Bridge links cultures.
It's official: The new Interstate 5 freeway bridges that span the Willamette River, one finished and the other under construction, now have a name.
Within days, the Oregon Department of Transportation will erect the official white-on-brown signs at each end of the western span, which will carry vehicles in both directions until completion of its eastern twin late next year, proclaiming the pair the Whilamut Passage Bridge.
It's a moniker to please everyone who has spent the past four years navigating the bureaucratic and political labyrinth necessary in Oregon to name a bridge. But at the formal dedication Saturday morning, no one was happier than the dozen members representing the 6,000-member Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. The organization includes the Kalapuya people who made their permanent homes in the Willamette Valley for thousands of years, numbering about 15,000 people at the time white settlement began.
Whilamut (pronounced WHEEL uh moot) means "where the river ripples and runs fast" to the Kalapuyas, who once occupied 13 distinct geographical areas from Oregon City to Yoncalla, and spoke three dialects of the same language.
Just before the ceremony began, those in the throng of about 75 who looked upward saw a mature bald eagle - a symbol of truth, courage, wisdom and freedom in Native American culture - glide majestically past.
"I believe it is gracing us with its presence," Grand Ronde member and cultural education specialist Brian Krehbiel said. "It's a good sign. I think it is offering the first blessing for what is happening here today."
Kevin Simmons, another tribal member, spoke to the crowd about the importance to the Native American community of having their existence recognized in the naming of the bridge.
"I started pondering, 'What's so positive about this?'" Simmons said. "A recognition like this would not have been possible 150 years ago; even 100 years ago this would not be the case." On the other hand, many Native Americans still face lack of equal opportunity in education, health care and protection from domestic violence, he said. "But this honor today is good, it is positive, because it acknowledges that we are still here, we are still alive and we still thrive."
Tribal council representative Jon George echoed Simmons' gratitude. "Our culture now is intertwined into (the decisions) of other governments, so our culture and people will not be forgotten," George said. "But it also is a chance for us to stand up and say, 'We have not gone away.' It is important that the story of native people in this area is remembered."
David Sonnichsen, a non-Native American who spearheaded the efforts of a citizen advisory group to honor the Kalapuya in naming the bridge, offered a verbal picture of what life was like in the spot the group stood hundreds of years ago.
Before the Willamette River was dammed, Sonnichsen said, "The river flowed right here where we stand - it was a broad river of many braided channels. The Kalapuya people used canoes in those channels to gather plants and duck eggs for their food. A person I met who grew up right here in the 1930s told me that he often found mortars and pestles that the people had used to prepare their food."
While the term "Whilamut Passage Bridge" honors the Kalapuya tribe first and foremost, it also incorporates a broader meaning, Sonnichsen said, thanks to the ponderings of another advocate for the name, Douglas Beauchamp.
"He was the one who synthesized it - he took 'Whilamut' and appended 'passage,' which refers to all movement through the area, the river, the freeway, Franklin Boulevard, the railroad, bicycles and pedestrians and wheelchairs and ultimately, the passage of time itself."
The state transportation department also deserves credit, Sonnichsen said. "ODOT had to remain neutral, but they gave us a list of agency people and elected officials who had to be in favor in order to make this happen." That included the Willamalane Park and Recreation District board, the Eugene and Springfield city councils, the county commissioners, the Metropolitan Police Committee, the Oregon Geographic Names board and the Grand Ronde tribe.
It probably helped that by the time the bridge-naming project began, the traditions, culture and language of the Kalapuya tribes already had been honored locally, he said. The portion of Alton Baker Park that lies between the pond and the freeway had been renamed the Whilamut Natural Area, and more than a dozen "talking stones" - boulders inscribed with Kalapuya words and phrases - had been installed throughout the area.
Esther Stutzman, an elder with the Yoncalla group of the Kalapuya tribe, said that the affirmation of the importance of the Kalapuya culture in the bridge naming "is a wonderful day for the Kalapuya people."
"This is a day to remember, a day we can celebrate every day of our lives," she said. "This is permanent. It is important to remind people in a kind way that even though people have been removed from the land, our spirits are still here - coming down the river in our long canoes, our spirits are still here - and you all can tell your children and grandchildren that you witnessed this."
After the ceremony ended, a red-tailed hawk flew over the gathering. In Native American belief, the bird is the totem of vision, persistence and strength of will.