Though the Chetco culture showed significant variance from Tolowa religious and ceremonial life, there were no sharp breaks between the two, and the relationship of the two appears conclusive.
Thus Phillip Drucker's readable description of the Tolowa culture, published in 1937, gives us a mirror image of the Chetco way of life:
Salmon were plentiful and steelhead might be taken almost the year around. The sea provided a wealth of easily obtained food in the form of shellfish, surf fish, or smelt as well as the more spectacular, though econom-ically less important, sea lions, and an occasional stranded whale. In the adjacent hills, acorns, nutritious and easily stored, abounded, as well as many other vegetable products: roots, berries, seeds, and the like. Deer and elk were much sought after.
Of basic importance were salmon and acorns. Next were marine products, smelt, mollusks, and so forth ... The highly esteemed deer, elk, and sea lions (the "ocean deer") were prized in proportion to the difficulty with which they were obtained. A miscellany of vegetable products, small game, and minor sea foods gave variety to the diet.
Some foods were taboo: coyote, grizzly bear, cougar, all birds of prey and carrion, sea gull, dove, snakes, frogs and octopus. Most small fur-bearing animals such as raccoon, mink, otter, skunk were not eaten because they were not liked. Some refused to eat black bear because of its similarity to man.
The quest for food usually began in early summer. Roots and berries began to ripen and might be gathered in the valley and hills. On the ocean beaches clams, mussels, and sea lions were hunted. These were cured for storage. When the fall salmon (Chinook) entered the river, the important project was to catch and dry a winter supply. Later the acorn crop was harvested and the men hunted deer from up-river camps. When the rains and cold weather set in, the people returned to their principal villages.
This was the time for making and repairing gear, holding dances, and gambling. Even then, however, some fresh food was to be had. Deer and elk ranged close by in the lower country, and there were steelhead in the river. Occasionally, a dead whale was washed up on the beach.
The task of fishing, and the manufacture of all the gear, fell to the men. Women might not even watch the making of a basketry trap, or the tying of a gill net. The chief devices used were weirs, nets and harpoons. Angling, although not unknown, was little practiced. Good fishing sites were deemed important property, and privately owned.
Salmon were harpooned from canoes, often at night, when a long torch was supported on a pair of crossed sticks to extend over the bow. The canoe might be moored, or allowed to drift slowly over a deep hole. Usually one man steered and steadied the canoe while another wielded the harpoon. Men sometimes waded out on shallow riffles to "spear" salmon. Platforms seem not to have been used.
Hunting methods were fairly varied. Before firearms, the main dependence must have been on traps, though driving with dogs is said to have been common. The densely wooded nature of the country made stalking difficult.
... Nearby hills were kept clear of brush by annual burning; this also improved the grass, so that deer frequented such clearings and could be shot easily.
The technique of the sea lion hunt is worthy of full description. The expedition (there might be one or more canoes, each with a crew of five) paddled out to the rocks, where one or two from each canoe disembarked.
The men had to jump at just the right moment, when the canoe rose at the top of a swell, to reach the lowest precarious foothold. A sea lion asleep on the rocks was clubbed over the head.
Most of the gathering of edible products was women's work, though men did not disdain to help at times. Women dug the edible roots, picked berries, and gathered the all-important acorns. On the beach they gathered shellfish, and the seaweed, used for its salt content. Trips to offshore rocks for big mussels or sea birds' eggs were naturally made by the men.
Because of the seasonal nature of the principle food resources, it was necessary to preserve quantities large enough to last over the winter. A feature never omitted in a description of the house of a man of wealth is the rows of well-filled storage baskets set against the walls. The preparation and curing of nearly all the provisions fell to the women ...
The material culture of the Tolowa may be charac-terized first by an interest in good and neat workmanship, and second by the paucity of the tool kit. ...Woodworking was the chief craft of the men. House planks were split out of the straight-grained redwood, well-finished dugout canoes were made, wooden vessels, food stirrers, netting shuttles, and mesh gauges were neatly and symmetrically carved.
Work in bone, horn, and shell represented the acme of technical skill; the same implements and methods were used on these more difficult materials.
