GOLD HILL — Perhaps it was only a coincidence that an osprey clutching a small fish in its talons soared over the ancient ceremony site on the Rogue River just before noon Thursday.
But it could be perceived as a good omen for those working to prepare for the salmon homecoming ceremony at sunrise Saturday, the first such event of its kind on this spot in 151 years.
"This is where my people traditionally had the sacred salmon ceremony for thousands of years," observed Agnes Baker Pilgrim, 82, a direct descendant of the Takelma people who once lived in the region.
"Nobody ate fish until the ceremony was done," added the Grants Pass resident, who will speak to those attending about the importance of the ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday. "Nobody went fishing until everybody joined in."
An elder in the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, she will lead the ceremony honoring the salmon and the river near the spot known by the Takelmas as Tilomikh. European descendants refer to it today as Powerhouse Rapids.
It was here the ceremony was held annually each spring until February 1856, when 325 Takelma Indians were force-marched up what was then the Applegate Trail to the newly created reservations at Siletz and Grand Ronde. Eight died during the march along what natives termed the "Trail of Tears."
Citing anthropological records, Pilgrim said her ancestors lived in the region for some 20,000 years.
"It's been dated," she said. "My father (George Baker) was right here in 1933 and sat on this island. My grandfather was the chief of the tribe. His sister, Francis Johnson, my great-aunt, was down here talking to our people.
"This is a sacred site," she added. "I am so grateful we can have the ceremony where it was done for thousands of years. I'm so grateful for Steve Kiesling."
Kiesling, 48, a Yale graduate who works via the Internet as editor-in-chief of the Spirituality & Health magazine based in New York City, owns the land.
Kiesling had learned from storyteller Thomas Doty that it had been a gathering spot for American Indians for eons. Thanks to an old photograph that had been in Pilgrim's family for years, they were able to identify a place known as the "story chair" in the bedrock along the river. The photograph showed George Baker sitting in the chair.
It was taken by Smithsonian Institution anthropologist John Harrington, who had asked Baker in 1933 to point out the most important spiritual places for the tribe. Baker sat on the rock for the anthropologist, who gave the family a copy of the photograph and sent his field notes back to Washington, D.C.
"Just imagine back then what it was like when there was real serious fish runs, when that whole pool would be teeming with fish," Kiesling said, standing on the riverbank looking at the site.
"People came from a hundred miles to be at this ceremony," he added. "This was THE spot in what is now Southern Oregon for them to gather."
Just as he made the comment, the osprey flew over carrying the fish.
Pilgrim and her late husband, Grant Pilgrim, reintroduced the ancient salmon ceremony in 1994 on the Applegate River at Kanaka Gulch downstream from the Applegate Dam.
"One of the reasons we did that was to make people understand that my people, when they sat by these rivers, their table was set," she explained.
"I'm honored to follow the indelible footprints of my people, carrying on their tradition and culture in a very sacred manner," she said. "It took all those grandmas and grandpas to make me who I am. Through them comes all of my strength and all of who I am to carry on what they nudge me from the unseen world to do."
Pilgrim, who proudly wears three vertical tattoos on her chin as did her great grandmother and great aunt, said today's society can learn much from ancient traditions.
"Rivers are not a garbage dump," she stressed. "When the water is gone, you can't manufacture water. All of us had better start taking care of our rivers and streams.
"People have told me around the world that where they grew up the water is gone," she added. "I tell them, 'Maybe Mother Earth is getting angry at us and pulling it back to her.' I tell them we need to take better care of the Earth."
A member of a group known as the 13 Grandmothers from a variety of cultures who travel the globe, Pilgrim is concerned that economic greed drives many practices that pollute rivers and streams.
"People need to remember how important clean water is to life," she said. "Without water, all life dies. We should bless every drop we drink."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public event honoring the salmon begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at 1275 Upper River Road, about a mile upstream from Gold Hill on the south bank of the Rogue River.
In addition to the salmon, all descendants of the Takelma, Shasta, Cow Creek, Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes will be honored.
Speakers will include Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, Dennis Martinez of the Indigenous People's Restoration Network and members of the Siletz who are descendants of the original caretakers of the ceremony.
A ceremonial salmon feast will begin around 10:30 a.m. There will also be storytelling by Thomas Doty, Lindagail Campbell, Chet Nickerson and others. Drumming and singing will be performed by the Whistling Elk Drum Group and Red Earth Descendants.
At 10 a.m. Sunday, Martinez will lead an educational session focusing on the Takelma Intertribal Project's work over the past 14 years to restore the Takelma cultural landscape on federal land in the Applegate.
Marko Bey of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project will talk about restoring native upland and streamside forests for long-term salmon habitat recovery. Others will speak on the current plight of salmon and what can be done to ensure its perpetual health.
Camping will be available for the public on Friday and Saturday nights. Campers should bring their own water, camp chairs, eating utensils, garbage bags, tents and food for themselves and the potluck. No individual camp fires will be permitted.
No drugs or alcoholic drinks are allowed.
For more information on the ceremony, see www.agnesbakerpilgrim.org and www.dotycoyote.com/peace.
Tax-deductible contributions for the event can be sent to the Grants Pass Intertribal Powwow Committee, care of Lucie Griffin, 1409 S.W. Bridge St., Grant Pass, OR 97526.