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Latgawa name should be commemorated on county land

On the recent proposal to change the three “Dead Indian” geographic names, the Jackson County commissioners voted to respond to the Oregon Geographic Names Board (OGNB) request for comment with “No opinion, but with comment.”

“No opinion” is fine. However, their added formal “comment” was stated to the effect “that the name Latgawa is problematic” because “the Latgawa people were never an official Tribe recognized by the federal government.” This comment is unfortunate and shows profound unawareness of important historical facts.

First, no rule restricts giving place-names only to Indigenous groups that were/are federally recognized tribes. More importantly, the Latgawa people were a distinct ethnic group who lived in the Bear Creek Valley, Sams Valley, and upper Rogue River drainage (including along Little Butte Creek, where the currently named “Dead Indian Creek” is a major tributary). Abundant evidence documents the existence of the Latgawa (also called the “Upland Takelma” by anthropologists) as a distinct people — with their own language (a unique dialect of the Takelman language). They had their own spiritual ceremonies, including a “first-salmon” ritual on the Rogue, and gave their own place-names to peaks and streams on our landscape.

Perhaps the commissioners decision to label the name Latgawa as “problematic” (due to lack of federal recognition) stems from the existence of fairly recent, self-described “Indian tribe” that chose to call itself the “Latgawa.”

This alleged “tribe” sprang up in Jackson County a few decades ago. At that time I telephoned the group’s founder and self-appointed “chief.” Identifying myself by name, I told him (correctly) that I had ancestral connections to a Native tribe far to the east, in Quebec (the Iroquois de la Montagne, near Montreal). I asked if that was sufficient for me to join his “tribe.” Emphatically replying “yes,” the “chief” stated his intention to obtain federal recognition as an “Indian tribe” and then open a casino in the Rogue Valley (which, he claimed, would bring wealth to each tribal member). You can decide for yourself as to the “tribal” authenticity of this group. Despite past attempts, they have not received federal recognition and it’s extremely doubtful they ever will. To me, the name “Latgawa” has been opportunistically misused by these people, and I understand the commissioners’ reluctance to give any credibility to this group.

However, those whom I call here the “true Latgawa” (the people who actually lived here 170 years and more ago) suffered severely during the white-settler invasion of the 1850s. A band of the true Latgawa were the victims of the infamous October 1855 “Lupton Massacre” perpetrated by local miners and others who, riding their horses from Jacksonville (under a banner that proclaimed “Extermination” no less) to lie in ambush at the Latgawa camp, killed over twenty men, women, and children as they emerged from their huts at dawn to greet the new day. This atrocity started the final Rogue River War, which ended with the forced removal of almost all surviving Indigenous people from our region.

Latgawa descendants are indeed members of federally recognized tribes, just not by that particular name. This is why: In 1856 they (along with survivors of various other distinct ethnic groups who lived in our region) were packed off and crowded together on the Siletz and the Grand Ronde reservations, where children were compelled to stop speaking their native language, stop practicing their religion, and so on. Gradually, through intermarriage and so forth, the eventual descendants of all of these various, formerly separate, ethnic groups became the present members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which are indeed federally recognized. The term “Confederated” simply refers to the historical fact that they are descendants of formerly separate ethnic groups, including the Latgawa.

It’s a complex and tangled history, a history over which the true Latgawa had no say in the matter. Do we therefore erase the actual name of this people from both the maps and the heritage of our region? Those true Latgawa were here. They lived and died here for millennia. Should the county, in effect, allow the specious actions of an apparent “pretender” group to thereby prevent the name of the true Latgawa from being commemorated on the land? Wouldn’t that be a final “kick in the teeth”? If that were to happen, I have a hunch that Indigenous people in the future would consider it yet another act of “cultural genocide.

Jeff LaLande is an archaeologist and historian who has lived in Jackson County since 1969.