Drums in the Umpqua

Drums in the Umpqua is the story of one of Oregon's nine federally-recognized Indigenous tribes and their uninterrupted connection to place.


By Riley Rice

December 2020
In 1993, at 43 days old, I won an award for being the youngest tribal member at the annual South Umpqua Falls powwow. I have returned most years since then. For the history of the indigenous people of the Umpqua Valley, the summer journey to the powwow grounds has been a tradition that survives war, persecution, and now, a global pandemic.

Light filters through a stand of old-growth Douglas fir trees to land on a circular, trampled patch of wheatgrass. A line of deerskin-clad feet pad towards the center of the clearing. In front is a man holding a hide-bound staff from which an American flag hangs still. Above the flag, a tied bunch of eagle feathers dangle.

The boom from a rawhide drum cracks the air, a voice begins to sing and the line of people begin to dance: this is how I remember Grand Entry at the South Umpqua Falls powwow. For the rest of the evening, the people gathered dance the ring dance, the shawl dance and many others. Anyone who can stay on beat is offered a folding camp chair and a place around one of the drums. Voices and booms of the drums continue into the next morning, after the campfires in the many surrounding camps dwindle to smoke.

The South Umpqua Falls Intertribal Powwow, as a stapled paper flier identifies it, has happened at the U.S. Forest Service’s South Umpqua Falls campground for 42 years. But any indigenous person at the Falls during powwow will tell you that it’s always happened here, for as long as anyone remembers.

This year, the flier reads, “Cancelled.” But for members of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, who have gathered on the powwow grounds every summer since prehistory, a global pandemic is not the first, or the worst, reason they couldn’t hold Grand Entry.


In 1853, the people of the Umpqua Valley signed a treaty with the United States Army, granting 800 square miles of their land to the US government in exchange for $12,000 and reservation land along Cow Creek. A few years later, the Rogue River Wars disrupted the sparse populations of indigenous people in the Umpqua and Rogue river valleys. Hundreds of people were murdered by white settlers and the U.S. Army, and most of the survivors were marched to the Grande Ronde Reservation, where they were forced to live in an unfamiliar environment with other indigenous peoples of dissimilar language and culture.

A wealth of artifacts discovered around the modern-day powwow grounds tells a long story of ritual and tradition in the area. And this story continued after the Rogue River Wars, when survivors fled to summer hunting grounds and lived on the fringes of the white settler society that displaced them.

Part of survival was assimilation, and the Umpqua survivors intermarried with mixed-descent French-Canadian fur trappers also existing on the fringes. They took names that make up the tribal families today — Rondeau, Dumont, LaChance — and blended well enough in the remote, rugged homesteads and ranches to avoid persecution.

“Indian,” the misplaced label applied to the indigenous people in America, was a bad word in the Umpqua Valley well into the 1960s. The indigenous people of the Upper Umpqua that I am descended from spoke the Takelma language and referred to themselves as Nahonkuatohna, which means “people of the river.” To avoid that identity was to survive, but that didn’t mean the death of tradition at the South Umpqua Falls.

Besides being a site for tribal gathering and celebration, the area was an important place to harvest lamprey, hunt springtime deer and pick huckleberries. A journey to the high country was a key time to gather and store winter food such as the pemmican made from dried meat, fat and pounded huckleberries.

And this tradition continued. A few generations after adopting French names, my great-aunt, Clara Keller of the Rondeau family, remembers making the summer journey to the powwow grounds on horseback in the 1940s. “We would load everything up and pack out there for weeks to camp and hunt and pick berries. And it wasn’t just us, people from the Klamath tribe would come out too,” she said recently. This tradition, in which all the tribal families would come, happened every year that Keller remembers being alive.

These descendents, like Keller, hadn’t given up on the broken promises of the 1853 treaty. They held “Indian Meetings” in a one-room schoolhouse, circulated hand-written fliers with tribal news and collected pocket change to fund their recognition efforts. They recovered the original 1853 treaty, and with it, the collective will to be recognized. In those days, powwow was still a memory.

In the 1970s, drumming and drummaking returned to the tribe. My great-uncle, Ralph Young (his Indian name, he’s quick to tell you, is Lump’ty Pil’ao, which means “old man young” in Takelma) stretched the rawhide for a drum in 1973 that still booms on the powwow grounds to this day. With drumming came people, and by 1977 the Cow Creek Powwow was official. Thousands of people and as many as five drums from different tribal nations camped in the old-growth forests around the powwow grounds.

