Camas Valley, Oregon

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.

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About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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9 Responses to Camas Valley, Oregon

  1. Pingback: A quick blog link about camas… | Notes on ethnobotany in western Oregon

  2. This is the valley I so love and love the people from there. No greater peaceful place then that valley. Loved reading the story on the valley, thank you so much. Rosealie

    • shichils says:

      Yes it is a beautiful place! I hope I get a chance to visit again this spring – but since I live a good 400 + miles away now, it isn’t always easy to find the time.

  3. Kathi warren-Flynn says:

    I am writing a book on the Umpqua Indians. I would like to share information if you are interested.

    • shichils says:

      That would be neat. Which Umpqua people are you focusing on – the people of the Umpqua Valley?

      • Kathi Warren-Flynn says:

        All of the tribes. 8 total, if you count Lower Umpqua, Yoncalla, Upper Umpqua Athabascan, Upper Coquille (Camas Valley), Cow Creek, Molalla, Grave Creek, and Klickitat. You could also add Klamath and Chasta Costa and Coos since they all used Camas Valley for Camas gathering.

  4. Kimberly A Ray says:

    Such a beautiful valley full of beautiful people. Had the blessing of growing up here. Thanks for the write up.

  5. Norma Randall Monks says:

    Camas Valley will always have a special place in my heart!! The camas flowers on the old Jack Parrot place are beautiful! (The corner of upper Camas Road and Main Camas)

    • shichils says:

      Lovely! I would love to come up some spring and take photos. Some botanists have done work analyzing different subspecies of camas in Umpqua Valley, Willamette, etc. I would find it interesting if someone ever did that for the variety or varieties in Camas and Lookingglass valleys

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