Nine Flags ceremony raises the banners of tribal nations

Acting tribal chairman Eric Hawley raises the flag of the Burns Paiute Tribe.
Acting Tribal chairman Eric Hawley raises the flag of the Burns Paiute Tribe.

The breezes over the EMU amphitheater now carry a special message for the UO’s Native American students and their families.

In a well-attended ceremony Thursday morning, the flags of all nine of Oregon’s tribal nations were raised on those breezes, and will be a daily sign to Native students that they have a home here and a reminder to others of the significance of the First Peoples, both to the campus and the state. It’s the culmination of a student-run project that has taken more than two years to complete.

The nine new flagpoles, which are scattered in a semicircle around the amphitheater, were dedicated at Thursday's ceremony. Interim UO President Scott Coltrane spoke at the event, along with Jason Younker, the university’s new assistant vice president for tribal relations, who is a member of the Coquille Nation and a UO alumnus.

“We are extremely grateful to the nine tribes who helped us accomplish this amazing feat,” Coltrane said beforehand. “These flags will fly proudly at the center of our campus and will be a constant reminder of the their sacrifices and resiliency.”

As a measure of the importance of the new installation, the leaders of eight of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon attended the event along with the general manager of the ninth. Gordon Bettles, the steward of the UO’s Many Nations Longhouse and a member of the Klamath Tribes, said it’s rare that so many tribal leaders gather in one place.

It’s also a testament to what the flags will mean to the Native community, he said.

“The most important part of what we’re doing is recognizing the people that were here first, that are here now and that will be here in the future ― the Native American tribes of the Northwest,” Bettles said. “People sometimes forget that the native Oregonians have a history going back millennia.”

The idea started in 2012 when business student Orion Falvey went looking for a class project that would enhance campus culture and leave a legacy. He enlisted a half-dozen other students and approached Bettles, who suggested the flag installation and agreed to act as advisor to the project.

The students pushed ahead with the idea, even as all of them eventually graduated. They won support from the ASUO, the Campus Planning Committee, the President’s Native American Advisory Board, the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, the Native American Student Union and the Native American Law Students Association.

In addition, all nine of the sovereign Oregon tribes committed financial or other support to the project, as did the ASUO and the Office of the President. Bettles said without the perseverance of the students, the idea would not have succeeded.

“They didn’t lose interest, they continued after they graduated, they were respectful and polite and the more they got into the project the more they learned,” he said. “They believed in this project, so they all made it happen.”

While the flag plaza won’t be unique ― the universities of Montana and Minnesota have something similar ― the UO will be one of the very few schools in the country, and the only one in the Pac 12, to fly the flags of all of the sovereign tribes in its state.

And Bettles said that’s no small thing.

“The University of Oregon is the flagship university of the state of Oregon, and as a flagship university we should be setting an example for the other universities and colleges,” he said. “There are other things that can be built from this. The relationship between the university and the nine tribes can only be strengthened through this physical gesture.”

―By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications