Folklife Survey of Southeastern Oregon: Harney and Malheur Counties

by Adrienne Decker, Folklore Graduate Student

While many in Western Oregon don’t often have much opportunity to venture east of the Cascades, the high desert of Oregon is full of a rich cultural and historical heritage that should be of interest to our local lovers of artistic and homesteading traditions.

As we learned on our visit to Burns and surroundings to shadow folklorist Douglas Manger for a couple days of his NEA-funded folklife survey of Harney County, Oregon has a high concentration of tradition keepers, artisans, and performers.

We began our fieldwork adventure with Mike Slate, a traditional fur trapper and traveling butcher. Mike and his wife Terry are experts at the process from start to finish, laying each individual trap and preparing the bobcat and coyote furs themselves.

During our discussion, Mike emphasized the importance of maintaining the ecology of the desert landscape and managing the animal populations for the benefit of the ecosystem and the community, viewing trapping as a form of stewardship. For Mike and his family, trapping is more than a hobby and signifies a “heritage of freedom” that must be preserved against unethical, market-driven trapping practices.

We attended a meeting of the Harney County Cultural Alliance where Native basket maker Sara Barton was teaching a class. This introduction to Paiute traditions resonated nicely with our next stop at the Burns Paiute reservation for a visit with 95-year-old Rina Beers. Beers is regarded as the best cradleboard maker in the community and still completes every step of the crafting process herself, from gathering the willow reeds for the frame to designing and adding the final decorative beadwork. We then visited and interviewed Paiute storyteller Ruth Lewis, asking her about the Paiute language, her beadwork, and her traditional stories.

Before ending our day, we traveled outside the Burns city limits to interview Steve McKay: rancher, saddlemaker, horse seller, and buckaroo cowboy extraordinaire. Like Mike and Terry Slate, McKay sees a traditional way of life disappearing, and he does his own part, handtooling saddles and hitching horse hair quirts (small whips), to works in his own way to preserve those traditions and and pass them along.

On Sunday morning we returned to the Burns Paiute reservation for an interview with Julie Johnson, a jingle dancer and beadworker. Julie is also the substance abuse coordinator for the Burns Paiute reservation and strongly believes that “culture is prevention,” which is a message she has passed along to her four daughters, also dancers. Julie has participated in regional Powwow events since she was a teenager, and her love for dance is something she finds physically and spiritually fulfilling. Julie practices three main styles of Pan-Indian dance—Traditional, Fancy, and Jingle Dress. During our visit, she showed us the elaborate regalia and outfits used by her and her daughters at Powwow gatherings. According to Julie, all you need is one drum and one dancer, and you have a Powwow!

Throughout our discussion, Johnson emphasized the importance of dance to her identity and that of her family, as well as the continuity of history. While Julie did not grow up on the Burns Paiute reservation, she recently discovered that members of her family were original Malheur claimants. She began to feel a strong connection to the area and knows that Harney County is the place where she and her family can thrive.

Before returning to Eugene, we stopped by the home of Emory and Cecil Coons, a father and son team, to chat about “flint knapping” (arrowhead chipping). They showed us samples of their work, joking that they took up chipping to “fight the boredom in Harney County.” But as we discovered on our folklife field survey, Harney County is far from boring. Through the diverse and dynamic group of folks we talked to, we found that folklore and folk art really can be found anywhere as long as you are willing to look for them in unexpected places.

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