News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Black Butte Ranch holds thousands of years of history

The Black Butte Ranch land is rich with human history. Writing the 50th anniversary book, “There is a Place,” was a lesson in pursuing a more complete understanding of the people who called the region home.

While researching the book, I found human history for the Black Butte Ranch (BBR) area usually focused on stories about the Santiam Wagon road that passed over BBR land, the “discovery” of the area by the first white explorers and the many attempts by land speculators and investors to use the area at the base of Black Butte known as “Black Swamp,” to raise livestock.

At the tail end of the removal of indigenous people from their lands, Camp Polk was established to protect settlers from Native people who were fighting for their freedom and birthright. By the time soldiers arrived they were no longer needed. Warm Springs Reservation had been established and Northern Paiute people who hunted, gathered, and lived in the area had been forced to live with many of their long-time enemies on the reservation. Hearing stories passed down over many generations from Northern Paiute Elder Wilson Wewa helped me understand a more complete history including that of his ancestor, Chief Paulina.

Researching for the history portion of the book, it became clear, especially in older reference books, that the Native American presence was underplayed. Wewa, a Warm Springs elder, generously recounted some of the history lessons he acquired throughout his life from elders who knew the stories of his people’s love and innovative stewardship of their homelands.

Part of my interest and perseverance to hear stories of the Indigenous people who lived in the area before they were forced to live on reservations was inspired by the discovery, twenty years earlier, of a cache of bi-faced tools near Paulina Springs pool. The general manager back then, Loy Helmly remembered getting word from a construction crew working on a renovation project who dug up an old satchel full of obsidian tools. The bag disintegrated immediately after being unearthed by a backhoe leaving an array of tools cached there possibly hundreds of years before. They were left to be used by the next Northern Paiute hunters who camped next to what was later named Paulina Springs.

Management at Black Butte Ranch brought in an expert to assess the find and make sure there were no burial grounds in the area. After it was ascertained that it was not a burial site, the obsidian has been cared for by the Ranch, and there are plans to eventually display them for visitors to learn more about the original people who called the area home.

As a long-time visitor to the Ranch, hearing Wewa’s words and deep understanding of the area as home to his people, I felt my appreciation and reverence for the area and the Northern Paiute people expand. Making a go of it in the Central Oregon weather and often-harsh landscape was never easy for early people. But the Native Americans figured out how to live in harmony with the land and its inhabitants by seeing all of God’s creation as brothers and sisters.

Wewa pointed out that early human culture in the Great Basin was not without its exploitations and cruelty. There was a constant flow of people from different areas from the Klamath River to the Columbia who traded all manner of things from beads to slaves.

Hearing that that kind of commerce was taking place on what is now Black Butte Ranch was hard to hear and heart-wrenching. Just the little bit of history I unearthed in my efforts to tell a complete story of the area made me remember the human travesties we are still reckoning with today began thousands of years ago in places I never imagined. History is complicated and I’ve learned all we can do is try to tell the whole story, not just the one that glorifies one group of people and demonizes another.

It’s an old plot and an old story that needs to be heard, and hopefully left behind, as a cautionary tale we will finally stop repeating.


Reader Comments(0)