Native Americans

Perhaps Big Stump’s deepest significance lies with historical, cultural, and spiritual connections to Native Americans.


Moonrise over Big Stump 2-19-2008

For its two thousand year existence, Big Stump was located on land belonging to native peoples.  Long before the coming of the white men, Big Stump was well known among all the coastal people from the Columbia River to the Coquille River and southern Oregon. The land and the stump were taken from them, but the people and the ancestors are not gone.  To this day, it has special significance for Native Americans.  If you visit Big Stump, please keep this in mind.

I was not raised in Native American culture, although my ancestry is mixed.  I was raised as white.  I do not pretend to understand the culture.  I do not speak for Native Americans. But I respect what I have learned, and I ask readers to do the same.

  • Tahmahnawis

So I begin with information I learned from George Wasson, a Native American  anthropologist at the University of Oregon. In 2001 he wrote his PhD thesis on his experience growing up as a Coquille Indian.  The full thesis is available here. 

Wasson writes that Big Stump was respected for its “Tahmahnawis,” magic, or big “medicine.” Redwood was held in high regard among coastal people, and in Coquille there was a taboo against building canoes from an honored driftwood log. As the broken off butt of an enormous redwood tree, Big Stump was also venerated as a “Woot’lat,” a Chinook Jargon word meaning “phallus.”

I e-mailed Wasson in 2008 and asked if “Big Stump” was an appropriate term for a venerated object possessing Tahmahnawis.  He answered:

As far as I know, the most common name is “The Big Stump.” The Chinook Jargon word “Tamanawis,” (Tahmahnawis), generally means Spirit Power. In a personal usage, every person had his or her own Tahmanawis, or Guardian Spirit, or Spirit Power. 

According to Edward H. Thomas in his book, “Chinook: A History and Dictionary,” Tahmahnawis also could mean: “…magic, ghost, or anything supernatural, and could be used as the equivalent of luck, fortune, and kindred words.

 I believe that all coastal people simply used the name “The Big Stump,” which was adopted by Non-Indians. Hence the name, “Big Stump Beach,” which was also used by the owners of the cabins on the adjacent bluff.  One could say the Big Stump has Tahmahnawis, or contains Tahmahnawis, but it would be in error to call it ‘Tahmahnawis.’”

In his dissertation, Wasson describes how The Big Stump was venerated:

Any traveler along that part of the coast would have to walk or paddle right by it, as the travel route was along the beach at low tide. It was therefore propitious for the wary traveler to carry a handful of white stones, small rounded beach pebbles, to toss up into and around the Big Stump as offerings and gifts to its spirit. Such travelers would prepare in advance of reaching that location by picking up stones along the way, having all thoughts and offerings ready upon arrival, not as a casual afterthought or token gesture.” 

Nona Strake, the daughter of the first white owner of the land, also mentions offerings to Big Stump in her 1959 memoir:

“My brother and I used to climb the stump and look down inside—for it was hollow and partly filled with shells.  My folks asked the Indians why the shells. They said it had always been a rule that when an Alsea Indian went to Yachats or one of the Yachats tribe went to the bay they always threw in shells when they passed by—sort of a tollgate.”

  • The Center of the World 

In July of 2007, an article about Big Stump appeared in The Oregonian newspaper, prompting a blog comment posted by a writer calling herself MilukFrog. She wrote:

I’m a Coos Indian & when a lot of Coos people were sent to the rez at Yachacts in the 1860s, they learned the story of this stump from the Alsea Indians. To the Alsea people, this stump marked the center of the world.  The story is, no one could decide which way the sun should travel—north to south, or east to west.  Hummingbird and bumblebee decided to map the world and see which route was best.  North-South was judged to be much too long—if the sun went that way, day & night would be much too long. The distance from east to west was just right. And when Bumblebee and Hummingbird returned from their tour of the world, they marked the center of it with that stump.” 

The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians–twenty-seven tribes speaking ten languages–  were brought together on a coastal reservation through treaties with the federal government in 1853-1855.  The southern boundary was at Yachats, about six miles from Big Stump. “The rez” the above writer refers to included the territory of the Alsea tribe, which was already decimated by Euro-American diseases and nearly wiped out.  The diseases began decades earlier, and by some accounts, ninety to ninety five percent of western Oregon Indians died of disease before the remnants were rounded up.

Author Charles Wilkinson  (The People are Dancing Again) gives moving accounts of how four thousand members of the southwest Oregon tribes were shipped and marched northward in a brutal ordeal:

“…including rapes, and killings, that were inhumane in the extreme. That narrative is alive today. In virtually every family, twenty-first century Siletz people tell stories handed down by ancestors of the brutal removals.”

I highly recommend Wilkinson’s book for insights into the Indian concept of each village having a center of the world in which they lived, a place where they connected with the creator and ancestors.  He quotes a Tututin as rembering:

Every year we go to the center of our world.  In our religion, that is where life began for our people and we dance for ten nights.”

On page 43, Wilkinson has a photo of Big Stump, credited to the Siletz Tribal Collection. The caption reads:

The Alsea, Siuslaw, Lower Umpqua, Coos and Lower Coquille people consider ‘Big Stump,’ remnant of a redwood tree and located just south of Waldport, to be the center of the world.”

In his biography of Annie Miner Peterson,  Lionel Youst paints a beautiful picture:

“…the Alsea Indians considered it to be the center of their world. It was about halfway between the northern and the southern limits of Alsea territory and was actually within about forty miles of the forty-fifth parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole.  The intersection of the Pacific Coast with the forty-fifth parallel was not a bad analogy for the center of the world, if you happened to live on the Oregon Coast. This was, in any case, where Annie married into the Alsea tribe.”

  • Run to the Rogue 

Wilkinson also writes about a modern-day tradition known as the Run to the Rogue, which takes place annually on or near September 10, which the tribal council has declared to be Treaty Day, a tribal holiday. A long-distance relay of runners comprising hundreds of people, walk or run the 263 miles from Siletz to the junction of the Rogue and Illinois rivers:

The route–trail then, highway now–traces in reverse the infamous long march that many of the ancestors made in 1856. Returning by the same route can help salve the memories of the torment of the march and also assure the Coast, the forests, and the rivers that the Siletz have survived and remain loyal to their ancestral place.” (page 383) 

Runners receive a booklet titled, Points of Interest Along the way On the Run to the Rogue. From the introduction we learn:

“Along the way, we pass many village sites, cemeteries, hunting & fishing grounds, prayer places, food gathering places, shinney grounds, etc. We will pass the off shore rocks that were sea lion hunting places, the beaches, bays and shorelines that offered their shellfish to our untold generations. We will pass all these places where our people have celebrated, prayed, laughed, and mourned since the beginning of time.” 

Among the points of interest is Big Stump Beach:

“Just south of Waldport. Considered to be the center of the world for the Alsea, Siuslaw, Lower Umpqua, Coos and Lower Coquille people, this redwood stump, was prayed to when passing (the trail was on the beach here). It marked the center of the world, because Hummingbird and bumble flew in opposite directions to set the course of the sun there.”