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"We Honor the House": Lived Heritage, Memory, and Ambiguity at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse
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"We Honor the House":
Lived Heritage, Memory, and Ambiguity at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse

On March 29, 2005, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse constructed within the boundaries of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) opened its doors to the public for the first time (Figure 1). The date of the grand opening was not accidental; on this date 199 years prior Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery landed their dugout canoes on the banks of the Chinookan town of Cathlapotle and visited with its inhabitants for approximately two hours. The grand opening ceremony was designed to not only celebrate and capitalize on this historic event, but also to publicly celebrate the partnership between the Chinook Nation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) archaeologists and staff, and a variety of financial supporters who made the construction of the Cathlapotle Plankhouse a reality. Additionally, volunteers had offered thousands of hours of labor to the project and the plankhouse would not have been built without their efforts. The important role that volunteers played in bringing this project to fruition was also recognized during the grand opening.1

The Cathlapotle Plankhouse serves as a place of memory designed to provide a physical link to the Indigenous populations that once thrived in the area where the plankhouse now sits. It is also, however, a place where competing visions about the past, the role and value of cultural resource stewardship, and the ownership and control of heritage come directly into focus. Further, it is the place where these [End Page 38]

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Figure. 1.

Top: Cathlapotle Plankhouse located on the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Bottom: Plankhouse grand opening, March 29, 2005. Author's photographs.

varied visions of heritage took on their most public face, especially within the context of Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations. The plankhouse has become a place of cultural reclamation for the Chinook Nation, a site where they hold nonpublic (and also public) tribal events, share songs and dances, and practice the protocols that are so central to who they are: a place where heritage is lived. But the plankhouse sits on lands owned and controlled by the government of the United States, and as a result the legacies and continuing manifestations of [End Page 39] colonialism are an ever-present reality that the Chinook Nation confronts in their use of the plankhouse and in their efforts to control their own heritage. The Cathlapotle Plankhouse is, therefore, an ambiguous monument where the legacies of both a rich tribal history and colonialism intersect, and where efforts to reclaim culture are hindered by lack of tribal control. The goal of this essay is to trace the development of the Cathlapotle Plankhouse as a place of memory and explore the issues that led to the battles over its use, identity, and value as a monument to heritage.

My discussion about the construction and use of the Cathlapotle Plankhouse as a place of heritage is certainly informed by a large body of scholarship on "memory."2 It is Edward Casey's work on the centrality of place and its connection to memory, however, that provides the central framework. Casey argues that there are four major forms of human memory: individual memory, in which the individual person is a unique rememberer; collective memory, where different people recall the same event, each in their own way; social memory, which are memories held in common due to a group connection; and public memory, which is memory that occurs out in the open.3 While each type of human memory plays a role in shaping the other three, social memory and public memory seem most useful in understanding the issues and controversies surrounding the Cathlapotle Plankhouse. Casey argues that social memory has the following characteristics:

This is the memory held in common by those who are affiliated either by kinship ties, by geographical proximity in neighborhoods, cities, and other regions, or by engagement in a common project. In other words, it is memory shared by those who are already related to each other, whether by way of family or friendship or civic acquaintance or just an alliance between people for a specific purpose...