Near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Coquille River is a beautiful little valley, today called Camas Valley.
Coos Bay people once followed a trail from Daniel’s Creek to Blue Ridge and out to Camas Valley. Lottie Evanoff said her father, Chief Doloos Jackson, said it was a place ‘blue with [camas] flowers and only trees there were oaks’. It’s been said that the first white men to see the valley at first thought it was a lake, and didn’t realize it was a vast prairie of camas until they came down from the hills to the prairie edge.
I had long wondered who were the original inhabitants of Camas Valley, but I never found much information on them. For Native people, Camas Valley appears to have been a regional trading center. Not only did people come over from Coos Bay, but there was a trail to the south to Rogue River country. Since Camas Valley is between the territorries of two Athabaskan speaking peoples – the Upper Coquille and the Upper Umpqua, I assumed the Camas Valley people were part of one or the other tribe (the Upper Umpqua language was a more divergent dialect than Upper Coquille and the languages of Curry County). Then finally, a couple of years ago, I stumbled on a comment Coquelle Thompson made to Elizabeth Jacobs. He said they were actually a band of Upper Umpqua people, and he called them the sɛtɫʼu•mɛ´dənɛ. Unfortunately he didn’t give an etymology for the name, although the dənɛsuffix means ‘people’ (and that pretty much is the sum total of my knowledge of Athabaskan).
Then I found the name again. I was rereading the Joshua (Chemetunne – an Athabaskan people from the mouth of the Rogue River) creation story that was reprinted in “Coyote Was Going There”. The first woman and her baby stop at a prairie far up the Coquille River called Salomä. I thought the name looked vaguely like Thompson’s setl’ume. The story was originally recorded from Charlie Depot in 1900 by A. A. Farrand. Fifteen years later Leo Frachtenberg looked over Farrand’s notes, got a few linguistic notes he wrote in margins from Coquelle Thompson. Luckily I happened to have a photocopy of this buried in my overstuffed filing cabinet. I found that Frachtenberg recorded the name in the story as sā´Lō´mäᵋ, and commented that L!ō means prairie. Realizing that for linguists of Frachtenberg’s generation used the L symbol for tl, I knew it was the same name he’d given to Jacobs – Camas Valley.
Now I really wondered what the name meant. And I know next to zero words in any of the Southwestern Oregon Athabaskan languages. But I know someone who does! People at the Siletz tribe have been working for years to reclaim the language, so I contacted Robert Kentta, who in turn contacted Bud Lane. Bud cracked the code in record time! And they shared this etymology with me:
Sa or Saa= stem for ‘oak’
Tuu-me or tlu-me = meadow, prairie, plus water or wet inside
dunne = place + people of
So the name means Oak+meadow/prairie (plus reference to wet)+place+people of. It fits a camas prairie with some oak trees well – camas often prefers meadows that are damp part of the year.
Robert Kentta and Bud Lane said it was ok if a posted the information. I am so excited that at least one little mystery about Camas Valley has been solved! Thanks Robert and Bud!
I hope I’ll be able to visit the valley in late spring one of these years, take some pictures of the camas in bloom. The last time I was there in flowering season was some time in the late 1990s. To find flowers, you have to get off of Highway 42 and explore the side roads. But, there are at least still some patches there. And at least next time I visit, I will know its right name – setl’ume, and the people were setl’umedunne.