The Nasomah: Our Tragedy, Ourselves.



A lovely but austere memorial to the people who once inhabited the mouth of the Coquille River.

So I was grading finals at the end of May when I got a phone call from Lori: our farm hand Ryan and Nancy offered to pick up chores for few days so we could have some free time before starting the summer season. They didn’t have to ask twice. By noon the next day we were in the car on the way to Bandon, since we had so enjoyed our stay there in November and wanted to explore more of the area, which we did in spades. It was incredibly relaxing, and we had some great meals, probably the best of which was at Alloro, our favorite little wine bar in town, where we enjoyed petite oysters on the half shell with a mild cucumber salsa, calamari with aioli, halibut cheeks with sautéed polenta, braised pork on mashed potatoes with gorgonzola, a fine bottle of wine (an Adelsheim Pinot Gris), and three (yes, three) excellent desserts: crème brule, espresso panna cotta (okay, I had those first two because I had not eaten all day and I adore them both, plus I’m an adult over 50!), and a dense brownie with gelato. We were celebrating the loss of two (yes two) feed bags worth of weight since our last visit: Lori has lost thirty five pounds and I have lost 40-45 (depending on the weather!) We are set to dedicate ourselves upon return to the loss (by both of us!) of yet another 30-35 pounds before we head out of town again in November for our 30th anniversary.

On this trip we had a chance to really stop and smell some roses – it’s what I like about getting to know a place intimately. You start to really absorb the history and sense of place, especially if it is as small as 3000, as it is here – and that is large when compared to some of the other local communities, such as Denmark, Langlois, or Port Orford.

The dark side to all of this is that, sometimes, while the rose attracts by virtue of its color, its blossom, its ostensible beauty, once the nose is pressed it emits a putrid stench. This became something of a theme this trip.

Stone, native plants, and a bare bones narrative about the Nasomah; it is a Spartan presentation that my good friend Thucydides would have admired, a simple history without adornment, a “ktemis eis aiei”.

Let’s start with lunch on our second day. Below is a view from our table.

The food was okay, but the view was splendiferous!

Now Lori and I have been around, from the spectacular coast of Norway to the arid but haunting and beautiful landscapes of Cappadocia, from the rugged and stunning coast of Amalfi to the gorgeous cerulean waters of Delos. We have seen our share of beautiful places. Yet in no place, I think we will both agree, have we ever had a meal with a more spectacular vista than at a lovely little restaurant called Red Fish in Port Orford Oregon, about 30 minutes south of Bandon. Gorgeous, yes?

A view that screams for the visitor to either do yoga and inhale the Prana, or to just sit, have a few drinks, maybe a toke or two . . . or three . . . or . . . huh? . . . what? . . . yup . . . .

And yet consider the history of the rock jutting out directly below us, inscribed on the wooden monument in the photo below.

Ugly, no?

And at Bandon it gets no better. There are two memorials in this small town of just over 3000 residents. Both of them commemorate the native people – the Nasomah People – who lived at the mouth of the river and along the coastal area from around 1600 BC up until the end of the 19th century. To put that in perspective, they lived there from the emergence of the first European civilization, that of the Mycenaean Greeks, and flourished as Greece came and went, as Rome rose and fell, as Islam swept up what remained of Classical civilization in the Near East and Africa and set the crescent in the heart of Andalusia, as the modern nation states arose to a level of sophistication that allowed them to plant banner and cross in the New World. They survived for nearly four centuries the advent of our hyper-aggressive forebears who proceeded to ruthlessly conquer and exploit the resources and peoples of more than half the planet.

This lovely spare monument is directly on the docks at Bandon; as we visited we were accompanied by a harbor seal, a bit of happy relief for an unhappy story. Kudos to those who maintain these beautiful but painful small memorials.

The Nasomah were a band of the Coquille who lived at the mouth of the eponymous River. They lived off the river and coastal waters of the region.

