Yesterday, when my Prius was slammed into, I was already running late. I was rushing to beat an impending rainstorm and get to my next stop before dark. So I finished up a full day as if nothing had happened. However, this morning it all hit home. Add to that Lucy, who sometimes gets the seasonal itchies, had a flair up. So all three of us — me, Prius and terrier — needed to regroup. We opted to stay an extra day in Pendleton to see the sights we’d gotten in too late to see and to give ourselves a chance to recover. Good move. Because Pendleton is definitely a fun place for those of us who love all things cowboy.
Which is why we spent the day seeking out all things Indian. First up was a drive through the Umatilla Reservation. Home of the Three Plateau Tribes — the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse — the reservation is also the site of the huge Wildhorse Casino and Resort. I’d passed it on my way in where it was a blaze of light and neon on the otherwise dark plains. But I wasn’t there for the slots. I’d come to see something the tribes had paid for with the proceeds of those slots: The Tamástlslikt Cultural Institute. The basic mission of the museum is to tell the history of the region , Westward expansion and the Lewis & Clark expedition from the perspective of the original inhabitants. Yes, the history part was difficult as it progressed through hundreds of years of encroachment, broken treaties, introduced disease and forced suppression of culture. But the museum offers so much more. Many of the exhibits have an audio component where tribal elders narrate. It becomes even more compelling in the later exhibits where the narrators are speaking from personal experience. Where the museum really shines is in its presentation of the tribes’ culture and history. These tribes were noted for their extensive beadwork and some incredible historical pieces are on display. Also featured are the cultural beliefs and practices of the tribes culmanating in what I thought was the best part of the museum. The Coyote Theater is designed like a traditional dwelling. You sit around a very realistic simulated firepit as the audio plays a native speaker telling traditional stories and creation myths. Native petroglyphs and designs are projected on an illuminated ceiling roof over a starscape to illustrate the stories. It was fabulous. I stayed through a six story cycle. Definitely one of the the best Native American themed museums I’ve ever been to.
And here’s what else I learned about the Umatilla Reservation: between the Casino, their IT company (a joint venture with Accenture), and their Tribal Government, they are a major employer out here, but for Natives and non-Natives. They have an aggressive program to preserve their languages (Cayuse has already been lost), that includes instruction as early as preschool. And their Tribal Government seems almost evenly split between men and women. First Peoples are doing it for themselves!
But it was time to move on. Pendleton has several other museums, but my museum time was done. When you are traveling with a terrier, especially if you have to leave her in the car in a crate, your museum time is limited to the cool hours. Besides, I didn’t think the Round Up Museum or the County Historical Society was going to match what I’d just seen. So Lucy and I just strolled the streets of Pendleton and windowshopped at saddleries, bootmakers and Western wear stores. I didn’t even bother to take pictures. We just hung out, chilled and decompressed from yesterday’s unplanned adventure. Lucy was quite pleased to be out of the crate and trotting around for a full day. Except for one store that is so special, Lucy was popped back into confinement: the famous Pendleton Woolen Mills. Pendleton’s iconic blankets, textiles and shirts are a classic Western staple. Sure you can find the whole product line at their website, but the mill is supposed to have incredible sales and discontinued items unavailable elsewhere. That’s exactly what I found, the last of a limited edition run of Native student designed pieces where a portion of the proceeds go to the American Indian College Fund.
We went back to wandering the streets of Pendleton until Lucy was tired enough to take a nap. This was crucial because…well…we’re kind of outlaws at this point. Although Best Western has a pet friendly policy, the Pendleton hotel didn’t have a pet friendly room open. And every other pet friendly hotel in town is fully booked. Seems Pendleton is another popular waypoint for the Canadian snowbirds, the retirees who are flocking down to their winter homes in sunnier climes and they are here in full force. So I’ve been sneaking Lucy into my room. I haven’t wanted to leave her in the motel in case she barks and gives the whole game away. But when we returned from our rambles, and with a dose of Benadryl for her flaring allergies, she conked right out. That left me with a small window of opportunity to get myself some dinner. I had wanted to drive back to the reservation and the Wildhorse Casino. Their high end restaurant, Plateau, features salmon from Native fisheries and produce from Native businesses. But I just didn’t have the energy to make the trip.
Instead, I found myself at the lounge at The Red Lion. Yes, I know. That’s even three steps below going to a Howard Johnsons. But it was right next door and I figured I could walk there, eat and get back before Lucy woke up. Now, with my penchant for backcountry roadtrips to little traveled areas, I do get myself to places that have what we’ll call “limited dining options”. I do have some survival strategies. Order things that are very simple to prepare, have few ingredients and no sauces. Eat whatever might be local. In cattle country, eat steak. On the coast, have the fish. There is always some kind of vegetable on any menu and a simple green salad is hard to mess up. So I figured there wasn’t much The Red Lion could do to a cheese quesadilla — once I quizzed the waitress on what kind of cheese went into it. And the most local wine, coming from the Willamette Valley, was going to be good. Score on both choices.
You take beauty where you find it. And you sometimes find it in the most unexpected places.
Tomorrow, we head back down the other side of Oregon toward the California border.