Men wore a deerskin kilt, with upper part of body bare. Women had a two-piece buckskin apron, or a shredded cedar or maple bark skirt. Both sexes usually went barefoot except on journeys when they used one-piece moccasins with sewn soles. Men's hair was worn loose or gathered in the back in a bunch tied to strips of fur; women fixed their hair in two braids.
In cold weather, both men and women donned robes made of deerskin or, if a man was wealthy, of sea-otter skin.
Money and Property
Drucker tells us about Chetco villages:
Only a rich man built a sweat house; he and male neighbors, usually relatives, slept, loafed and worked there. Sweat houses were excavations vertically planked and roofed, the roof being also covered with dirt. Fires to heat the sweat houses were made mornings and evenings.
Currency consisted of dentalium (tooth) shells, as was the common practice up and down the North Pacific Coast. Their value was standardized. With these shells One could pay damages; hire a doctor to cure; buy a magical formula, a canoe, a quiver full of arrows, or a dance headband. The currency counted for more in determining social status, and was not normally exchanged for the necessities of life.
The Social Life
As far social life, Drucker says: ... the unit of society was extremely simple, consisting of a group of paternal kindred, who inhabited a town and shared in the right to exploit the food resources of the surrounding territory.
Each of these town lineages centered about one individual, the man of greatest wealth. His status derived from his possession of riches. The retinue had no formal authority at all; if his kinsmen did his bidding it was out of respect for his wealth and his personality.
A rich man was one who had a house big enough for a dance, valuables enough (own possessions and those he had the right to borrow from brothers-in-law, etc.) to equip a dance; a sweat house; hunting, fishing, whale, and sea-lion claims; canoes, nets, harpoons, and other gear for exploiting those rights; money enough to obtain allegiance of young men by buying them wives and paying for wrongs committed by them at his orders or at their own discretion. His position thus was based on wealth; it was hereditary only in the sense that wealth was inherited.
As in many early societies, marriage was generally a matter of purchase. The man, or his family, bought a wife. The amount paid for the bride, arrived at by bargaining through an intermediary, was mandatory. There was also a dowry.
Warfare among the Indians was usually not much more than feuds between two kin groups, although intertribal conflicts also happened.
The Social Rules
The functional aspect of social life is extremely interesting. The society operated under a rather complex set of rules. Food-getting was hedged about by property rights, which were at times guarded most jealously. A marriage had to be arranged by a formal procedure of purchase; if separation followed, the money had to be refunded.
A man had certain obligations to his kin, and others to his in-laws. Murder, adultery, trespass, and cursing all had to be paid for in a formal manner and, ideally, according to a set scale of values.
Unlike anthropologists Drucker and Joel Berreman, early settlers and folk historians tend to glorify people of the past; however, impressions are part of the Chetco story.
The following account of how the Chetco Indians lived before the white men came was written for The Oregonian newspaper by Sam Van Pelt, son of a Chetco Indian woman who had married one of the first white settlers here.
Calling himself "an Indian of the Chetco River," Sam had this to say:
In early days around the Chetco River, before the white man appeared ...
Houses were built of split puncheon (of redwood mostly) by excavating from two to four feet in the earth, then standing puncheons on end seven or eight feet high. Then a saddle comb roof was put on of the same stuff with the exception of a hole ... where the smoke escaped.
There was a strip of territory of about a mile wide by 10 miles long skirting the ocean where all kinds of game could be seen all day long. We had grey wolf, panther, bear and wildcat by untold numbers.
Elk and deer meat were the principal meats used. ... The men would dig 10 or 12 feet deep in the soft clay, five to 10 feet in diameter. Then all of the young hunters would make drives across these pits. When the pits were full hunters would let the game go. Then they would kill and butcher what they would have and this was all divided with old first, then the rest would take their share. ...
The hunters then would turn to the ocean for the various kinds of fish and seal. Seal and sea lion was used for oil. This oil was rendered out and put in dried sea calf skins to keep sweet until used up.
Seal and sea lion were easy game as the hunters caught them asleep on the beaches and rocks close in. Now we have no sea lion or seal and our salmon are gone.
