American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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"Coosans" describes the Coosans proper and Siuslaw peoples. The word is probably southwestern Oregon Athapaskan and refers to Coos Bay and the surrounding region. "Coos" may mean "on the south," "lake," or "lagoon." "Siuslaw" comes from the Siuslaw word for their region.

The Coosans lived around Coos Bay, Oregon, roughly from Twomile Creek in the south to Ten-mile Lake in the north. Siuslawan speakers lived north of them, along the coast and inland, to about Tenmile Creek. Except for the immediate coast, much of the area is mountainous and densely forested. Today, most of these people live in and around Coos Bay in southwestern Oregon. The number of Coosans in the mideighteenth century may have approximated 4,000. This number had declined to roughly 465 by 1870. Coosans spoke two Coosan languages: Hanis and Miluk. The Siuslawans spoke the Siuslaw language, which consisted of the dialects Siuslaw proper and Lower Umpqua (Kuitches). Both Coosan and Siuslaw were Penutian languages.

Individuals could acquire power, mostly used to ensure luck in gaining wealth, through dreams and spirit quests. Unlike more northerly tribes, few other than shamans were actively involved with the supernatural; most people were much more interested in obtaining wealth. The most common kind of shaman was rigorously trained as a curer of disease (caused either by the intrusion of a disease-causing object, often sent by a hostile shaman, or, less often, by soul loss). The second kind of shaman was more ritualistic; in addition to curing, these shamans also found thieves and promulgated evil. They were involved in the numerous life cycle taboos and especially in the elaborate girls' puberty ceremony and various other rituals of purification.

The people regularly held large-scale ceremonies featuring dancing, feasting, games, and gambling. Their mythology included stories of a primordial trickster, of legends, and of supernatural beings of forest and water. First salmon and first elk ceremonies (the ritualistic preparation and consumption of the season's first catch or kill) were also held.

The basic political unit was the winter village group, usually a group of paternally related men with their families. Each major village had a chief and often an assistant chief. An informal council of wealthy men and women advised the chief. Succession was mainly hereditary, at least among the Coosans. Women might succeed if there were no eligible males. Chiefs arbitrated quarrels, supervised communal activities, and saw that no one went hungry. Villagers contributed food to the chief's family.

Coosan and Siuslaw society consisted of four classes: chiefly and wealthy families, a socially respectable majority, poor people, and slaves (obtained by capture or trade). The classes enjoyed similar subsistence levels; their main difference lay in nonfood wealth and status. Marriage occurred when a groom's family paid a bride price, which was later returned in a lifelong cycle of mutual gift giving and responsibilities. The dead were buried; their goods were broken and placed in and around the grave.

Permanent houses ranged between twenty and fifty or more feet long and half as wide and were excavated to a depth of about three to six feet. Two or more center posts supported a single ridgepole. Rafters sloped to the ground or to side supports. Walls and gabled roofs were of lashed cedar planks. Tule mats lined the inside walls, mat partitions divided the several families within the house, and mats or hides covered the floors. Bed platforms ran along the walls. Among the Siuslaw, two or more houses were sometimes joined.

Camp houses were of thatched grass with a gabled or one-pitch roof. Two types of sweat houses existed. One doubled as a men's clubhouse and boys' dormitory. It was square, plank-walled, excavated, and covered with dirt. The other, for use by both men and women, was in a beehive shape and heated by steam.

Most clothing was made by women from skins and various fibers. Both sexes wore leggings and moccasins but usually only for travel and in cold weather. On such occasions, they also wore head-bands and waterproof fur or fiber capes. Men generally wore breechclouts or shorts and often shirts and caps. Women wore shirts and skirts or one-piece dresses and woven hats. Everyone wore rain capes of cattail or shredded bark. Wealthy people were likely to decorate their clothing. Some people wore tattoos, primarily for measuring dentalia strings. The Kuitch wore large beads in their noses and flattened the heads of their infants.

The first regional contact with non-Natives occurred in 1792, when Upper Umpquas traded with U.S. and British ships. Occasional trade-based contacts through the 1830s were generally amicable, except for a Kuitch (Lower Umpqua) massacre of the Jedediah Smith party in 1828 and their attack on a Hudson's Bay Company fort in 1838.

Tensions increased with the major influx of non-Natives in the 1850s. Although only the southernmost Coosan group, the Miluks (Lower Coquilles), participated in general in the 1855–1856 Rogue River War, all the Coosans and Siuslawans also suffered. An 1855 treaty, signed by Chief Jackson and others, though never ratified, was used to dispossess the Indians of their land and move them the following year to the Lower Umpqua River. Miluks and Kuitch were taken to the Coast (later the Siletz and the Alsea) Reservation, where about half died of starvation, exposure, and disease.

During these and subsequent years, the military continued to round up groups of Indians living in remote areas. As was the case nearly everywhere, Indian agents stole mercilessly from the Indians. Indians who practiced their traditional customs were whipped at a post. Easy access to alcohol corrupted, demoralized, and sickened the people.

In 1860, both groups were forcibly marched to the Siletz Reservation, which had been created five years earlier. In 1861, people on the southern part of Siletz, including Coos and Kuitch, were moved to or near the Yachats River on the coast, home of the Alsea Indians. They remained there until 1875, dying of illness and starvation from trying to farm in a rain forest. In 1865, a central strip was removed from the reservation and opened for white settlement. The northern part then became the Siletz Reservation (Miluks) and the southern half became the Alsea Reservation (Coosans, Kuitches, and Alseans).

In 1875, when the Alsea Reservation was made available for non-Indian settlement, many people refused to go to Siletz. Some joined the Siuslawans while others filtered back to their original home-lands and received eighty-acre homesteads from the government in 1876. As their culture and language languished, tribal members worked as loggers, laborers, clam diggers, and cranberry harvesters. Women specialized in making baskets and cattail fiber mats.

Coosans who did live at Siletz worked at subsistence activities around the turn of the century. Indian loggers cut trees that stood on their former, plundered reservation. Siletz Indians won several small land claims judgments in the 1930s and 1950s. However, the tribe and reservation were "terminated" in the mid-1950s, with devastating result. They were restored in 1977 and given a 3,630-acre reservation three years later.

The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Suislaw organized formally in 1916. They have spent the rest of the century petitioning the government for compensation for their aboriginal lands, in vain to date. The Coos obtained a 6.1-acre "reservation" at Coos Bay in 1940. They were involuntarily terminated in 1954 and restored thirty years later.

The Dream Dance, a local variation of the Ghost Dance, was popular in the 1870s. By the twentieth century, most Native languages were no longer spoken. In 1917, Coosans and Siuslawans created the Coos–Lower Umpqua–Siuslaw Tribal Government. A schism in the Coos tribe occurred in 1951 after a court ruled that some Miluks were eligible to share in money awarded in a land claims suit to the (upper) Coquille (Mishikhwutmetunne) Indians. These Miluks then became affiliated with the Coquille Indian tribe.


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