Through the Millennia
Although our ancestors left no maps depicting borders and population centers, we know a great deal about our people’s historical territory. Archaeological evidence and oral histories pinpoint many of the places where our ancestors lived, places where they harvested food and materials, and places they held sacred.
Our ancestors commonly constructed their permanent villages along the tidewaters and lower reaches of streams and rivers. Travel tended to be easiest there, and fish and game were abundant year-round. At least seven such villages are known to have stood between Bandon and Myrtle Point on the lower Coquille River. Others sat among the many forks of the upper river. Lower Coos Bay at South Slough was another area dotted with villages.
In addition to the permanent villages, seasonal camps were established in various upland areas during spring, summer and fall. At the times of year when nuts, berries or other plants were ready for collecting, or when fish or game were plentiful, people from multiple villages might meet to harvest, share and trade resources.
These known village sites by no means constitute the full extent of Coquille aboriginal territory. Trade and gathering took place over a large geographic area. Ongoing research is expanding our knowledge of Coquille prehistory, but today no one can precisely define the reach of our ancestral homelands.
The Land Provides
The fertile landscape of southwest Oregon was a bountiful storehouse for our ancestors. Berries and nuts, root plants, fish, sea and land mammals, and shellfish provided a plentiful and varied diet.
Along with sustenance, forests provided for many of our ancestors’ other needs. Native people crafted tools and utensils from wood, which was often fired first to improve its hardness and durability. The yew tree provided the raw material for bows. Arrows were made from hazel or ocean spray. Vine maple could be used for making net and spear handles.
Among all plants, the red and white varieties of cedar may have been the most integral to the Coquille people’s traditional way of life. Their trunks could be shaped into canoes or be split into house timbers. Their wood provided tools and weapons. Outer bark became roofing, buckets and cups, while inner bark could be formed into blankets, clothing, baskets and nets. Roots and branches provided baskets, bedding and cordage. Burned for smudge, the cedar had ceremonial importance as well.
Many plants provided materials for basketry: hazel, bear grass, ferns, cattails and others. Color came from berry juice, or from intertwining maidenhair fern for black, red alder or hemlock bark for red, bear grass for white, or the colorful feathers of woodpeckers and other birds.
The land and the waterways provided sustenance for all our people’s needs.
Treaties and Termination
The Coquilles’ traditional relationship to the land was shattered in the 1850s, as miners and settlers poured into the region. Treaties signed in 1851 and 1855 ceded more than 1 million acres to the U.S. government. Within a few years, the only Indians remaining in the region were the families of women who had married pioneer men, and those who had managed to escape from the reservation. In the void left by the Indians’ departure, white Americans soon built flourishing communities.
Congress did not ratify the treaties of the 1850s, and the Coquilles received no reservation land base of their own. In 1954, when Congress terminated federal recognition of 61 Western Oregon tribes and bands, the only remaining “Indian lands” on the South Coast consisted of a six-acre patch at Empire, surrounding the Tribal Hall.
But eviction from their homes and termination of their Tribe could not sever the Coquille people’s ties to the land. Many continued to live in places where our ancestors had made their homes: Powers, Myrtle Point, Coquille, Bandon, the South Slough, Empire and others. Decades later, many Coquille families still live in or near those areas.
Additional information can be found in the Oregon Public Broadcasting program, “Broken Treaties, An Oregon Experience.”