Before Europeans arrived, Oregon’s Willamette Valley was home to the Kalapuya people. They traveled the Willamette River by canoe, gathering and trading camas flower bulbs, a primary food source.
Today, members of the Kalapuya tribe, part of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, continue to live around their ancestral homeland. ODOT commemorated their long-standing and ongoing culture in several aspects of the new Interstate 5 Willamette River Bridge project in Eugene and Springfield, with tribal members’ input and guidance.
The Whilamut Passage theme incorporates words, phrases and images that encompass the variety of users of the bridge and its surroundings as well as the area’s geography. “Whilamut” (pronounced WILL-a-mut) is the name of the Willamette River in the Chinuk Wawa language and means “place where the water riffles.” (In the 19th century, Chinuk Wawa arose as a common language for speakers of disparate native languages as well as English and French.)
The theme guided design enhancements built alongside the I-5 bridge as well as in the surrounding natural area. The first additions were four new “talking stones,” engraved with words from the Kalapuya language, that joined seven others already installed along paths in the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park.
In collaboration with members of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the community, ODOT named the new bridge Whilamut Passage Bridge and hosted an event in September 2012 to honor those who had won local government support for the decision. At the event, the sound of tribal drums and singing filled the morning air. Jon George, newly elected member of the Grand Ronde Tribal Council, expressed gratitude that the bridge’s name acknowledges the importance of Native Americans in Oregon and national history.
“Our culture now is intertwined into other governments, so our culture and people will not be forgotten,” said George. “But it also is a chance for us to stand up and say, ‘We have not gone away.’”