Joyce Blair, member of the Cow Creek Tribe, stands in the Tapʰòytʰaʼ Hall, a building with was helped funded by the Tribe after the Oct. 1 2015 shooting.
Kamilah Mirza / The Mainstream

The Local Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe’s History

In the western foothills of the Cascade range, along the Oregon Coast and throughout the southern region of Douglas County lies the Cow Creek River, bringing its the name to the Cow Creek Tribe. 

The territory that the Tribe originally lived in spanned in the north from the Willamette Valley to east of Crater Lake down to the Klamath Marsh and over into the entire Umpqua and part of the Rogue River watersheds, then further west into the Cascades and coastal regions of southwestern Oregon and then south into the Siskiyous. 

In the 1850s, shortly after an influx of miners and settlers due to the Donation Claims Act, a federal statute encouraging settlers to develop western lands, Cow Creek Chief Miwaleta lost his life due to an epidemic that swept through the indegenous people of Oregon. On September 19th of 1853 the tribe secured a treaty with the United States. On April 12 of 1854, the treaty was ratified by the Senate, causing the Cow Creek Tribe to become landless, ceding over 800 square miles of land, only getting paid 2.3 cents per acre. The land was later sold for $1.25 per acre to pioneer settlers. Promises of health care, housing, and education were broken. 

According to the Cow Creek Tribe website under their Tribal Story, there were attempts were made to relocate the tribe to a reservation, however, the tribe resisted being relocated thus leading the Indian Bureau of Affairs to send exterminators to the Tribe. The Tribe remained and eventually assimilated with settlers in the area. 

In 1954, the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act ended federal relations with over 60 tribes including the Cow Creek Tribe. The act failed to provide any prior notice to the tribes, and because of this in 1980 the Cow Creek Tribe obtained presidential action for a land claims case in the United States Court of Claims. The Tribe negotiated on a settlement of $1.5 million. The fund was then made into an endowment. According to the Cow Creek Tribe’s website, the earned interest is drawn on an annual basis and put towards education, housing, health, and economic development. The Tribe writes that the exigency of the settlement was very important to them and is vital for the Tribe to help maintain the security of its people. 

The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribes is one of nine federally recognized Indian Tribal governments in Oregon. The tribe is governed by an elected 11 member council: the Tribal Board of Directors. There are over 1,800 members today.

UCC Student and Tribal Member 

Joyce Blair, UCC student, wife and mother of four, is a member of Cow Creek Tribe. Blair has a deep respect for the generations of people before her. Her family lineage is well known to Cow Creek Tribe. Elanor Lee Dumont, is Blair’s great-great-great grandmother, she and her daughter Mary Agnes Gilbeaugh are featured on the Cow Creek Tribe website.

Blair is close to her living grandmother. “My grandmother knows all sorts of knowledge. She speaks Takelma. She stands at four foot nothin’ with a braid longer than she is,” Blair says with excitement as she begins to describe her family and upbringing. “My grandmother makes my earrings, I make the necklaces to match. We make our jewelry together so she can pass on her knowledge of beading so I may pass it on to my kids.”  

Dancing is extremely important to Blair, a tradition passed onto her from her mother. “My mother was amazing. She took me and my siblings to different dancers in the community and they all taught me. My mother started a dance class held at Myrtle Creek Junior High where people from all over would come down. The class would teach us all the different traditional and modern women’s and men’s dances and the stories behind the dances. My favorite dance is the Fast and Fancy Shawl Dance. It teaches you to dance strong on the arena floor.” 

Blair went on to say, “The first time I danced I was told I had springs that grew at the bottom of my feet. I feel the land, the air and the spirits around me. It’s an emotional sense of comfort. I feel like I am in the right place.”

Blair also has a special relationship to the Pow Wow ceremonies, her first attendance was at two months old. For Blair, the Pow Wow is a place of celebration. “We invite the public and other tribes, people from all over the world. We celebrate with dance, food, drumming and flutes and so much more. The atmosphere is inviting, very positive, and there’s very little judgement there.” Blair stated the Pow Wows at South Umpqua Falls are drug and alcohol free and welcoming for all who wish to come. 

As a mother, Blair teaches her children through action and example. “I teach history to my children through storytelling, life lessons and by being a living example. I try to be a model for them.” One tradition that Blair carries on is smudging, the practice of burning bundles of sage to cleanse and clear spaces of negative energy. “Smudging the house is generational. My children line up when I bring it out. My husband and his family are white Americans. They have sage in their house as well. It’s an important practice, and I’m proud of other people incorporating a diverse practice into their homes.”

Pushing Through Adversity 

Blair and her family members experienced hardships growing up. “Racism comes in so many different levels. From education, to the color of your skin, to the color of your eyes. My siblings who were darker in complexion received the blunt end of it. I remember once I was in a store in Myrtle Creek. A white man looked at us with anger, as if we had done something wrong. As a little girl those looks made me feel scared and confused. I didn’t understand why these people hated me. The man said something to my mother about us, and she said to him, ‘These children are native, we were here before you, and you will respect them.’ She took us and left.”

Blair lost her mother on March 5th of 2006. The loss was hard on her, however she continued to keep her head high and work toward her goals in life.
Support for Tribal Members

For members of the Tribe, medical resources are available through the Cow Creek Health and Wellness Center. “If it weren’t for my tribe I would be hurting medically speaking,” Blair says. “I am blessed to have insurance from my tribe. They provide me with a clinic and refer me to dental services. They also provide mental health services for those in need of various things such as sexual trauma counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, tobacco cessation and more.”

Support for tribal members extends to those in need even around the holiday season. “The Cow Creek are recognized for being kind. Once a year, they offer members a food basket with a turkey and all the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner. I need these resources for my children to have a Thanksgiving,” Blair said. 

A Student’s Journey Through Higher Education

Higher education opened many doors for Blair. In 2018 she received the Legacy Ball scholarship at UCC. Not only did she did she become more financially stable she also gained a new perspective on speaking her truth. “As I came to college I learned more about my culture and my people. I learned why so many of my people were afraid to speak. Growing up, we couldn’t talk about a lot because it could bring trouble or bad people. I didn’t know there were attempts to exterminate our people because of our beautiful land. They couldn’t negotiate with us; they had to kill us.” 

Blair says education is a vital element to bringing more cultural competency to our community. “The Cow Creek has a story on their website. That’s a great starting point. If people took the time to learn more and educate themselves about us there would be more empathy. Your empathy helps me to know I am not alone in this world.”

For more information about the Cow Creek Tribe, please visit cowcreek.com.
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Kamilah Mirza

For questions contact me at uccmainstream@yahoo.com