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Art Exhibit Shares Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Culture and History

By Matt Wastradowski

Since time immemorial, the 30 tribes and bands that comprise the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have passed down stories from generation to generation.

Travis Stewart, curator at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center, says the stories would be shared orally in the late winter and fall, when tribal members spent much of their time indoors. (By spring and summer, tribal members would spend their time working outdoors, leaving less time for storytelling.) These traditional narratives-origin stories, historical retellings, and so forth-were called Ikanum. And those stories are at the heart of an art exhibit currently on display at Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center: "Ikanum: Contemporary Art from the Columbia River and Willamette Valley" can be viewed through April 30, 2021, in the cultural center's Parrish Gallery.

Those stories might have been told orally, but Stewart says the exhibit represents the written language of the 30 tribes and bands that make up the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde-spanning an area from northern California to southwest Washington. In the Willamette Valley, those tribes and bands included the Molalla and Kalapuya people, among others.

Stewart hopes “Ikanum” brings some awareness to contemporary Native American artists-and shows how tribal history goes deeper than what visitors might see in traditional museums and historical societies. “We present something very different here,” he says. “It's not focused on a timeline history; it's showing that history is now. These people still exist, these stories still exist, and this language still exists.”

Much of the artwork on display draws inspiration from those traditional stories and the Pacific Northwest landscape-and uses a wide range of mediums to do; visitors will see film, beadwork, lithograph, and other media throughout the exhibit. More than a dozen artists contributed work to the exhibit, and Stewart says the variety leads to a richer experience for those interested in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde's rich history. “People associate the Pacific Northwest with a certain look or a certain type of art form, but it's not always what it seems,” he says.

For his part, Stewart has two pieces on display.

One, "The Storykeeper Mural", is a collaboration with Teal Reibach; the fabric piece originally started as a mural concept that depicts Victoria (Wishikin) Wacheno Howard, a woman whose storytelling was transcribed by anthropologist Melville Jacobs-and whose many stories reflected the changing landscape of Oregon over the years. 

The second work, a western red cedar piece, is entitled “For Valerie (wapato woman)”. The public art piece started as a way to tell the story of Native American people who lived in the Willamette Valley and harvested wapato, a native plant and an important source of food for tribal communities. The piece was named for Valerie Otani, who served as the city of Hillsboro's public art program supervisor before passing away in 2020-and who originally commissioned the piece. Stewart named the piece for Otani and says that decision shows how the exhibit's wide variety of stories fits into a tradition that's still changing today. “It's in the spirit of the whole exhibit of how these stories evolve and continue to change,” he says.

“Ikanum” will remain on display through April 30, 2021, at the Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan St., Newberg. It is open 12-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Visitors can find the exhibit in the Parrish Gallery.

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