In the fall ... after the first frosts they would take their canoes and go up the river for the Son-Chon. This was the staff of life, made from the nut of the acorn. This was hulled and dried so it would keep without mildewing...
There was plenty of time for pleasure dancing and all kinds of games. The only thing that was cultivated was tobacco, and that was sown in the shade of the myrtle bottoms along the rivers. The reason for planting in the shade was so it would be mild and pleasant to inhale.
There was another grand time they had, when in September the tun-ka-loo-ka (Chinook salmon) ran in the river. They would take their canoes and boat puller and just throw their spears at random and soon have all they wanted for the day. This was all dried and put away for future use in large baskets called met-ton, which would hold about 500 pounds. That was used in winter months...
Our old people lived to a great old age. I can't recall of hearing my ancestors having to pull any teeth, for those that were 80 or 90 years old would have every tooth. Although some were worn very close to their gums. There were no diseases of any kind among my people before the white people came to our beautiful hunting and fishing land.
Nature had provided for the ones who were supposed to live close to nature and as nature provided. ...We people had all kinds of time for every kind of pleasure, as dances of various kinds. Shell dresses of various hues and styles were made for our dusky maids, who figured largely in all dances, with the exception of war, deer or religious dance. Some of these dances were carried on for days.
Clothing, of course, was made from skins of different animals. Fur was had of the sea otter (no-gothl-hae-nee), which were seen by the acre afloat on the ocean amongst the sea kelp. The cha-yohts-shun (fisher) also used for clot-honey (arrow pouch) but only by the better class. Also the torsion-met-ta (pine martin) was used for decorative purposes as head gear. A-chon-seet (weasel skin) was used as tobacco (saylth-ute) pouch by the sports.
These reconstructions of the Chetco way of life suggest a rich culture, pegged to natural resources a culture that was shattered overnight by a few white settlers in the early 1850s.
The Last of the Chetco
After the Oregon Indian wars of the mid-1850s, all surviving members of the Chetco tribe and others were rounded up and placed on reservations. They were the remnants of almost all the native peoples of Western Oregon.
Berreman notes that at least eight separate language families were represented, along with many more dialects, and that the cultural diversity of the groups must have been great.
No single band was large enough to form an effective nucleus for the maintenance of a single culture or language. Constant contacts between them required a common system of communication, which was at first found in the Chinook jargon and later in English. The survival of anything like the original and distinct local variations in culture seems well nigh impossible under these circumstances. It was, perhaps, these conditions which produced the rapid deterioration of all native culture so that the Indian Service classed them in 1871 as the most advanced of the reservation groups; that is, in the loss of native traits and in the adoption of the white man's language and culture. (9)
One of the Chetco Indians moved to the Siletz reservation was a young girl, later named Lucy Dick. Her Indian name is not now known. One of her great granddaughters, Jeannette Giddings of Harbor, has written an account of her life. In part, it is this:
"Lucy was born between the years of 1841 and 1847 in a Chetco village on the north side of the Chetco River, overlooking the river mouth. She was the daughter of the head chief (Tyee) of the Chetco Indian tribe.
"Lucy knew her people as they had lived in their natural culture, before the coming of the white men. She saw the life of the Indians change. They had lived in the vicinity for 100 years, and in that time she saw the desolation of the Indian War with the white settlers, and soldiers of the U.S. Army. She was yet a little girl when her life was abruptly changed.
"Soldiers were sent to re-inforce the settler, and finally defeated the Indians. Then, under the supervision of soldiers, the Chetcos began their march to the Siletz Reservation. This was a long, cruel journey.
Lucy's father was killed on this journey, as well as his brother, a sub-chief, and many others.
"Lucy was walking with her mother when her father was shot. When she saw him fall in the dust of the road, she turned back to him, crying, but her mother said 'No. Walk on, and don't look back.'
"Upon reaching the Siletz Reservation Lucy was determined to make a new life for herself. In this she succeeded, starting with the white people who gave her the name of Lucy. Remembering that she much look ahead, not back, she left her past and her Indian name behind, and this name is now forgotten.
