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Person to Person in Warm Springs, OR

Posted on Tuesday, August 16th, 2011.

On July 8th, StoryCorps began a new year of the Mobile Tour with its Opening Day in Warm Springs, OR–its first stop on a Native American reservation. The reservation, created in an 1855 treaty, is a confederation of the Warm Springs, Wasco, and Paiute tribes (the latter joined the confederation 1879). In Warm Springs, we partnered with KWSO 91.9 FM Warm Springs Radio, the tribal radio station, with the Warm Springs Fire and Safety Department as our site host. Between fighting range and structure fires, the cadets and firemen and women would often stop by to check out the MobileBooth.

On Opening Day, Sylvester “Sal” Sahme, Director of Business and Economic Development for the tribes, spoke to his friend Adam Haas. He described having two educations: a formal, “white man’s” education, and a cultural “Indian” education.

During his interview, Sal told Adam that he didn’t learn anything at all about his own history until he went to college at the University of Minnesota–his coursework and political activism there inspired him to research the past of his people, and to ask his elders about their history and their religion, the Washat. He said of his religion, and its parameters of behavior: “A lot of that is almost intrinsic. It’s a given that you’re going to grow up with it and be surrounded by it, but there’s no formal process of educating you in it because you’re immersed in the society and the culture…But it wasn’t until Minnesota that I got to really learn about some things that distinctly affect not only me personally, but our people.”

One of those things Sal mentioned is the institution of the now-defunct boarding schools in the reservation. The dormitories of one of them stand empty across the street from the MobileBooth. Sal didn’t attend, but traumatic memories of the boarding school era often came up in conversations with the elders who came to our Booth. During his interview, Sal gave a brief history of this attempt by the federal government to assimilate Native Americans. From the creation of the reservation until the mid-twentieth century, young tribal members were taken from their families and placed in the boarding schools, often for years at a time. They were punished if they tried to speak their native languages. Nowadays, few in the reservation speak the three distinct dialects fluently.

Because of what he calls his “two educations” (one acquired in public school and college, the other one through living in the reservation) Sal confided in his friend that he feels at peace with himself, a peace gained by the knowledge of how some of his community’s traditions have been splintered and lost: “A lot of what affected us is not readily understood by our people.” The positive side to those ill effects is, he asserted, an ability “to adapt, to create from the ashes, from the rubble, because we have been devastated by all the influences dominant culture has had on us.” Sal told Adam that he notices now a movement of forgiveness among American Indians–“a movement to heal, to move on, to diversify tribal economies, to connect person to person, and not just to the past, but to the present and the future.” Poignantly, he concluded his interview this way: “One of the most important things as my age, being a grandparent and a so-called elder,” Sal said, “is that I leave words of wisdom and stories–especially stories– behind for my grandchildren, so they can thrive and enjoy that, knowing that they come from a positive history. That’s my legacy.”

Our MobileBooth–built for connecting person to person, to the past, present, and future–recorded interviews like this while in Warm Springs. Our month-long visit concluded on July 30, 2011, but we leave behind a local archive of these recordings for the community to preserve. Warm Springs Community Radio, KWSO 99.1 FM will be airing some of these stories for all to enjoy. Stay tuned!

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