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Tribal people get say in Table Rocks

Like most people, John Mercier sometimes has long, stressful days that try his patience.

But Mercier, 50, director of operations for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, some 30 miles west of Salem, says the stress fades away when he stops to think about those who left indelible footprints ahead of him.

"When I deal with modern-day tribal strife, I remind myself that this is nothing compared to what our ancestors went through," he said.

"And I occasionally read an excerpt from writings by John Beeson or Stephen (Dow) Beckham to remind me what they endured," he added of the authors who have advocated for Indian rights. "It creates a sense of humility in me, and pride to know our ancestors were such strong people."

Mercier is the great-great-grandson of Martha Jane Sands, a venerated tribal elder who, as a young girl, survived an attack on her village near the Table Rocks on Oct. 8, 1855. A volunteer militia from Jacksonville killed 30 Indian men, women and children, launching the nine-month-long Rogue River Indian Wars. Hundreds of local Indians, including Sands, were forced from their homeland and marched 260 miles in the dead of winter to the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations. The wars ended with the defeat of Chief John and his warriors in the Battle of Big Bend on the Rogue River in June 1856.

In honor of the march Sands made as a young girl and her contributions as an elder, a statue was erected in the Spirit Mountain Casino, which opened in 1995 at Grand Ronde.

"As a child, I didn't know much about her other than she survived as a little girl by hiding in a beaver dam," Mercier said of Sands, a member of the Takelma tribe. "I grew up in Grand Ronde, which was my home, my sense of well-being. That was the tribal focus. There really wasn't much talk about the war and the relocation. But I knew where the Rogue River was, where our ancestry was from."

The more Mercier learned about his ancestor's life and the struggles she faced, the more impressed he became with her inner strength.

"I'm very proud of her," he said, adding that her daughter, Hattie Hudson, who also became a well-known tribal elder, was his grandmother, although she died before he was born. "I had a very large family in Grand Ronde."

Having studied tribal history, Mercier often thinks about the changing way of life his ancestors faced more than 150 years ago.

"It's a rich, fascinating history," he said. "There were multiple other tribes that were removed. Chief Sam (for whom Sams Valley is named) apparently thought it was a temporary plan until after the war was over. He and other chiefs all thought they could go back to the Rogue Valley.

"But when you get into the treaty, there seems to be this silent understanding by the government that they were never going back," he said of the treaty signed Sept. 10, 1853, that ceded the Indian lands to the U.S. government in exchange for peace.

That's why signing an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Nature Conservancy on Sept. 10 of this year, exactly 158 years later and at the same location the treaty was signed, was so important to the tribe, Mercier said. Basically, the agreement places the tribe as equals in future management of the Upper and Lower Table Rocks.

The BLM manages 1,280 acres of the Table Rocks, while the conservancy has 2,789 acres, with conservation easements on nearly 800 more adjacent acres.

Upon signing the document, tribal chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy, 63, indicated it brought her people full circle. Her great-grandfathers were Chief Bogus and Chief Louie, both of whom signed the 1853 document.

"I do not speak lightly when I say I am thankful for those who helped carry out the vision that this land be set aside and maintained so it is brought back to what it used to be," Kennedy said after signing the document.

"When we do that, we not only heal the land but we heal ourselves."

Understanding the past is also an important component in the healing process, Mercier said.

Indian settlements were often along stream banks where gold miners sought potential deposits of placer gold, setting up an inevitable conflict, he said.

"The gold fever ravaged their ability to think of others — there was a lot of hostility towards Indians," he said.

In his diary of the monthlong march north in what the tribe refers to as the "Trail of Tears" from the Table Rocks, Indian agent George Ambrose noted there were seven deaths and seven births along the way.

A long-distance runner, Mercier said he would one day like to see a relay race from the Table Rocks to Grand Ronde to honor those who made the trek in the winter of 1856.

"I would like to recreate that walk to commemorate what our ancestors went through," he said.

While much of the tribe's original languages and traditions have diminished over the years, the multimillion-dollar casino has had a major impact, said Mercier, who is of the Catholic faith and has mixed feelings about the casino.

"It has been very good as far as stabilizing our economic health," he said, which has provided health care, investments for the tribe and millions for charity and scholarships. "Back in the early 1980s, Grand Ronde was a horribly depressed area economically. What I do like about it is it has created good jobs. I have both tribal and nontribal friends working there now.

"But it has changed the complexion of our community — we are in a big change now," he added.

Meanwhile, he plans to visit the Table Rocks early next month to help work on advancing the agreement signed in September. Accompanying him will be daughters Hattie, 6, and Grace, 4, both of whom were with him when the September agreement was signed.

"Gracie is giving me a hard time because I haven't taken them back to 'that flat rock,' " he said, adding, "They are good little hikers."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy speaks during a September ceremony in which an agreement was signed giving the tribe equal status in managing the Table Rocks. The ceremony took place at the same spot on Lower Table Rock that an 1853 treaty was signed ceding tribal land to the federal government in exchange for peace. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch