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Oregon Family Magazine

Discover the Kalapuya Talking Stones

07/01/2020 09:09PM ● By Beth Stein
If stones could talk, what would they say? Would one stone speak of its journey down a river, another of its birth in the belly of a volcano, and another of its long deep sleep in the earth? Or would stones tell stories about the people who shared their land?

If your family is looking for a meaningful adventure in nature nearby this summer, you should visit the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park, where a special set of stones do speak. Since 2002, the Talking Stones have graced pathways and riverside viewpoints throughout the park. Placed to honor our community’s original inhabitants, the Kalapuya people, the basalt Talking Stones are each engraved with a Kalapuya word or phrase, as well as its English translation. On a hike through the park, from Eugene all the way to Springfield, you can visit fifteen stones. Several can be seen on a loop walk that passes the Nearby Nature Park Host Residence and the Frohnmayer Footbridge. Others are within a short walk of the Aspen Street Boat Launch in Springfield. (A map of the Talking Stones is available at nearbynature.org/kalapuya-people.)

Once 15,000 strong, the Kalapuya have inhabited what is now called the Willamette Valley for thousands of years, and still live here to this day. In the words of Kalapuya elder and storyteller Esther Stutzman, “We have always been here.” Esther is a frequent visitor at Nearby Nature, where she talks about Kalapuya life and lore with our volunteers, staff, and students two-three times per year. Thanks to Esther’s shared knowledge, children who go on Nearby Nature field trips or participate in our camps know that the original Kalapuya people lived in wooden longhouses in permanent villages, and used what is now called the Willamette River like a highway. Their long sleek cedar canoes were perfectly suited to navigating the braided channels that made up the river 200-300 years ago. Our students understand how camas wildflower bulbs, a staple food for the Kalapuya, were roasted in underground, stone-lined ovens. And they also know, of course, how coyote got his yellow eyes and why snakes no longer have arms and legs! (To listen to a story told by Esther, see wisdomoftheelders.org/turtle-island-storyteller-esther-stutzman.)

As you wander through the Whilamut Natural Area this summer (also named to honor the Kalapuya people) say the carved words aloud as you pass each stone. Ga-Ach-Li—peaceful in daylight. Illioo—joyful. De-Ha-Yaba—near a camas field. Imagine yourself walking by the river, three hundred, perhaps three thousand years ago. Ignore the sound of cars, airplanes, and trains. Imagine you are one of the original Kalapuya people of this place, in the Eugene-Springfield area, specifically called the Tsanchiifin. Imagine the tales that the Talking Stones could tell if they could truly speak.

Nearby Nature, the City of Eugene’s Alton Baker Park Host, is honored to have our staff living and working in the traditional homeland of the Kalapuya people. To learn more about the Kalapuya, see the map noted above (as well as other information and links on our website), check out the park kiosk on the north side of the Frohnmayer Footbridge, visit the UO Natural and Cultural History Museum, attend a program hosted by Esther Stutzman, or become a Nearby Nature volunteer (nearbynature.org/volunteer).

—Beth Stein is the Executive Director of Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The organization hosts summer daycamps in local parks as well as school programs, special events, and restoration projects. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see nearbynature.org.