Petition to Rename Dead Indian Memorial Road
Petition to Rename Dead Indian Memorial Road
On this date, the 4rd of July, 2020, we Indigenous people of Oregon hereby formally submit our petition to the County Commissioners of Jackson County and request immediate remedy and recourse with regards to renaming the road currently entitled Dead Indian Memorial Road. The present name, “Dead Indian,” works to memorialize and glorify a past relationship between “Indians” and Whites that is historically found to be fraught with violence. Many Oregonians currently remain unaware of the vast losses Oregon tribes have endured since settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Our petition to remedy would work towards not only healthier communities in Oregon but would also mark a small step forward towards healing and racial justice overall. To refuse the opportunity to remedy, by allowing the continuance of the name Dead Indian Memorial Road, however, would be an outright refusal to redress a historical wrong. The time has come to do what is right and just, for all Oregonians.
Descendants of the pioneers are quick to decry their “long” history here in Oregon, comprised of only a few generations. We Indigenous people of Oregon understand the importance of honoring one’s history and ours dates back for hundreds of generations on lands that we have occupied for more than 10,000 years. Over our many millenniums of residence in in this Illahee (land) we grew to a great diversity of at least 100 cultures and languages. We Tillixum (Native people) of Oregon are the original peoples of this land and have inhabited all of the many rivers, basins, plains and foothills of what is now known as the State of Oregon today. During the days of early settlement of the West, thousands of Native people died defending their rights to live on lands that their Tillixum had lived in since the beginning of the myth ages of the tribal nations. We know that the majority of those who died had no hand in any conflict, yet they were killed for simply being “Indians” living in the places that the White men wanted. We also know that the origin of the dead Indians found in the area is unknown, but that the name today resonates with the well-known history of the battles and wars fought in this area in the 1850s, and that there is no need to memorialize anyone’s death in this anonymous manner.
In the mid nineteenth century, spanning the decades between the 1830s and 1860s, Oregon was flooded by tens of thousands of settlers, ranchers, and gold miners. Those settlers who came during this time period were mainly white people who wanted to make this state a sanctuary, intended for ‘whites only.’ They saw the value of the valleys, of the gold fields, of the many rivers, and sought to take it all and leave nothing for the Indigenous people of Oregon. In search of gold, they massacred entire villages of people. In punishment for an alleged stolen horse, they would kill dozens of Tribal people, commit sexual assaults, and forcibly kidnap Indian women and children. As a result, Tribal cultures and sustainable ways of subsistence were devastated.
In spite of brutalities suffered at the hands of early settlers, and of early courts referring to Native people as “heathens” and “fierce savages, whose only occupation was war,” by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall (Johnson v. McIntosh, 1823), Indian people of Oregon often sought peace and agreements that would allow all to live equitably, in direct defiance of racially charged stereotypes. However, when tribes signed treaties, selling their lands to the Federal government in exchange for a reservation and peace, they continued to be attacked; the massacred Takelma village at Deer Creek is a silent testimony to the destruction of the tribes at the hands of early settler militia who committed genocide on these people. Such is the legacy of the colonization of Oregon, destruction, and genocide of “Indian” people.
Our people have died in so many ways, and void are the annals of history where white Americans are shown to be held responsible for their crimes against Indigenous people. Alexis de Tocqueville noted, with regards to these brutalities towards Indians, that “It is impossible to destroy men with more respect to the laws of humanity.” The injustices were clear as well to the Indian Superintendent of Oregon, General Joel Palmer, who in the 1850s, decried the lack of justice for Native peoples whose families had suffered genocide. When Palmer tried to convict Indian murderers in the circuit court at Port Orford, the rights of tribal people for justice were ignored, and the case was thrown out. This inevitably convinced him that there would never be justice for any Indians in Oregon, because no white American court would try or convict their own. This realization has deeper connotations, and makes the meaning behind “Dead Indian Memorial Road” quite clear, as it represents a time when American Indian communities, our families, were killed by settler militia without any fear of punishment, and our own people, were without legal recourse or protections under American law.
There is hope, however, when attention is drawn to historical oppressions. For instance, in 2001, the Oregon State legislature signed a law to replace derogatory Squaw place names in Oregon. This project is not only historical, but a marked success with only two dozen of the original of nearly 200 remaining in the state. We Natives, however, have noticed other place names which should be changed as well, based on events in Oregon history which stereotype and demoralize American Indian people. Dead Indian Road is a place name in Jackson County which does just this. Renamed in the 1993 as Dead Indian Memorial Road, its new name is no better than the original, and works to attempt to capture a past relationship between Native peoples and Whites that was fraught with murder, kidnapping, and rape, by memorializing it. This name does nothing but prop up the vainglory of the settlers and gold miners who committed genocide on whole tribes of Native people because they wanted wealth and land. “Indians,” men, women, and children, were murdered because they were thought of as nothing more than “savages” infesting the land and needing to be destroyed.
This is not an attempt to be politically correct, but rather, a realistic engagement with the history of southern Oregon and an attempt to do the right thing on behalf of not only the Native peoples of Oregon, many of whom live in Southern Oregon, but for all people of Oregon to recognize and learn the whole history of Oregon from a multitude of perspectives. Gone are the days when Native peoples are only living on the reservations. In fact, the majority of all Natives live off of the reservation, living in our nation’s urban centers, and rural communities. We Indigenous people of Oregon are citizens of this country and state, and live in every town, every county. We live with the constant burden of histories that ignore our experiences, monuments to the destruction of our civilizations and the many derogatory place names for our people. For our whole lives, we have lived amongst constant reminders of the horrible treatment of our families, a ghastly underlying theme in American society, which continues to go unrecognized.
We petition Jackson County Commissioners to allow the name to be changed for this road, currently known as Dead Indian Memorial Road. We Indigenous peoples of Oregon and our allies petition the Commissioners of Jackson County, Oregon to lend credence to experiences of Indigenous peoples in Oregon, by taking into high consideration that the new name recognize a tribe in the area who was forced to vacate their lands to save themselves from certain and imminent destruction, to honor these people who were forcibly removed from the land, and to bring recognition to their contributions, that were seemingly erased by advancing American civilization. We also petition the Oregon Geographic Names Board to make this renaming a priority in the near future.
This July 4th, all Americans commemorate the birth of the United States. We Native peoples are members of this country too, and our experiences deserve the same respect as any other peoples in this nation.
With Respect to the Peoples of Oregon
David G. Lewis, PhD (Takelma, Santiam, Chinook)
Jolene Bettles (Klamath, Nez Perce, Chugach, Wasco, Aleut)