. Tribal oral traditions speak of elaborate caves on the mountain ridges near Oregon Caves, though they reveal little of what the ancestors knew of them. Some note the presence of caves linked to networks even more elaborate than scientists recognize. Common narratives of the "discovery" of these caves by non-Native settler Elijah Davidson in 1874 ring hollow, as the cave Davidson encountered already contained subtle but unambiguous evidence of Native use. Every part of the southwestern Oregon landscape was traveled and known intimately across countless generations, and Oregon Caves was no exception.

The peoples of both Cascade-Siskiyou and Oregon Caves shared similar fates in the 19th century. Soon after the California Gold Rush, miners streamed into the valleys and by the early 1850s, the region was awash in bloodshed. United States forces and militias sought to relocate, contain, or exterminate many of these communities as part of what became known as the "Rogue Indian Wars." The tribes of the area, unified by marriage, trade, and other alliances came to aid one another, but were doomed by the seemingly limitless population and resources of U.S. forces. Many retreated into California or the Upper Klamath Basin to hide among other tribes, though most were taken by force to Oregon’s Coast Reservation—later becoming part of the confederated tribes of Siletz and Grand Ronde. Some families instead persisted as part of the Cow Creek, Klamath, Shasta, Karuk, and other tribal communities. In spite of many obstacles, some tribal families have returned to these two Monuments—sustaining or often rediscovering relationships their ancestors have long held with these lands.

Visiting the Monuments Today​

Newberry, John Day, Cascade-Siskiyou and Oregon Caves: all these places are still known and valued by Oregon’s tribes—even by tribes beyond the borders of our state. Many tribal members still visit these places, wishing to see the landscape as the ancestors once saw it, with many sustaining oral traditions and practices that ensure the culture is kept alive, passing place-based knowledge from older to younger members of the tribes. Since the mid-19th century and often into present day, access to these places has been a challenge for tribal members. And while treaties protect traditional resource harvests in some places, in others no protections exist. Still, today tribes and the managers of these monuments have active conversations. They continue to work out longstanding problems and to discuss the long-term future of these special places, both parties wishing to protect these places for the benefit of future generations. The sites are still in some important ways "tribal lands," though they are now part of a shared heritage linking Native and non-Native peoples. Do visit. Make these places part of your own personal geography. Yet, tribal elders ask: please show the deepest respect. For these are lands that have been respected and visited for countless generations before us. Every part of these Monuments’ natural landscape is eminently worthy of respect. The care of the lands now falls into the hands of our present generation, including both Native and non-Native peoples. Soon enough, we all must hand them on to the next generation, intact, along with the knowledge and concern to preserve them. In a fundamental way, these Monuments and the knowledge of how to care for them, is part of our shared inheritance as Oregonians.

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