When Our World Changed
Long before white Americans settled the Coquille Tribe’s homelands, European diseases ravaged the Native population. European fur traders began visiting the Northwest Coast in the late 1700s, and as their wares spread through the region, so did European diseases: smallpox, malaria, measles, influenza, dysentery, whooping cough, typhoid fever and more.
Lacking antibodies against these unfamiliar organisms, Native Americans throughout the region were defenseless before the new contagions. Various “fevers” reportedly reduced village populations by as much as 90 percent. The surviving remnants of a once-flourishing culture offered little resistance to the miners and settlers who flooded the area in the 1850s.
Discoveries of gold in northern California and southwestern Oregon in the mid-19th century ignited a frenzy of Euro-American immigration. The newcomers – trespassers on Indian lands – increasingly clashed with the Native population. Protecting Indians from violence soon became justification for a military policy of removing our ancestors from their homelands.
Overwhelmed and terrorized, the Coquilles signed treaties in 1851 and again in 1855, surrendering their lands in return for promises of payments, provisions, and a new homeland. Congress never ratified either treaty, and the promised compensation did not come. Instead, the Coquilles and other Western Oregon tribes were forcibly marched from their homelands to be imprisoned on a distant reservation.
Less than a decade after the discovery of gold, nearly all traces of Coquille society had been erased from the landscape. The few Indians remaining in the Coquille homelands after 1856 were Coquille women who had married white men. A smattering of reservation returnees soon would join them.
Today’s Coquille Tribe owes its existence to these tenacious survivors.
In the decades after losing possession of their homelands, our families lived as best they could – displaced from their lands, separated from their traditional ways of living, and marginalized by the new society. Intermarrying with whites, they learned to hide their Indian heritage.
But their Native culture did not vanish entirely. They continued hunting, fishing and harvesting in many of the places where their ancestors had done the same. Family gatherings were occasions to retell the ancient stories. Their Coquille identity remained strong in their memories.
In 1954 the federal government dealt another blow. Passage of the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act ended the federal government’s trust relationship with 61 Oregon tribes located west of the Cascade Mountains. Indian lands were sold off or lost for unpaid taxes. Government health services and education benefits ceased. The years to come would see the Coquille people’s economic status grow increasingly bleak.
Government boarding schools established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries aimed to assimilate Indian children into mainstream life. Separated from their families, children were forbidden to speak their Native languages and were forced to abandon their traditional identities and culture.
Still, the people persisted. Instead of vanishing into the obscurity of the American melting pot, our people grew stronger in their determination to remain Indian. They remembered and revered the old ceremonial sites, and they passed along the oral traditions. Despite a lack of funding, our Tribal Council continued exercising its duties. A determined core of Tribal members worked tirelessly to regain federal recognition for the Tribe.