paul washington indian cemetery
Thank God for the inexorable pull of sin. Originally named the Siletz Cemetery but renamed for a Native-American Pfc. who was killed in France during W.W.I in 1918, the cemetery’s sponsor, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, has prospered recently, thanks to Indian gaming casinos. Payback for generations of firewater. As recently as the 1960’s Grant High School history teacher surveyed the cemetery “when it was mostly brush,” and he went on to say that he “made extra effort to record every marked grave and knew there were lots unmarked. In fact, Dorsey Streets told [him] that every time they dug a new grave up there, they dug into an existing grave." I rolled through Siletz in the 60s, as well, and can testify to its hardscrabble nature during those times before the pot of gambling gold was dumped on them. In those days the town was gritty and run-down and the cars on the street were beater s short on leg and long on smoke. Front yards doubled as midden piles for cast-off rusted hulks and blown tires.

Now, thanks to an unquenchable thirst by many people for throwing their money at one-arm bandits and stale country-western music, the hulks are gone, the tires are gone, the yards are landscaped, and the beaters have turned into Lexuses. My, but it’s good to see.

And the graveyard brush? Gone. All gone. Instead great ancient trees spread their limbs protectively over a verdant lawnscape cosseted by lush shrubbery and floral plantings. The undergrowth tangle of the rain forest has given way to one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the state; and if you’re lucky enough to come on or shortly after Memorial Day, you’ll see it transform from “one of” to “the most” beautiful cemetery in the state. If you’ve had any experience at all with Native American burial grounds where so often the destruction wrought upon the people is reflected, the opulent serenity and the hyper-manicured and decorated graves are a shocking wonderment.

In contrast to the meticulously maintained lawn, the individual plots and associated decorations—which can border on the fantastic—are scrupulously cleaned of the slighted suggestion of vegetation; and the grave sites themselves, instead of being level with the ground are mounded up to a foot or so high with dirt. Come Memorial Day the burial mounds fairly disappear beneath blankets of real or artificial flowers. And that’s the mere beginning. Anything and everything else can be used to embellish the grave of a loved one; but it’s never hit-and-miss nor randomly thrown together. Everything is arranged with the utmost care. I’ve seen other cemeteries gussied up for celebrations, but never with such attention to detail and taste. (My favorite display being a four-foot, eight-inch wide, pitch black board with yellow dashes down its center, and dozens of toy cars and trucks lined up along the roadway.) The cemetery in full flower is simply gorgeous. Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous.

Whether or not they still run into bones when opening new graves, I do not know, but the trees harbor a scattering of old stones now joined by many more modern ones (although someone had placed a single iris on each old tombstone for Memorial Day). The cemetery is very active and sometimes several graves group together in orchestrated arrangements of plantings, arches, benches, ephemera, etc.

The best news is that, having thrown off the yoke of poverty, these 27 confederated tribes have quietly, without fanfare, created a new culture and a new sense of identity. A little gambling money accomplished in a couple decades what a century and a half of the Bureau of Indian Affairs couldn’t approach working on, much less accomplishing. It just goes to show that, given half a chance, people will solve their own problems creatively and joyfully. Now, if we can just transfer that lesson to the Norwegians and Swedes.

If you’ve ever wondered what would have happened had the Indians not been all but wiped out, what would have happened had they been allowed to mature with the rest of the world, Paul Washington is a part of the answer. Come see for yourself. Next Memorial Day.

Directions:

At the east end of Siletz heading out Logsden Rd., the last drive to the north is Park Way and goes to the headquarters of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. The cemetery is located on these tribal grounds; keep driving around to the rear of the main building.
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