An unhappy narrative, to say the least, about the Nasomah.

Then in the 1800s things changed. First came the British fur trappers, and with them Old World diseases to which Europeans were immune, but Native Americans were not; epidemic diseases started to impact the Coquille population adversely.

Then, on January 28, 1854 the Nasomah were massacred in their village, while they slept, by white “settlers” (a euphemism for invaders/occupiers). They were attacked by gold prospectors, led by William Packwood (I would love to know if our famed senator, Bob Packwood, is a descendant); many were burned alive in their huts. To add insult to injury, two years later, in 1856, the Coquilles were moved north to Yachats (later called Siletz); the relocation resulted in starvation and hardship and the complete appropriation of their land.

But wait, it gets better. In 1887 the Dawes act dissolved the native reservations and gave their lands to loggers, miners, ranchers, and so-called pioneers (a term I have never liked; I believe a more appropriate term would be invaders or conquerors, which would make us colonists and occupiers [see above under “1854”]).

In 1954 the Termination Act was passed revoking their tribal status (and that of all tribes in western Oregon). The following year the Indian Relocation Act was passed; because the Coquille were now landless and without tribal status, their remaining numbers were shipped to various urban centers across the US.

It was not until 1989 that the Coquille became a federally recognized tribe. Since then the Coquille have tried to re-establish their cultural heritage in the area, including building housing for tribal members, building an assisted living facility on the ocean, farming cranberries (for which Bandon is well known), winning the return of over 5000 acres of forest land near the mouth of the Coquille, and becoming the second largest employer in Coos County.

Call it bad Karma, call it poetic justice, call it coincidence, but tiny Bandon has burned down twice in its history since the initial ethnic cleansing of the native population. All of this makes me wonder, though, not about why it was that the white settlers were here in the first place – we know that, but why specifically them. As both a professor and student of Roman history and culture for my entire adult life, it is still a mystery to me, why the Romans, and why us? What qualities make a society so successful and yet so ugly? Obviously hyper-aggression, greed, an embracing of the R-complex region of the brain that celebrates aggression, territoriality, hierarchy, and above all (as we’ve seen in breathtakingly horrific illustration the past couple of weeks) tribalism, tribalism, and more tribalism. But that is true of many societies. I have no illusions that the Coquille was a peaceful tribe living in harmony with nature. Pacifist societies without aggression are simply not supported, as far as I am aware, either in the archaeological or anthropological record – unless they are a tribe very isolated from close proximity with other peoples. Neither the Romans nor the white settlers are special in their aggression per se, yet they are in how the aggression was expressed in ruthless, amoral conquest (and with the pioneers, well, so much for Christianity – anyone for Melos?)

But that still doesn’t answer why: Why were the Romans so successful in antiquity as opposed to, say, the Etruscans, the Celts, the Germans, the Greeks, the Samnites, in establishing an organized system of government in their image and implanting it on European civilization for hundreds of years? And would subsequent European cultures have displayed the same sort of hyper-aggression that led them to conquer and settle the planet had they not emerged from that ancient Roman (and, okay, Greek) tradition of conquest and interminable conflict? Why should it not have been the Chinese, or the Polynesians, or Africans? Why the Anglo-Saxons, the Spanish, French, Dutch and (albeit a late-arrival in the grand colonial tradition) the Germans?

