Community, Cottage Grove

Nonprofit focuses on education of Kalapuya ways

Karen Rainsong demonstrates throwing darts and atlatls with the grace and skill of someone who might have used such tools for hunting in a past life — or who has been teaching living history for years — 17 years to be exact. 

During her interpretive hike on Sunday, a crowd of enthusiastic families tried out the tools that indigenous peoples once used as part of Rainsong’s hands-on approach to learning. 

Rainsong is the executive director of Singing Creek Educational Center, an nonprofit in Cottage Grove that was formerly located in the historic Snapp House. Rainsong said Singing Creek is in the midst of moving locations, but will still be based out of Cottage Grove.

 “Our area of focus is Oregon history, including Indigenous Peoples, fur trappers, Lewis and Clark, and settlers,” she said. “A big part of what they teach includes traditional Kalapuya life ways, the Willamette Valley’s first inhabitants.”

Most of the education is geared toward summer camps and school programs for kids, but occasionally they have all-ages events for the whole family like the Kalapuya Ways presentation at Hendricks Park. Rainsong heads up the hike twice a year, in the spring and fall. This is one of the events they have where most of the participants end up being adults.

“We start by talking about the Kalapuya today, including what happened to them with European traders and then colonizers coming to Oregon,” Rainsong said. “We will talk about current efforts to reclaim heritage, culture and language, as well as handle objects of material culture from the past.”

It was a great turnout with about 20 people in attendance. Sunday’s presentation started with the history of Hendricks Park from volunteer Svevo Brooks, of Friends of Hendricks Park, who encouraged enthusiasts to donate — or more importantly — donate their time to stewardship of the park. Speaking of stewardship, Rainsong explained in her presentation how the Kalapuya were stewards of the Willamette Valley and kept the land from becoming overgrown by burning the brush each year as they passed through.

Other topics covered in this biannual presentation include housing, clothing, food, trading, language and seasonal activities. On these hikes, Singing Creek Educational Center (SCEC) brings tools for display like hand-split cedar planks, a camas digging stick and dentalia shells. Participants get to hear about history, then when reaching the top of the hill, Rainsong tells of the Kalapuya creation story “First Woman,” which explains why wolves are special to the Kalapuya. 

For those unfamiliar with SCEC, this nonprofit is based out of Cottage Grove, though many of their activities are in Eugene. Their Travel In Time Field Trip for 3rd-5th graders take place at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, while many of their programs Like Letters from the Trail and Kalapuya Ways are taught in classrooms. According to their website, “Our curriculum has been vetted by the Curriculum Specialist with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for cultural responsiveness.”

They have been teaching history-based summer camps to children for over 15 years. In June, there is a Pueblos Camp for low-income Guatemalan and Latino children whose primary language is Spanish. Kids explore cooking, songs, crafts, and games through the themes of Latin American culture. Guest instructors teach basket making and weaving. 

Tools used by the Kalapuya on display during Kalapuya Ways presentation by the Cottage Grove-based nonprofit Singing Creek Education Center at Hendricks Park last weekend.

In July and August there are Pioneer Homesteading summer camps, likened to Little House on the Prairie. Activities include traditional chores like sewing, churning butter, grinding grain, washing clothes with a washboard, and making herbal medicines. Other fun activities include pioneer pastimes such as playing with shadow puppets, games, and playing school. They offer scholarships to low-income families.

In the past, they have offered a Lewis and Clark Explorers Summer Camp and plan to bring that back in 2024, as well as Opal’s World: Kinship with Nature, based on the famous pioneer girl, Opal Whiteley. According to their website, “Opal was a nature lover who kept a childhood diary relating her adventures in the woods around Cottage Grove, including her explorations with her animal friends.” This nature diary, The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow is the inspiration for the organization’s name. Coincidentally, the executive director is a distant relative of Whiteley by marriage. What a small world!

Like Whiteley, Rainsong is also a lover of nature — the executive director is a certified naturalist, as well as a graphic designer, photographer, and someone passionate about local history. Rainsong has taught art, natural history, and so much more with Homesource, Lane Arts Council, and Whole Earth Nature School. She has worked with Esther Stutzman, the Kalapuya tribal elder, as well as other tribal elders, to implement various indigenous educational programs. 

This summer she will be teaching cordage and atlatl throwing at the Native American Cultural Encampment from June 23-25 at Roaring Rapids Park in Scio, Oregon.



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