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1984: Promises kept, gains shared

From 650 enrolled members scattered around Southern Oregon to 1,500 members today, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians is a growing and self-sufficient nation.

The tribe received federal recognition in December 1982, 129 years after the Cow Creek Band signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1853, giving away 800 square miles of ancestral lands.

Federal support improved essential services and medical care in the early days, and today the Cow Creek tribe is an economic powerhouse and a major philanthropic benefactor. The tribe has found its voice and its Takelma language.

“And it all started with bingo,” says Michael Rondeau, CEO of the Cow Creek Band.

“The Cow Creek Band was technically terminated in the 1850s, and many of our members went north to the Siletz and Grand Ronde, but there were still Cow Creek here that didn’t go,” explains Rondeau.

Members of the tribe tended to live in family units rather than in larger communities, complicating the Cow Creek’s petition for federal recognition and the reservation lands promised in the 1853 treaty.

Recognition of the tribe meant that the Cow Creek were eligible for federal money in the same way that states were eligible.

Just two years after recognition, an article in the 1984 issue of Our Valley reported that federal home improvement funds were used to repair houses for the elderly, the Indian Health Services began to deliver health care in Canyonville, and the tribe hired a general manager.

In 1985, a settlement with the U.S. government brought restitution for the more than 500,000 acres taken at the time of the treaty, a payment of $.025 per acre. The settlement gave the Cow Creek Band an interest-bearing fund to plan for the future.

“We were blessed to have a board in the 1980s that was progressive and yet conservative,” Rondeau says. “The board had values derived from the Depression Era: holding onto property, trying to be conservative with money, but helping as many as possible ... We’ve always run two tracks: the social and cultural side and the economic side, which we had to have to run those programs.”

The first Cow Creek land purchase was in 1986, an old drive-in motel in Canyonville. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 paved the way for casino-style gambling, and in 1992 the Cow Creek Band was the first Oregon tribe to negotiate a gaming compact with the state.

“Initially the location of Seven Feathers was a bingo hall; the footprint was very small and it grew into what it is today, with a hotel of 300 rooms. Across the way there was a gas station with a very simple convenience store that everyone in south county knew as Fat Harvey’s,” says Susan Ferris, a consultant who works with the Cow Creek Band. “The tribe bought that, and now it’s a fueling station for traffic up and down I-5, with gasoline and diesel, an RV park and a rest stop for travelers.”

The Cow Creek have invested heavily in local economic development projects, providing economic stability and enhancements for the tribe and the greater community through jobs, improved medical care, social programs and philanthropy.

Since its inception in 1997, the foundation arm of the Cow Creek Band has contributed nearly $18 million to nonprofits in the tribe’s ancestral lands. In January 2019, 73 nonprofits received $496,500.

The Cow Creek also work to preserve a rich cultural heritage, and revive the Takelma language.

Edward Sapir, who was a linguist and anthropologist, documented the Cow Creek Band and Takelma, the language used by the Cow Creek Band in field work conducted at the turn of the century. Sapir’s work is the basis for the revitalization of the Takelma language, and his writings, including Takelma word lists and pronunciation guides, are available online in The First Nations Collection of the Southern Oregon Digital Archives at Southern Oregon University.

“Tribal elders drew pictures of the basic words — bird, fish, mother, father, tree — then people became immersed with phraseology,” Ferris says. “Michael Rondeau said to me, ‘Things that my parents and grandparents did and said were more readily understood because the words were more specific.’”

In 2018, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act was enacted into law, returning 17,500 acres of the Cow Creek Band’s ancestral lands to the tribe. The 1853 treaty promised the Cow Creek a permanent reservation, and after years of legal action, an act of Congress fulfilled the promise made 165 years before.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

In 1992, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians was the first Oregon tribe to negotiate a gaming compact with the state, resulting in Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville. Flickr.com