My camping stove just blew up, and it’s spraying fire all over the campsite. I’ve hauled Jane back down to the Central Oregon Coast…And I’m supposed to be cooking her a Native Oregon meal.
This is not the first time. With shovels and permits and low tide, we’ve scoured the coast. Each time, we try harder, we face further disappointment. But giving up is not an option.
In the early summer of 2006, my brother and I found an old Native American hunting site in Oregon’s desert, and we asked ourselves questions about the people who might have made the stone tools we found there. When those answers proved missing in bookstores and libraries, I realized I needed to unfold Oregon’s native prehistory myself.
It makes sense to start everything here on the Oregon coast – since the first Americans came to the hemisphere along these very shores. It could be said that the Northwest coast is the one American place from which this hemisphere’s natives came.
While my camp stove rages and spits fire, the family man in the campsite next door asks if we are having a problem.
I pour water on the camp stove, but it does nothing but divert the flames. I yelp and look for more water, but it’s just about all gone. “You gotta smother the thing,” the family man says, “It’s the only way.” He takes my cooking pot and covers the flame; which struggles for a while and finally goes dead.
“These stoves are no good,” he says. “Check out mine. Flip a switch and it always lights.” I come over to his camp, where his teenage son and daughter are sulking and bitching. He shows me his table-top propane stove. “See!”
I know his stove, because it’s the same brand Jane’s mom uses to cook Korean barbecue. His telling me all this is a sick humiliation – but the fact remains, I wasn’t a boyscout, and I am simply not qualified for this job.
Perhaps. But last night by a raging fire, I made our first Indian meal at the base of Oregon’s Umpqua dunes, alongside a noisy coastal highway.
Large, rolling dunes of sand blanket Oregon’s coast for forty miles. Sometimes, these dunes are open and resemble those found in the desert southwest. But between these open dunes, stands of coastal pines rise, and underneath them are two shrub species of incredible importance to the Coastal Oregon Indians. Evergreen huckleberry bushes (Vaccinium ovatum) abound, and salal (Gaultheria shallon) as well. Each of these bushes yields a bluish berry. Huckleberries are similar in taste to blueberries, and salal is more tart.
Coastal Indians desired huckleberries, and salal was the their most important fruit, because of its abundance and ability to be mixed and used with other fruits.
I was at first intimidated by the inability to find ‘the recipe’ for these very basic coastal Indian ingredients. But think of gathering this way: you collect everything in a basket – your berries, your fruits, your roots, your mushrooms: the preparation is the diversity: the meal is a salad.
After our first day of foraging, I put these berries in a bowl and crushed them. We found a few oregon grape berries and mixed them in. I added salt, honey, and olive oil and mixed the berries with lettuce leaves.
This, my first task, is a simple act of picking dinner from the undergrowth. Somehow, it is enthralling.
In Oregon, the coastal strip and its coastal mountain range run the entire length of the state; and coastal Indians in Oregon; regardless of tribe, were interconnected by common ancestry, custom, lifestyle and geography. Some of these tribe names: the Tillamook or the Siuslaw, are familiar to many of us. The Siletz, the Alsea, the Coos and the Coquille tribes may be less familiar.
Fruits like salal and huckleberry would not have been foreign to Indians paddling south from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. I was surprised to learn that the flora of the Pacific Northwest coast is almost identical along its long spine north – Oregon coastal Indians’ foraging habits, then, may be representative of the habits of the Americas’ first inhabitants.
I was thinking about this a few years ago, when I was hiking on the Oregon Coast.
Millions of by-the-wind sailors (Vellela vellela) had washed up on that lonely Pacific shore in Southern Oregon.
It was no phenomenon; these blue and purple jellyfish evolved sails, which they use to ride the high seas. Most by-the-wind jellyfish on this part of the Pacific have right-leaning sails because of the prevailing northerly winds of the Pacific coast. They ride constantly on-tack at sea, except for days like that, when their fixed sails spell their doom by the millions.
Their carcasses crunch under my feet. Beaches in this part of the country are often empty – if you don’t count the by-the-wind sailors. And the dead whale.
Well actually, there is a lot more here than just me and the dead jellyfish, and this giant dead whale. There is breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For at least 11,000 years before Spanish ships and French fur traders, this coast was both home and kitchen.
I circled the dead whale, whose blubber has bronzed with time. I could not tell for sure what this huge animal was, but I guessed it was a juvenile gray whale. Having been born in Baja a few years ago, it was en route on its sophomore foray to the Arctic.
Unlike their neighbors to the North, Oregon Indians were not whale hunters. This was probably a matter of geography: While the Washington and British Columbia coastlines are protected by islands and inland waterways, Oregon’s coast is straighter, less protected. Coastal tribes, which are all named after the rivers they were associated with, usually lived at river mouths. This allowed them a highway into Oregon’s dense coastal forests, and the bounty of the river and tide.
But beached whales never went unprocessed: in Southern Oregon, beach strips were privately owned, and in Northern Oregon, the person who found the whale claimed ownership. Either way, the whale was stripped and its meat cherished by entire tribes.
As I child, I imagined the American genesis as a couple of Eskimo families carrying spears and chasing mammoths across a narrow and long land bridge.
Almost everything in that image is likely wrong; but the new science that describes why that image is wrong is fascinating. The land bridge was actually a sort of subcontinent, formed by the low sea levels of the ice age: Beringia was a thousand miles wide. Crossing this giant land bridge and then passing through Alaska during the ice age would have been technically impossible for any prehistoric human.
New scientific evidence continues to support the idea that America was primarily colonized by seafarers, who hugged the coast of Asia, then Beringia, and then the Pacific Northwest coast: foraging the coast or nearby coastal islands, which were often free of ice and likely filled with the same plants we see here, and seals, and salmon.
For years, it was assumed on a bed of circumstancial evidence that the Americas were populated by a land route along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Now, it is becoming more likely that both continents were populated by Pacific seafarers, paddling these coasts.
Because the ice age sea level was much lower, yesterday’s coastlines now sit underneath murky waters; archaeological evidence of these first Americans will likely never truly be uncovered.
With so much of Oregon’s prehistory either underwater or unaccounted for, I realize shovels and huckleberry picking won’t get us very far.
I am one of those people who prefers to figure things out on my own. I blow things up, I stumble along, and eventually, maybe, I figure it out.
But not this time. My errors can only be portals to so much discovery. Learning about Oregon's old Native history will require some outside help.
These notes continue in the Columbia River Basin.