Tribe helps protect ancestral lands

·5 min read

Sep. 15—In 1856, the federal government forced Native Americans to leave their ancestral homelands and walk more than 260 miles from the Rogue Valley to the Grand Ronde reservation in northwest Oregon.

Eight people died on the 33-day march known as the Rogue River Trail of Tears.

But when the Rum Creek Fire threatened homes and forests near the Rogue River northwest of Grants Pass, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde didn't hesitate to send firefighters to help.

"It's where the Trail of Tears started. It's an honor to have a part in protecting that part of the state," said Grand Ronde Tribal Emergency Services Assistant Chief Damon Schulze.

It was only last year that the Grand Ronde started its own agency to provide fire and ambulance protection to the tribal community and surrounding area. Before, it contracted out for the service.

In 2021, Grand Ronde Tribal Emergency Services firefighters went out to help on a half-dozen fires around Oregon as part of the state's mutual aid system. This year, they've deployed to several fires, including the Rum Creek Fire in Josephine County, Schulze said.

Josephine County put out a call for help, the governor invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act and structural fire departments from around the state raced to the Rogue Valley to protect homes and buildings while wildland firefighters battled the fire.

"We're tied in with the state mutual aid system," Schulze said. "This time of year, we're hooked at the hip with numbers on speed dial."

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde includes more than 30 tribes and bands with ancestral homelands in Western Oregon, Northern California and Southwest Washington. The confederation includes Rogue River, Umpqua and Chasta (also spelled Shasta) Native Americans.

Schulze, who is not a tribal member himself, said the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are proud to be able to help fight fires around Oregon. Like many tribal enterprises, including Spirit Mountain Casino, the fire department employs both tribal and nontribal people.

"The tribe as a whole are a very giving people. Grand Ronde does well and is well-managed," Schulze said. "It's an honor to be able to help other parts of the state."

Grand Ronde Tribal Emergency Services sent three of its firefighters as part of a 14-person task force from Yamhill County that aided on the Rum Creek Fire. None of the three who were on rotation to go happened to be tribal members, although tribal members have been deployed on other fires, Schulze said.

Luke Nodine got back to Grand Ronde Tribal Emergency Services last week after serving a 12-day deployment on the Rum Creek Fire. He's a wildland fire engine boss plus a firefighter, EMT and engineer.

While in Southern Oregon, he thought about the connection between the ancestral lands and Grand Ronde. Nodine said he met members of various tribes and their families still living in the area while he was out improving the fire resilience of homes threatened by the Rum Creek Fire.

Nodine was with a crew assigned to protect the community of Galice and the surrounding area. Galice was partially surrounded by flames and threatened by sparks and embers. Most people obeyed an evacuation order, but a handful of residents stayed behind.

Firefighters have since gained better control over the fire that threatened Galice, Merlin and Grants Pass. It stood at 21,347 acres with 81% containment as of Wednesday.

Nodine said it's important for firefighters to build rapport with residents before cleaning away flammable fuels and setting up sprinkler kits around their houses.

"I introduced myself and told them what we were there to do. You don't force your help on people who don't want it," he said. "Everyone I met was very receptive. I would say, 'I would like to save your house. Is that OK?' Most people were very appreciative."

Nodine said he never had to turn sprinkler kits on and run away from encroaching flames, but he did turn on sprinklers during risky conditions. At times, the fire was spotting 2 miles ahead.

"If there was a warning for high wind and the fire was too close, we would soak a house for an hour or two," he said.

Now back at his home base with Grand Ronde Tribal Emergency Services, Nodine said he still feels a bond with the Southern Oregon residents who were threatened by the Rum Creek Fire.

"They feel like an extension of my family. We went through something together," he said.

Schulze, the assistant chief, said Grand Ronde Tribal Emergency Services will keep sending firefighters to all parts of the state.

"It's a really important part of what we're doing. We have the ability to help our neighbors and people around the state," he said. "The state mutual aid system is so well organized. It's very impressive to watch."

Among other fires, the Grand Ronde sent a crew to help on the Double Creek and Sturgill fires near the community of Joseph in the northeast corner of Oregon near Idaho, Schulze said.

As of Monday, the Double Creek Fire was at 155,297 acres, and the Sturgill Fire was at 19,774 acres, according to the InciWeb national incident information system.

Schulze noted the northeast corner of Oregon has its own deep tribal history.

In the 1800s, the Nez Perce agreed to treaties with the United States government that they could remain on their ancestral land in the Wallowa Valley of northeast Oregon.

But when the United States government tried to forcibly remove them to a distant reservation, Chief Joseph led 700 men, women and children on a 1,170-mile, multistate trek while fighting and eluding federal troops. More than 200 Nez Perce died along the way, including five of Chief Joseph's children. He and many of the survivors surrendered in Montana, just 40 miles from the Canadian border, after a fierce battle.

A few hundred Nez Perce were able to flee and straggled into Canada as refugees, where they took shelter with Sioux who were themselves refugees. Both the Canadian and American governments pressured Native American refugees to relocate to reservations in the United States, according to Canadian historical documents.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.