Interview with Robert Kentta

Hi, and welcome to Turn the Tide.

Turn the Tide is a locally produced KYAQ 91.7 radio show that hopes to inspire listeners to engage in environmental betterment. Topics include conservation, green living, social justice, and activism. Turn the Tide suggests that we ask ourselves everyday: what can I do to contribute to positive change?

My guest today is Robert Kentta. Mr. Kentta is the Siletz Tribal Cultural Resources Director. He actively supports Siletz languages, ceremonial and cultural events, cultural and sacred site protection, archaeological and archival research, history and cultural education. He is a traditional artist who specializes in regalia and baskets. He grew up in his Tribal community of Siletz, Oregon, and attended the Institute of American Indians Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Leland: Hi Robert, thank you for being here today. So, my first question for you is… did you grow up with a close connection to nature?

Robert: Yes, I grew up here in the Siletz Valley, born in 1963, my mother — most of my early childhood years — was a single mother, but she made sure to… she and I were like clam-digging partners and all of that. I grew up around lots of hunting and fishing, a lot of subsistence gathering.

Leland: And you must use elements of nature in your artwork?

Robert: Yeah, it’s hard to go down the list, but I started doing traditional Siletz basketry when I was about 14, so lots of use of hazel sticks that have been managed, from managed patches, spruce root, bear grass from up in the mountains, maidenhair fern from shady hillsides, all of those kinds of things, yeah.

Leland: Do natural materials also go into the making of regalia?

Robert: Yeah, yeah a lot of the same things. I have an example right there [gestures to manikins that are behind me in the room we are sitting in] ceremonial dress of western Oregon women. There’s pine nut beads from the northernmost population of that species in the Rogue Valley, and the bear grass and maidenhair fern are wrapped onto the elk skin fringes, which is also the design material in basketry.

Leland: Very cool, thanks. In our email conversation, you mentioned that native peoples have traditional food gathering areas, and that you’re taught to have relationships to those places. Can you tell us more about that?

Robert: Yeah, it’s kind of in our base tribal values that you don’t just have the right to go and take from places. Somebody along the way was taking care of that place so those berries could be there, that bear grass could be in good condition for you and if you are going to go there and use those resources, you also have the responsibility not to damage them when you’re using them and taking them, but actually do some enhancement and try to do some caring for them so that they’ll be there the next year and for the next generations.

Leland: And you mentioned also providing, not only for humans, but also for the animals that need to use the spaces?

Robert: Yeah, birds, wildlife, and that’s a lot of what we’re missing today in the landscape.

Leland: Absolutely. And you also mentioned that native people have been robbed of expressing their connection to the land through loss of language. I can vouch for our public school system being very poor at covering the subject of native genocide and cultural erasure that has happened in US history. So, for those who might not be aware of the history would you be willing to tell us more about how native languages were lost, or why in many cases, they are in really steep decline now?

Robert: Yeah, well, it started really with the arrival of non-native folks into the landscape and the forcing of treaty signing onto tribes once the land was already occupied. Even though the treaties say that, you know, there’s a permanent homeland being established by the creation of a reservation in the tribal peoples’ minds and the US government’s minds those were two different, very different concepts. The treaties said “permanent homeland,” but ours was very quickly yanked out of our hands piece by piece. But also, just right from the start, tribal peoples’ view was that — this is our place where we can maintain ourselves as ourselves, but US policy right from pretty much the get-go was, okay, military control. The agent has say over all of your business and the policy really is to assimilate you to a condition where you just… either there are no more Indians, or you’re able to be just assimilated into the melting pot of America being English-speaking average citizens in mainstream society. So, the boarding schools had a lot to do with the removal of Indian children from their homes, keeping them in a place where they weren’t allowed to speak the language among themselves or be exposed to the stories, history and culture of their people. So, loss of language… that’s where you get your worldview — from how you talk about your relationship to objects, and things, and each other, and resources. It’s all contained in language whether we realize it or not, it’s all encoded. And so, how you approach life is really kind of guided by how you think about things, how you talk about them, and so there’s all those concepts in native language. Lots of it hasn’t carried through, but somehow we’ve been able to maintain those values through — mainly, through our use of English language — some of those concepts are still kind of instilled.

Leland: It’s good that some of them have been saved. I know there’s been a great loss through the loss of language. Are there any examples you can think of to share from indigenous language, either your own tribe or from others, that express positive environmental concepts that you wish more people would know about?

