This weekend the Chetco Tribe had their third annual Pow Wow. The whole event might be considered by some to be a complete flop. There were few dancers, fewer vendors, and not many people came to watch. What I saw though, was strength, and pride, and hope. Those few Indians, despite the disappointment of a low turnout, persisted, and accepted what was. The weekend was a success to most of us there.
The Chetco Indians of southern Oregon once lived spread out over a vast area reaching from the Winchuck River, near the California border, to Cape Ferrelo 13 miles to the north. They lived mainly along the lower reaches of the Chetco and Winchuck Rivers, but also in camps along the coast. They were hunter gatherers, and fished, harvested shellfish, picked berries and acorns, and hunted sea lions in their lush coastal territory. They lived in wooden plank houses, wore clothing woven from bark and grass, with the occasional deer hide poncho for warmth, and were peaceful, warring only sporadically with surrounding tribes, the Tututni and the Tolowa. At their peak, they probably numbered fewer than 1000 individuals and lived in several permanent villages near the mouths of rivers, with seasonal camps in the mountains where acorns were gathered and processed and a small amount of big game was hunted. They had little organization, with no designated "chief", and decisions were made by all adult members of the village. They called themselves the "cheti", which was misspelled and evolved into their current name 'Chetco'.
All this changed of course with the coming of the white man, and like most Indian peoples, their way of life was completely disrupted and their numbers greatly diminished. In 1856, what remained of the Chetco tribe was forcibly relocated to the Siletz Indian reservation. Estimates vary between 40 and 100 Chetcos still remaining at that time. Reservation life wasn't kind to the Chetcos, and by 1910 fewer than 10 Chetcos could be accounted for. Lucy Dick, said to be the last full-blooded Chetco Indian died in 1940, and with her seemed to die the Chetco people.
Recently, however, descendents of the Chetco Indians have begun getting together. No one speaks the old language anymore, so that has been lost, but some of the traditions, recipes, ceremonies and stories have been kept alive. They are teaching their children about their heritage. They are educating the public about their ways. For three years now, they've held a Pow Wow, celebrating and proclaiming their existence. They may be small, but they aren't dead, and that's a good thing.