Lump'ty Pil'åo at his home in the Umpqua Valley in 2020. Riley Rice.

In the early 1980s, enough change was collected to fly tribal organizers to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. In 1982, the federal government recognized the tribe as the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

Since then, the South Umpqua Falls Intertribal Powwow has happened every year on the last weekend in July. “It’s about family,” Keller says. “It’s about getting together and seeing everyone.” For me, as a child running through the dust and drums and vibrant family summer camps, it was more than just seeing people.

During powwow I learned to fire-harden arrow shafts with Uncle Ralph. My grandmother Clem patiently taught me to bead on a loom at the camp table. My father showed me caves with petroglyphs and walked me to where tribal leaders were buried standing up. By flitting from camp to camp, I gathered the stories of my land and family history from tribal elders at different campfires.

I arrived at South Umpqua Falls in the cab of a pickup and not on the back of a horse, but the tradition was not so different for my generation as it was for those before me. It was my connection to history, and place.


“It’s heartbreaking to cancel,” says Beth’Ann Gipson, a Cow Creek member and powwow organizer. “But there’s no way to modify a powwow for COVID. We have to think about our elders.”

According to data from the Oregon Health Authority, indigenous Oregonians are 4.3 times as likely to contract COVID-19 and 2.5 times as likely to die of the virus compared to white Oregonians. While younger people account for most of the cases in the state, people considered an elder — 60 years and older — are at the greatest risk of hospitalization and death. And life in camp revolves around them. They lead the people assembled in dance, prayer and ceremony.

On March 16, the Cow Creek Tribal Board of Directors declared the COVID-19 pandemic a tribal emergency. Tribal members were shipped COVID care packages with masks and cleaning supplies, and outreach programs from the Health and Wellness Center advised tribal members on safety and quarantine measures. Tribal nations in America received eight billion dollars in pandemic aid money from the federal government for health and housing programs.

Despite that support, many tribal members, especially elders, were left isolated from crucial community networks. The social life of many Cow Creek tribal elders revolved around events supported by the tribal government: Takelma language classes, twice-weekly elders luncheons and drumming and craft groups.

“It really is such a shame they cancelled the language classes,” says Keller’s daughter Joanne Tait. “They got so much out of their time together.” Dancing Thunder, a drum group that both Keller and Gipson are a part of, hasn’t met since the pandemic started and doesn’t have a plan to do so in the future.

Culture Camp, a tribal family and traditional skills gathering sponsored by the tribal government, was the first tribal event to be cancelled in May. When I was fourteen, my cousin and I dove to the bottom of the South Umpqua river to bury the bones of a salmon as part of the first Salmon Ceremony the tribe had performed in hundreds of years. Last year was the first time the Salmon Ceremony, which happens the last night of Culture Camp, hadn’t happened in the thirteen year since then.


While the tribe was recognized by the federal government, their traditional lands were not. Every year, powwow organizers go through a permitting process to gather on the powwow grounds, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

“Those are our grounds,” says Gipson. “We need to camp and come together.” She says she knew early on in the pandemic that powwow was an impossibility, but recognized the importance of gathering as a people on the powwow grounds to honor the passing of a tribal elder — my grandmother.

Gipson also says she recognizes the importance of precedent. While the permitting process for the powwow had succeeded for 42 years, her difficulty in getting government approval to gather a small group on the powwow grounds (which was open to the public as a USFS campground in July) had her worried for the future of the powwow.

“I pushed hard for the permit to gather this year and have this ceremony,” she says. “It’s really important for us, to have this time to heal.”

While the wheatgrass on the dance grounds remained untrammeled this year, the honor ceremony which Beth’Ann conducted with her granddaughter on her hip and a small group of tribal members in attendance, was a success. Powwow organizers are already planning for a full event in 2021.

“We’re thinking about removing the ‘44th’ number. Because, you know, it’s always happened,” says Gipson.

Coming together as a people, in one place, is the most basic of tradition, and has remained alive through times of persecution and revival, and will continue in the future. The 2020 gathering (“Special tribal family: RESERVED” read a cardboard USFS flier stapled to a tree) was small, but important. At night, in the distance, someone started drumming. It was quiet, a small drum and two singers, but it still bounced off the thick fir bark and filtered through the camp in the same way it always has.