Robert: We do have conversational language preserved, but those anthropologist-linguists were mostly kind of doing a mop-up survey of languages and not… most of the language work that went on here in Siletz among the ten completely different languages that are included in our confederation, most of that work didn’t focus on the intricacies of worldview, and cosmology, and how people interacted with the landscape. It was just kind of trying to get the nouns, the verbs, *laughs* and the adjectives recorded and just get that basis of language recorded. So, a lot of those terms and concepts have not been recorded and it’s just through language — English language use — that we’ve been able to maintain, at least, some of those concepts. One of the examples I use is the verb in Athabaskan, and I can’t think of it off-hand, but I’ve heard people talk about that verb in relation to language concepts. In English, we say that you’re riding that horse, you’re steering that canoe, you’re driving that car… and it’s you having control of that thing. In Athabaskan language you would say it’s carrying you and so that is a whole different relationship to that horse, or that canoe, or that car that is doing a service for you, rather than you controlling it.

Leland: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that.

You mentioned you recently watched Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge – New Zealand. I wanted to say I’m fascinated by how there seems to be common themes in many indigenous cultures all over the world, even though they are so separated by geography, with how the earth is respected and honored. Do you have any thoughts about that or anything you want to share specifically from that culture?

Robert: Yeah, I think it’s available on OPB. You can look up the episode and I encourage people to do that and look at that. It does a really nice job of explaining Maori worldview concepts and I may get it wrong and I apologize to my Maori friends, if I do get it wrong, but I think the language term might be “Kai Taki Tangi,” and it’s also related in the episode by non-native Maori New Zealanders, so it’s kind of incorporated into the society down there that there’s this concept of relationship to the land, everything in it, the water, the sky we’re part of it, it’s part of us. It’s, again, part of that not us controlling it, but our relationship does good things for us.

Leland: I hope that US culture can learn something from that and maybe bring more indigenous ideas into our way of being.

Let’s talk about Native land management. Historically there was a lot of frequent low intensity burning, and that used to keep a lot of meadows, glens, and coastal headlands in productive shape. Can you talk a little bit about that history and about what issues there are now about using that same strategy?

Robert: Yeah, and a lot of that management is what led to the early donation land claim settlement of the Willamette Valley, Umpqua Valley, and Rogue Valley. Those areas were largely kept open grasslands, but not just grasses — all the lilies, and brodeas, and lomatiums, and lots of plants that we don’t see very commonly anymore. It was just a mosaic of biodiversity, which also brought in wildlife, birds, and things that we have to do more careful management of today. We’ve probably lost a lot of those interrelationships between plant, bird, migratory bird species, because of the loss of that biodiversity of plants. So on the Oregon coast headlands a lot of the earliest photographs and early coastal survey maps note that a lot of those headlands were open and had to have been maintained by fire. And there’s… I think there was lots of low level recognition of that management effect, but there’s a lot more… science has gone into landscape management in looking at frequent low intensity burning with low fuel loads and that being a beneficial thing, rather than allowing dense thickets with heavy fuel loads to build up and then suddenly there’s a catastrophic fire and you’re burning not only the standing vegetation, but all those rhizomes, the seed bank gets cooked so hot that you lose a lot of that biodiversity that could return after a lower intensity fire.

Leland: And then when you burn all of the native seeds, nowadays you have all the invasive species cropping up after such a burn.

Robert: Yeah, and I think that’s something that society’s not as generally concerned about as it should be too, is the frequency of introduction of new invasive plants or the potential for something that’s been introduced into your flower garden, or around your garden path, or just showing up there and not paying attention to — well, this is really an aggressive plant, it really doesn’t belong here and we probably should keep it under control or eradicate it before it takes over.

Leland: A lot of those things are actively sold in the nursery trade.

Robert: Yeah, yeah… and there’s like hybridized or non-native versions of plants that do… that there’s a native variety of it as well and there’s cross-pollination and kind of contamination of the native plant genetics as well.

Leland: Right, right. This kind of leads us into the next question I have, which is about TEK (traditional ecological knowledge.) Can you tell us how that works, and how that is being utilized?

