Five men trekked through the forest on Marys Peak. They slipped on moist dirt and loose sticks. Dappled sunlight reflected off leaves on the ground, giving everything a green hue.
When they heard water, they sought the source. They found their waterfall.
They want to name the creek that feeds the waterfall after a tribe that lived in the area, Wusi’n.
The men snapped pictures on the way, mapped the creek and recorded coordinates.
They are part of the Marys Peak Alliance, a volunteer organization of scientists and nature lovers that teaches youth about the ecological and cultural importance of the Corvallis-area mountain. The alliance has partnered with local tribes to give indigenous names to nine creeks on Marys Peak, a nearly 4,100-foot mountain, one of several where Kalapuya, Wusi’n and the Yaco’n people have gone to pray, rejuvenate and feel empowered for millennia.
Advocates for naming the creeks want people who visit Marys Peak for fun to also recognize the mountain’s history. They see the project as a way to say that Native people are still here and that the peak is still important to them.
Settlers and their descendants have historically ignored — even disrespected — these sacred spaces, said Oregon State University professor Natchee Barnd, Ojibwe.
He hopes the project inspires visitors to go beyond understanding the past — to ask what else can be done in the future.
“How might we do something better?” Barnd said. “Understanding is not enough, it’s what they do next.”
David Eckert, a member of Marys Peak Alliance, enlisted Barnd, who teaches Native American studies, to build connections among the tribes, the mostly white members of the alliance and property owners on the mountain.
The idea started when Eckert stumbled upon a nameless waterfall that was so beautiful, he wondered if the site had meaning to the tribes he knew used the mountain.
So he and the Marys Peak Alliance contacted the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and all the public and private organizations that own parts of Marys Peak.
They want to propose the new creek names to the Oregon Geographic Names Board. That will include a pitch to name the creek that fed the waterfall Lo wa’ Ha Yu, which means “mountain” in the language of the Wusi’n, who are part of the Siletz.
As sponsor, the Marys Peak Alliance is responsible for guiding the process. The tribes choose the names.
The board will consider the proposal from the alliance and tribes, then a few people will examine the creeks for themselves and make a recommendation to the board. The U.S. Geological Survey will make the final decision.
If approved, names will show up on digital maps within weeks, followed by signs posted at the creeks. The process to get on physical maps can sometimes take 10 years.
Tribal members want to namesome of the creeks after generations of storytelling, said David Harrelson, a member of the Kalapuya band and a cultural resources department manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. For example, the proposed Ahntkwahkwah Creek means Frog Creek, based on a Kalapuya story about a coyote who dug out a dam that held all the water for the frog people. After the dam broke, the water filled the creeks.
Harrelson has a personal connection to the project — his ancestors were leaders of the Kalapuya, elders who described the mountain as a “place of refuge” as far back as the floods that shaped the Columbia River Gorge.
His people climbed Marys Peak for safety to escape the water.
“We are the original people of this place and we need to share our story,” Harrelson said. “It’s a lasting legacy that allows people to find the history of the place.”
— Fabiola Cruz, McKay High School
— Sierra Stallings, Parkrose High School