Photo: Art by Tom Greyeyes
The first creation myth I ever heard was the one of Adam and Eve. Just a little Catholic boy, I was too young to know it was a myth. When I was older, aware that I was a descendant of the Clatsop, an indigenous people on Oregon’s northern coast, I learned that everyone has a creation story.
The Clatsop have one that centers on an old man, who was a giant, and an old woman. According to the myth, the old giant caught a fish and prepared to cut it sideways. The woman, aghast, instructed him to cut the fish down its back. In an all-too-familiar turn, the man ignored her appeals and cut the fish crossways. The fish transformed into a giant bird and flew off toward nearby Saddle Mountain. Later, as they searched for the bird, the woman discovered a nest full of thunderbird eggs. She broke the eggs, and out spilled the first humans.
What I’ve always found intriguing about that story is that the creation itself wasn’t a glorious, intentional act, but an accident, the result of a poor decision, and serves as a cautionary parable on the cost of hubris, and disregarding ancient, earthly, maternal know-how.
My family has its own creation story, as least as it relates to our Native heritage. We’ve always been able to trace our line back to a full-blooded Clatsop woman known only as Louisa. She married a Maine settler named Calvin Tibbets sometime in the early 1840s. In 1845, the couple had a daughter, Grace. Four years later, Calvin died at sea, and shortly after that, Louisa died as well. Orphaned Grace was taken in by friends, grew up, married, and had a daughter named Rosa Bel. Rosa Bel begat Alice, my grandmother, who begat my uncle, aunt, and mom, who all begat my cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews, and me.
A lot of information was passed down to us about Calvin Tibbets, and even more was publicly available: he was a bona fide Oregon pioneer who signed the state’s original charter at Champoeg Park. But Louisa? That’s all we knew—just a first name. And it wasn’t even likely the one her Clatsop parents gave her, but an Anglicized version meant to ease the assimilation. We had no record of her life. No photos or references in someone’s journal entry. History did not record her wedding, how she celebrated the birth of her daughter, or what emotions gripped her when she was told her husband died at sea. There’s been no acknowledgment of her own death, not even a date.
We know that Louisa’s people, the Clatsop, lived for thousands of years near the mouth of the Columbia River, where it flows and gallops and roars into the Pacific. They were one of several Chinookan peoples who shared the region, all adept at canoeing, fishing, trading, and who all depended on the Big River, as they called it, to sustain them. We know that her people greeted the Lewis and Clark Expedition when it arrived at the Pacific, in 1805, and helped keep the crew alive as it overwintered on Clatsop land.
We can guess that Louisa was born 20 or so years later, when the ranks of the area’s indigenous population had dwindled to a few hundred, having been ravaged by disease brought by the invaders. We can surmise that she was like other young Clatsop women, pounding cedar bark into shreds to make clothes, weaving cedar-fiber strands into hats, making jewelry out of clamshells, beaver teeth and bear claws, and helping smoke salmon.
But it’s all conjecture. For all we know, she could have been invented, made up by some descendent to fill an empty branch of the family tree, and then, subsequently, over time, placed in our ancestral Garden of Eden, atop Saddle Mountain, as our mythical founder. I’ve occasionally wondered if Louisa created us, or if we created her.
Until one night last summer, when an unexpected conversation with a Tribal member sparked an internet genealogy treasure hunt by my wife and mother-in-law, two skilled researchers. Before long, I was called to a computer screen to look at this. And that’s when I saw it. An official record from the State of Oregon. Gender: female. Ethnicity: Clatsop Indian. Spouse: Calvin Tibbets. Name: Luana Katata.
As I stared at the screen, stunned, a flood of emotions poured into me. She had a name, and it was Luana. In that moment, she was no longer a myth, or lore, or legend. She was real. Somehow, 170 years of anonymity lifted, and I was able to see her, clearly, for the first time, a woman, a mother, bold, brave, beautiful, determined. I see you, Grandmother, I see you.
We’ve since found references to other Clatsop Katatas, including records from the Chinook Indian Nation—the Clatsop are now part of this confederation. With each passing day, her presence grows. Recognition is an acorn.
Digging through the documents was a fresh reminder of why Native people vanished from the historical record. The 1898 obituary in the Oregonian for Luana’s son-in-law noted that he left behind a nameless “half breed Indian widow.” Census records listed her grandkids as Indian, but one generation later—my grandmother’s—everyone was white.
This slow-motion erasure was interrupted in my own family when an uncle of my mom’s we didn’t even know existed showed up unexpectedly in our lives, and told our family for the first time of our Native heritage, connecting the dots for us, all the way back to Louisa. No one had passed the knowledge down to my mom’s generation of siblings and cousins. A retired newspaperman, and nearing the end of his life, Uncle Henry was embarrassed by how he had distanced himself from his identity in his younger years, even though doing so made his path smoother. In the four decades since, despite being generations removed, members of my family and I have celebrated our link to this history, and maintained a strong connection to the Chinook Tribe, itself tragically unrecognized by the federal government.
Luana’s re-emergence is proof though, that Native people cannot be erased, or hidden away forever. Indeed, she has come back to life at a time when conventional wisdom about the Native experience is being challenged. It has long been held, for example, that indigenous women who married white settlers, as Luana did, were likely victims—sold, traded, or taken into the union. While that was certainly the reality for some, newer research on the Clatsop and Chinookan people suggests something different.
The Chinookan tribes were very hierarchal, and few routes existed for those who wanted to rise above their station. To do it, you had to be clever, and have guile. The Chinook prized this kind of pluck—Coyote, the divine, ambitious trickster was central to their own mythmaking. Obtaining power by outwitting those who had more than you was a cultural value, the way of Coyote. For many women, marriage was such an occasion.
At least one contemporary of Luana’s, a Clatsop woman named Celiast, made a break from the Tribal hierarchy altogether when she married a prominent settler named Solomon Smith. The marriage gave her status and social influence. In Calvin Tibbets, who came to Oregon with Smith, and still ran in the same circles as him, perhaps Luana saw a similar opportunity.
Before their story could play out though, the lives of both Calvin and Luana were cut short. But the couple’s daughter—the aptly named Grace—lived nearly sixty years, and produced a lineage that has multiplied in size and reach for almost two centuries, and that tonight, flows, and gallops, and roars into the 7 and 5-year-old boys who are asleep down the hall from me.
All because Luana bent the trajectory of the Big River—the one that had sustained her people for all of time, but that she could see was threatened—and in doing so, ensured that its waters would continue to give life. Today, rather than a creation tale, my sons will grow up knowing her as the very real, clever, courageous, pioneering woman who refused to let the giant decide.
Note: The essay originally appeared in the inaugural “Voices of the River,” a journal sponsored by the Confluence Project to connect people to the history, living cultures, and ecology of the Columbia River system through Indigenous voices.