Robert: Yeah, it’s kind of settled into that term, there’s been a variety of kind of terms that were kind of shopped around and used by different folks over the last decade or two. It’s pretty much boiled down to more or less universal use of TEK — traditional ecological knowledge. It’s maintenance of those values, and knowledge of what used to grow there, and it’s tied even to place names. In native languages a lot of times the place names relate to what went on there, what activity, what gathering, what you could get there, but also even traditional stories about how that landscape came to be. You know, before the time of people, the mythology age — the mythological age when animals kind of acted like people do today. That’s where you get the coyote stories, you know, coyotes going around interacting with other animals like people do today. In that magical time landscapes and world order got established and so lots of times native names of places relate to those stories. So it also ties in, usually, very nicely with modern science, you know, trying to understand what we now call rare botanical areas or special interest areas for certain resources. Our traditional stories say it was a much larger area, that because of conifer encroachment or whatever that meadow is now a very small location, it used to be that whole ridgeline that was covered with that species.

Leland: So, do you see TEK, or traditional ecological knowledge, being utilized by any… you know, if any significant way?

Robert: Yeah, we do huckleberry management up in the Cascade Mountains through partnership with Forest Service, we do camas management on the Sweet Home Ranger district as well, and we do prescribed burning in association with the camas. Because of multiple property owners and private industrial timberland kind of being intermixed with the huckleberry grounds up in the high Cascades we aren’t really able to implement the burning up there. But, like I said, it’d be a big project just to reduce the fuel loads to where it safely could be done up in those areas, again, up in the huckleberries.

Leland: Can you talk a little bit about what a fuel load is just in case people haven’t heard that term?

Robert: Yeah, it’s a lot of the overgrown brush and a lot of times there’s dead or half-dead stems in there that are kind of cured wood, or downed trees that have been down for a long time, and there is some ecological benefit to those things naturally decaying and becoming duff logs and those kinds of things. But in relation to trying to maintain a place in its peak productivity over the long term, a lot of times that introduction of fire kind of removes a lot of that woody debris, but instead of that slow decay you get an ash source of nutrients, and I think in science they call it Asarts Flush (sp?) or something like that? So, you might burn off that standing vegetation, but the remains, the cremains, I guess, of those standing plants actually have nutrients that then quickly reenter the soil and a lot of times give fire-dependent or fire-adapted plant species that regenerative boost.

Leland: Yeah, I think fireweed is one of those, which is obvious from its name I suppose.

Robert: Yeah, and there used to be lots of it and it’s kind of down to remnant patches in a lot of places now.

Leland: Can you tell me what you think about Doug fir monoculture? Because that is a big part of what our land here in Oregon is now.

Robert: Yeah, and you know working with State agencies we have partnerships and things… so I don’t want to bash my Oregon Department of Forestry colleagues, but you know Oregon prides itself on the State Forest Practices Act. But… I’m going to go ahead and bash. You know, in my mind it’s not a healthy forest practices act, it’s a tree farm promoting policy or law. It is very keyed into industrial timberland production of Douglas fir especially. We do have hardwood markets and cedar, spruce, hemlock, conifer species either chips or pulp, or you know some milling of hardwoods for furniture under structure uses and those sorts of things, but Doug fir for many decades now has been the big, big timber species. Monoculture is never a good idea, there’s interrelationships between plants that kind of keeps the whole system happy. There’s browse for deer and elk and other animals, you know you need kind of a healthy range of variety for that browse to be a healthy grazing area for those kinds of animals. With monoculture fir stands, especially as thickly as their planted here in Western Oregon, you do end up with almost monoculture stands and rampant spread of like Swiss needlecast disease as part of the result.

Leland: Let’s say we have a stand that is a Doug fir monoculture that has been sprayed with herbicide over the years, what do you think we could do… if somebody, if a landowner wanted to make it a more healthy forest what would be the steps?

Robert: Well, I think there is probably information out there and there’s partnerships with Forest Service stewardship groups and they do lots of pre-commercial or commercial thinning and then reintroduction, kind of interplanting of western red cedar and sitka spruce and some of the things that have disappeared from that stand. But I don’t know how often they focus on the little forb plants and seeding back in things like miner’s lettuce, the brush species like hazel that is important for us for basketry, and also the nuts are important wildlife food and some of our families still go and collect hazelnuts too in those larger, more mature patches of hazel. Yeah, the herbicide use is really kind of what concerns me there, and it used to be kind of just knocking back the native growth of everything else but the Douglas fir until the Douglas fir could get above it, but now they’re hitting it two, three times with herbicide after a timber sale and it’s really targeting a lot of things for eradication, to kill that brush species or everything other than the Douglas fir.