I can’t answer that in this post. But the question has been on my mind of late since I’ve been reading two wonderful books by a socio-biologist named Edward Wilson, who has famously looked at ant and termite society (whose high level of organization has earned them the appellation of “super-organism”), The Meaning of Human Existence, and The Social Conquest of Earth. He makes a compelling case that, in the field of academics, our division of the humanities from the sciences is highly artificial, and arguably impoverishing of our ability to understand fully the human condition. Whether it is the conquest of the Mediterranean basin and much of Europe by the Romans, or the destruction of the Nasomah, the historical condition is an inherent part of our biological nature. The nightmare of history is something, however, that the humanist records, analyzing the proximate and ultimate causes from a human perspective and putting it into a rich narrative account. The biologist is also a historian of sorts, one who would rightly scoff at the notion that the historian can begin to touch “ultimate” causes that drive human events, for the ultimate historical causation of anything rests not in distant events leading up to a singular event; it rests, instead, in our biological history and nature (and by nature, I mean the complex linkage of chromosomes, DNA, and the chemical alphabet soup of which we all consist, and which has evolved us to this point, such as it is). The explanation is to be sought not at the micro-level, e.g., the Romans were drawn into south Italy when the Samnites (an Italic people who lived in south and central Italy) encroached on the territory of Capua, which in turn asked Rome for assistance, which, in turn, led to war between the Romans and the Samnites.

Rather, the answer is to be sought ultimately in the development of the R-complex of the brain mentioned above. But that biological and evolutionary explanation, which is a universal constant that we share in common with almost every creature, by virtue of its chemistry, still does not address specifically, Why the Romans?

I imagine it is in part due to the fact that Rome was the super-organism of its time, one in which altruism was the rule of the day, where individuality was sacrificed for the good of the state in meeting potential threats to it. Granted, it was never a smooth ride: The plebes had to fight mightily with the nobles to obtain some degree of social and political equity; the individual ambitions of powerful warlords such as Sulla, Marius, Pompey, and Caesar, plunged the Roman state into a century of civil war that nearly destroyed it during the first century BC; and the individual ambitions of many a general and provincial commander led to a great deal of instability in the late empire from the third century AD on.

But, on the whole, Romans tended to work towards the common good of the state to the collective benefit of the community, sacrificing individual interests. The ethos is perhaps best embodied in the anecdote concerning L. Junius Brutus the Liberator, the man responsible for expelling the kings from their tyrannical and oppressive rule in Rome and establishing the free republic in 509 BC (according to tradition). When Brutus’ sons conspired to restore the monarchy, Brutus had his own sons arrested and executed. It is the supreme act of sacrifice – the elimination of your gene pool for the good of your state. Blood may be thicker than water, but the Roman ethos trumped it. There is an article, maybe even a book, in all of this somewhere.

And the Nasomah? Perhaps they should just accept their destruction and their few descendants just appreciate the Red Skins logo, and the fat tourists that have transformed their lands to crab shacks, hotels, golf courses and junk shops, as a part of “White Heritage”. All history is neutral and the same anyway. The Native American experience is just the same in this country as the black, or Irish, or Hispanic experience here right? The Stars and Bars is just a flag, no complexity in history or interpretation, right? One size fits all – right? Right?!?!?!

A succulent flower blooms at Battle Rock Park. For me, it is the spirit of the Nasomah, insisting on the preservation of something that is good and beautiful from the life they knew before it was taken from them. Like Vergil, they give lilies with full hands.

You know, if someone is physically lazy and doesn’t want to work – fine. I could not care less – and chances are they are temperamentally suited to something else. Gods love ‘em. But intellectually lazy people – as I crawl towards old age and death I grow grumpier, and my patience for them turns jejune; yet I doubt they would understand what I mean by intellectual indolence anyway. Sociology, science, history, law, economics, in all of their ugly truths are not revealed (so-called revealed knowledge is too passive and indolent for my taste, unless, as with writers, poets, artists, and musicians, it is experienced as a creative art); knowledge, as Socrates and Plato long ago recognized, must be sought, and it is hard work and often unpleasant. And if you read, and try to share your knowledge, hatred and resistance will be the most likely outcome. Just ask the Nasomah, who had to fight – still must fight – for their history and their very small world that they tried and ultimately failed to conserve. An happy note for me to end upon what appears to have become a screed. Sorry – but not too sorry. No, not too. But the temperature reads an ominous 85 at 10am  and I must close. Off to water a piece of occupied territory.

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