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Talking Stones

Dedication of newest monument
Behm and Mello promoted the idea within the ODOT project that both the bridge name and art honor the Kalapuyas.
Behm and Mello promoted the idea within the ODOT project that both the bridge name and art honor the Kalapuyas.

A chorus of bird songs filled the air on a recent stop at HAL-BA (“downstream”), one of the new Kalapuya Talking Stones that will be dedicated at a public ceremony on June 8. The beauty of the Whilamut Natural Area provided a peaceful place to reflect upon the incredible progress Springfield and Eugene have made in honoring the Kalalpuyas.

It’s been only 15 years since a member of the Citizen Planning Committee of East Alton Baker Park (CPC) heard Kalapuya elder and storyteller Esther Stutzman say that there were no Kalapuya names spelled correctly displayed anywhere in Oregon and that The Oregonian newspaper had reported that the Kalapuyas were extinct. Stutzman said it was as if the Kalapuyas never existed even though they were the largest indigenous group in western Oregon.

The CPC began conversations with Stutzman, and together they set on a course to bring Kalapuya presence back to the park. The CPC hoped that the partnership would increase public support for the value of preserving the park land in its natural state, balance the park’s history that was dominated by stories of European settlers and provide insights into native plants.

Four years after the initial contact, the park name was changed from East Alton Baker Park to the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park (WNA). Whilamut is the Kalapuya word for “where the river ripples and runs fast” and is likely how the Willamette River was named. The 2002 naming ceremony was attended by hundreds of people who heard a Kalapuya song sung in public on the banks of the Willamette River for the first time in 150 years.

The first 11 Talking Stones — basalt stones inscribed with Kalapuya words — were installed in 2003 throughout the WNA, four in Springfield’s Eastgate Woodlands and seven in Eugene. Both Willamalane Park and Recreation District and Eugene Parks and Open Space sponsored the name change and the Talking Stones project.

When the construction of the I-5 Willamette Bridge was announced, the CPC immediately went into action to name the bridge for the Kalapuyas. Springfield CPC members met with their state representative Terry Beyer, who was chair of the House Transportation Committee, and spoke at a meeting at the UO Longhouse to ask local Indian leaders for their support.

CPC members were part of the initial community group convened by ODOT in 2006 and today remain active. At first, their idea of honoring the Kalapuyas wasn’t taken seriously, but six years of persistence paid off. Backed with information and wisdom from Stutzman and David Lewis, ODOT staff and other community members warmed up to the idea of having the bridge and art honor the Kalapuyas. 

As part of mitigative restoration from the I-5 bridge project, ODOT sponsored four more Talking Stones to complement the existing 11 for a total of 15 Talking Stones. Both the numbers five and three are special to the Kalapuya people.

Stuzman will lead the dedication ceremonies at 1 pm Saturday, June 8. Attendees will hear Kalapuya songs, and, hopefully, some of the park’s resident birds will again be singing.

The event will begin at GUDU-KUT (“frog”), located at the north end of the Knickerbocker Bridge. Parking is available at the Aspen Street boat launch area in Springfield’s Eastgate Woodlands. The longest distance between one new Talking Stone and another is just over 1 mile. For more information, see willametteriverbridge.blogspot.com.