"Lucy met Chetco Dick on the Reservation and in time they were married, according to the custom of their people.
"Lucy, her husband and their daughter, Lydia Dick, made their home on the Reservation for a number of years. Then, obtaining permission from the Indian Agent there, they made a trip back to their former home at Chetco. While there, Chetco Dick became ill, and died. Left without a husband, and little means, Lucy remained at Chetco and never returned to live again on the Reservation.
"Her daughter, Lydia, married Sam Van pelt of Chetco, according to the Indian custom."
Sam was the son of one of the first white settlers in the area, and the writer quoted here. Lucy Dick was much respected in the Chetco area, helping many people who
were sick and assisting at the births of numerous children, including
the younger brothers of Mike Page, a longtime Boy Scout leader in
Bookings. Lucy died in 1940, and was buried in the Old Pioneer Cemetery
in Harbor. Her obituary appears in the Curry County Reporter on Jan. 18:
"One of the best known and respected residents of the Harbor district,
she died at the home of her grandson, John Chelsey (Pat) Van Pelt. Funeral
services were held at the Van Pelt cemetery south of Harbor
with many relatives and friends present. "Lucy Dick was said to be the last full-blooded Indian in the county. She was born at the Indian settlement at the mouth of the Chetco River between the years 1841 and 1847. In 1856 she was taken to Siletz with the rest of the trible after the Indian war. There she married Richard Dick and they moved to Harbor in 1870. She has made her home in the county since that time.
"She was survived by three grandchildren, several great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
The week after her death the Oregonian newspaper ran a sentimental and
somewhat inaccurate editorial about her: (10)
"The last of the fullblood Chetco Indians, an aged woman whose years are
not definitely known, died at the Curry County town of Harbor a few days
ago. Her name was Lucky Dick. She was a small girl when the settlerscame, a long, long lifetime ago, and she saw them possess that which had
belonged to her people. Tucked away in every little coastal valley,
where a river ran into the ocean, invariably there was a native tribe.
Her people were the Chetco, one of the smallest of tribes -- and now
they are gone. With her death they are disposed even of memory and
tradition. Was it prophetic and unconscious irony to name her Lucky?
"The town of Harbor once was called Chetco, after the tribal name, as
the splendid river still is called. But the name of the development
corporation, as Lewis A. McArthur tells in his Oregon Geographic Names,
was the Chetco Harbor Land and Townsite Company, and the old place name
that commemorated a vanishing people was abandoned as out of harmony
with the enterprise. Mr. McArthur dryly intimates that in his opinion
this was a mistake. However that many have been, the last of the Chetco
died in the town called Harbor, that might have been called after her people.
"A monument will now be erected at her grave, attesting that there are no more to follow."
Romanticism Runs Rampant
Romanticism ran rampant in that piece, well-intentioned as it was. Lucy
Dick was never called "Lucky," and no member of her family now living
ever heard her called that. There is no monument or marker on her grave.
Lucy Dick was the last of the pure-gened Chetco Indians to live in this
community. No one here today speaks the Chetco language. Their native culture has deteriorated. But the loss of their native traits and the adoption of the white man's language in their culture has not stilled their skills. Even in 1871, the Indian Service ranked them as the most advanced of the class of groups on the reservation. (9)
Indian Skills Today
Today Brookings-Harbor School District 17-C enrolls many students claiming some
Indian ancestry. School officials have secured grants under the Title IX Federal Indian Education Program making it possible for them to study their history. The program is open to all students who are part Native American and approximately 229 students were involved in studies during the year 2000. The Native American Parent Committee determines how the group is going to guide the academic studies.
Tutors guide students, from kindergarten through the fourth grade, who are behind in their academic studies. Older students give cultural presentations to Kalmiopsis Primary School students that include drumming and dancing, making fry bread and designing traditional Indian crafts. Young people, in grades five through twelve, go on field trips of cultural significance and attend an American Indian week-long summer camp at Lobster Creek near Gold Beach, Oregon.
The descendants of the Chetcos are aware of their Indian heritage and seek to perpetuate the memory of their tribal
history and culture.
All of them are proud that some of their forebears were the first people here.