Leland: And of course it runs into our water as well and affects multiple species that way.

Robert: Yeah, I don’t know that we really understand what all those effects are, or what different chemicals in contact with each other then form new compounds possibly. I’ve even heard people say that there’s some indication that some of these chemicals entering the streams can affect the sexual development of fish species, that you get more males or females and not a balanced mix to where there’s a good possibility of sustained reproduction.

Leland: Yeah, there’s absolutely not research about the long term effects of any of this.

Robert: Yeah, and you know you always hear the talk about cancer rates…

Leland: You mentioned the elk, we have beautiful wild elk here. Thinking about them specifically, do you know of anything they need from us that they are not getting?

Robert: Well, a lot of it is that healthy browse, the absence of it, and not maintaining meadows at every available forest setting parcel of land. It’s either not maintained, so it has a little bit more of a natural growth, or it’s that monoculture fir stand where they don’t have a meadow complex where they can go and resort to as a feeding area. They’re coming down into the pastures, the fields, right near the roads. When you go hunting you’re much more likely to see them in a field — in a farmer’s field — than the woods in a lot of cases. So, you know, the behavior of the animals and their feeding habits are kind of dictated by what is available to them. Also now there are, I think failures state law too, because it protects timberland owners from damage from elk. So they log and there’s this regrowth, which they then spray with herbicide so there’s nothing left but the Douglas fir seedlings for them to nibble on and then they can apply for damage control to, you know, knock down a few of those animals and discourage them from coming into that plantation. So, it’s a weird… uh…

Leland: … downward spiral?

Robert: … downward spiral… I was trying to think of the words. *laughs*

Leland: I’ll offer you that. *laughs*

And then, you had said in the email that “nobody talks about ‘sustainability’ – ‘responsible industry’ – ‘urban sprawl’ and ‘human overpopulation’ anymore…” I think you were comparing our mainstream culture today with the 60’s and 70’s and, of course, I wasn’t around then… but I do know there are a concerned few today that do talk about these subjects, but we’re sort of thought of as being out-there environmentalists, like on some level we’re crazy for caring about these things and that it’s really not that bad. What do you think about how we could make these more mainstream again?

Robert: Well, I’m not sure what the answer is, but, you know, conversations like this are part of where it starts. I’m not social media savvy, or I really don’t participate in things like Facebook. I don’t know how much of that conversation is there? But I think some of those kinds of tools could be used for a much more educational and deeper resulting experience for the users and not just be about gossip and the distractions of, you know, Hollywood life and kind of urban trends… those kinds of things that a lot of people seem to be fascinated with.

Leland: I guess my last question would be, do you have any advice for somebody who is listening at home that wants to do something to impact the environment positively?

Robert: Yeah, there’s lots of organizations: the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, lots of different… the Wetlands Conservancy, lots of organizations that do have work parties for removal of invasives, or restoration and planting out of more diverse species in areas that have become more or less monoculture. And so, you know if people are interested, there’s lots of physical stuff that can be done. For those that aren’t able or don’t have the time there’s more supportive stuff: giving to those organizations and supporting them through their daily conversations with folks, encouraging others to become involved. All of that, you know, it takes a village. *laughs*

Leland: Thank you so much for joining us today and for your time.

Robert: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

Leland: Thank you.

We have a little bit of time left on today’s show, so I wanted to use it to tell listeners about an amazing book I read recently that actually shares a lot of same themes that Robert and I spoke of in this interview.

The title is, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants.” It was written by Robin Wall Kimmerer. What I find really fascinating about this book is that the author grew up with Native American influences in her life, she is part native herself… but then she sort of broke away from that way of knowing to become a botanist. She speaks in the book about the conflict that those two different ways created in her and I see this book as her attempt to bring them back together to that they can inform each other. The result is very beautiful and moving. I’ll read you a few quotes.

“In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”

Another quote I enjoy is, “Our indigenous herbalists say to pay attention when plants come to you; they’re bringing you something you need to learn.”

And… “It’s not just land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land.”

“Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness”—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.

And the one I’ll leave you with to contemplate is, “To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.”

Thank you for tuning in. Until next time… and please consider supporting your local public radio station, KYAQ 91.7.