A place-based, indigenous approach to ecological restoration in eastern Oregon
Cove, Oregon, is a tiny town in the eastern part of the state that most Oregonians haven’t heard of. Surrounded by fields of conventional monocrops in the heart of conservative ranching country, it seems an unlikely place for leading edge cultural transformation, and yet it is, thanks to what might strike some as an unlikely partnership between Native Americans and the Episcopal Church.
I first visited Cove, and met Bobby Fossek and his family, in the summer of 2017. I was traveling through the area with a friend on a foraging and wildtending mission that also took us to Hell’s Canyon. Bobby’s place was our base camp for a few days of picking and processing cherries from nearby trees, and we cooperated together in setting up drying racks and running their steam juicer.
Bobby is a Walla Walla and Yakima descendant from the Umatilla Reservation. In his youth, he picked up some traditional knowledge from his father, but it wasn’t until later in life that he committed more fully to learning and practicing the skills of his ancestors. Perhaps ironically, the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon provided the particular means to do so that he is now pursuing.
The Diocese is based in Cove, and has been running the Ascension School Camp there for decades. Bobby attended the camp regularly during his childhood because his father married an Episcopalian woman. As an adult, he visited the place again, and heard that the Diocese wanted to “right some wrongs” with the indigenous people whose land they were occupying. He inquired and they ended up inviting him to be part of that effort.
The background on this invitation is that, at its General Convention in 2009, the Episcopal Church passed resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on congregations to support efforts by indigenous people seeking respect for “their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights.” Here’s to hoping that other Christian denominations will also take up this banner to make up for past behavior.
The Diocese now provides Bobby with a salary and housing, as well as making the camp’s facilities available for events that he helps organize. It’s an inspiring story of real cooperation and a sincere attempt to make reparation.
Bobby and I conversed on December 30th, 2020, We talked about the ecological restoration he’s doing at the camp and in the area, and how it encompasses more than the typical restoration projects sponsored by universities, governments or non-profits. Going deeper than science, Bobby’s work is rooted in the traditional knowledge of his ancestors, and includes cultural values and language as essential elements. As he summed it up: “You can’t restore the landscape without restoring the indigenous presence.”