Meet The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians

I heard about The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians debate when I was interviewing decedents of pioneers who’d received free land in the 1850’s as part of Oregon’s Donation Land Act. During my interviews, I’d often hear, “They aren’t a real tribe.”

“Really?” I’d ask. “What are they, then?”

The response would be the same. “They just aren’t a real tribe.”

I needed to know more so I worked with reference librarians. I talked to tribal leaders. I even contracted a professional researcher. There is so much more to share but here I will say this. The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians is a federally designated tribe.

Through my interviews and research I was struck by four things:

ONE: Their sheer will to survive

Like so many other tribes across the country, in the mid 1800s the Cow Creek Tribal Nation was nearly decimated. It is still hard for me to fathom the extent of murderous genocide that took place. When I learned the degree to which Oregon founders and the government structured laws, grants and acts to create of the Great White Hope I marveled even more that any of the Cow Creek Tribe survived.

In the attached the diagram, I’ve included quotes from Oregon’s founding fathers along with constitutional decrees that reveal the degree to which they thought out and planned their white haven.

One approach they used was to give married men twice the amount of land as single men. The second parcel of land would be put in the wife’s name. If the couple divorced, the woman got the property. It sounds so very progressive, right? My researcher uncovered documents that revealed these incentives were meant to ensure that men would not marry native women, and give white women unprecedented legal rights to own property as a means “to elevate the position of white women in the region as a necessary component of settler colonialism.” It allowed promoters of racial exclusion to exploit fears that nonwhites in the region would pose a sexual threat to the white wives and daughters of settlers. To read more on this check out White Man’s Territory on the Oregon Humanities website.

In contrast to the white women brought in to secure the white race, the Cow Creek women who survived saved their culture by escaping to the hills and starting families with French trappers.  

TWO: Their determination to reclaim their tribal recognition

Fast forward, 120 years. In the 1970s, timber towns began to tumble as the 1973 landmark Endangered Species Act set into motion the conservation of threatened and endangered plants, animals and their habitats. At the same time, The Cow Creek Tribe demanded the government take their land claims case to the U.S. Court of Claims.

Here I must pay homage to the woman who made all this possible, Sue Shaffer.

By the early 1980s, guided by this tribal councilwoman with a fiery force, the tribe fought the courts, won their sovereignty—and a 1.4 million dollar settlement—that gave them a position from which to reclaim their land and their economy. 

THREE: Their strategic plan for economic growth

As logging towns were dying, Sue and her tribe invested in businesses. 

The tribe took the 1.5 million dollar settlement and put the money in trust. Again, under Sue’s leadership, they decided to only invest the interest. None of the settlement money was, or is, paid to individual tribal members. It is all reinvested back into the tribe. Sue’s reasoning: “There is no per-capita payment to this tribe” she said. “we build people here, not dependency.” (To this day, there is still no payment to tribal members. Each year the head of the household gets $1000.) 

With the passing of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, they secured an $825,000 loan and built their first bingo parlor. Through savvy business leadership, the loan was paid off in five years. Since then they have built a diverse portfolio of highly successful businesses including a development corporation, a ranching operation, a marketing firm, a coffee roasting company and, most recently, an industrial hemp farm. 

According to its website, In 2016 the tribe commissioned ECO Northwest, a well-respected firm in the Pacific Northwest, to conduct a net economic benefit analysis on 2015 figures to determine the impact of tribal businesses and activities on the economy of Douglas County. The study concluded that the Douglas County economic output was $188.494 million greater due to the jobs and activities provided by Tribal Government.

One article refers to this as Cow Creek revenge

So impressive is their reclamation of lands through out the region it’s generated panic in local communities. So much so that twelve years ago, a local councilwoman campaigned for a county measure to prevent further tribal purchases. Our two state senators at the time, Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Gordon Smith, a Republican, intervened. The measure was withdrawn.

Today they are the second largest employer and one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the state.

FOUR: Their kind revolution and coalition building 

While talking to the tribal councilman I asked, “How do you not get angry at the inequities?”

“We have in the past,” he answered. “Now we set our sights on what we can achieve, and what we accomplished makes me smile.” His eyes lit up. “You know how you mentioned you never learned about tribal history in school? Starting this year, students in the forth grade will be taught about The Cow Creek Tribe. Each year, curriculum will be added until it’s taught all the way through high school.”

The tides, they are a changing. 

The quiet revolution of tribal reclamation has arrived.







Tribal Story


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