Oregon: Indian students use cougar play as lobbying effort

Statesman Journal

April 5, 2007

T’cha teemanwi is where the story begins and ends.

High on its snow-covered peak, you’ll find coyote, cougar and an epic love story that resonates through time.

The story carries profound meaning even today, perhaps thousands of years since it was first told.

“It’s the story of how the great flood came, about fire and water,” said Harry MacCormack, a retired Oregon State University professor who resurrected the story and rewrote it into a play.

The play, called “Come Fire and the Flood Moon,” last was performed 18 years ago in Corvallis.

But MacCormack has a new set of performers — students at Chemawa Indian School — and a new reason to perform the play.

“The cougar is extinct in 36 states,” MacCormack said. “And what cougar is in the old tradition is balance, so when things get out of balance, in general, cougar will bring them back into balance.”

Although the cougar population in Oregon is healthy, there is a bill before the state House, HB 2971, which would allow agents deputized by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to pursue and kill cougars with hounds as a way to manage the population.

The Chemawa students are forbidden from lobbying before government because they live at a federal boarding school.

So to raise awareness, students will perform a shortened version of the play Friday on the steps of the Capitol.

Known today as Marys Peak, T’cha teemanwi is the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range and a focal point for the first people who lived in the Mid-Willamette Valley.

MacCormack, who lives in the shadow of T’cha teemanwi, doesn’t remember how the story was passed down exactly, only that he heard it from a neighbor.

MacCormack became more intrigued after finding observational notes by anthropologists from the late 1880s that mention the legend.

The wife of a friend encouraged him to write the play and include portions of the original Kalapuyan language in the notes.

“We were told by people at Grand Ronde and Siletz that it was the first time Kalapuyan was spoken on the valley floor in over 100 years,” MacCormack said. “That’s pretty exciting in itself.”

The students, some members of the performing arts classes at Chemawa, and some just excited to take part in the play, performed before the Legislature in February.

They were asked to come back and perform again a few days before the cougar bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday.

At a recent practice, the circle drum faded away as the elder came to the front and cried, “Nesiga chago pus yeim auhnkuttie ekanum.”

“We have come to tell you a very old story,” he said.

The performers, in costumes borrowed from the Benton County Museum, where they’ve been stored for 18 years, acted out the saga.

Whale Daughter falls in love with Cougar and moves to his camp. The balance of nature is thrown off and a great flood occurs.

Cougar saves the world by bringing everyone to the top of T’cha teemanwi and restoring balance.

“I like the excitement of being in front of everyone,” said Alexis Ricker, who plays Whale Daughter. “The play shows that we should have more respect toward our animals than others do.”

Josh Olsen, who plays Big Hawk, Cougar’s helper, understands the characters on a deeper level.

“In most stories, Coyote is the villain, but he’s also kind of the helper,” he said.

Warner Austin teaches performing arts at Chemawa Indian School.

“They are people of such varied backgrounds,” Austin said about his students. “We feel like we are part of something very old and also something very new.”

takimoff@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6750 20070405/NEWS/704050316/1001


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