Alis volt Propriis: ‘She flies with her own wings’

Celebrating 150 years of the Oregon spirit

For as long as there has been an Oregon territory, there has existed a spirit unique to the people that choose to call Oregon home. Many hyphenated words come to mind: die-hard, nature-loving, independent-minded, do-it-yourselfers who are salt-of-the-earth, fun-loving, free-spirits who tend to make-it-up-as-we-go. This particular concoction of personality traits is responsible for impossible visions, like picturing a world-class running shoe made with rubber and a waffle iron (Nike) and having a hunch that the world’s most fickle grape just might make it in our hills (Pinot Noir). Judge Jessie Quinn Thornton was right on the money when he wrote the state motto and then translated it into Latin for the territorial seal in 1854: Alis volat Propriis, ‘She flies with her own wings.’

On this 150th anniversary of statehood, let us introduce you to a few Oregonians who soar:

Roberta “Bobbie” Conner – Culture Preserver and Director, Tamastslikt Cultural Institute

Bobbie Conner has driven most of the western United States, moving for work with a dog or a horse or both, but it is the expansiveness of Eastern Oregon where she feels ‘home.’ She loves that there is still room to roam the land for miles surrounding the town of Pendleton where she was born and raised. Conner took a hiatus for college and her early career, but returned home to be the Director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute eleven years ago.

But, it is not just her connection to the land that makes Eastern Oregon home; it was also home for her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. In fact, Conner’s lineage goes back thousands of years along the lower Columbia River. Conner’s ancestry is Umatilla, Cayuse and Nez Perce Indian with a dash of Scotch-Irish (hence, her surname).

Conner took for granted that everyone knew their lineage. Growing up, she was surrounded by her extended family (she has 36 first cousins) known as a ‘kinship’ system that passes Native cultural traditions and oral history from elders to children. It was only when she left for college that she realized that her connection to the Native people and land of Eastern Oregon was truly unique.

It was also when she understood that no one had heard the story of her tribal people. “There were the stereotypes of Indians circling wagons on the Oregon Trail, but that’s not exactly how things happened here,” she says. No one knew the stories of the hospitality and generosity, taking care of the early travelers with meager means or the ways in which the tribes had inhabited the abundant landscape for thousands of years. It is these stories that Conner now devotes her life to telling as the Director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendelton (Tamástslikt means turn, translate or interpret in Wallulapum, the native language of the Walla Walla Indians).

Conner is very busy. Tamástslikt welcomes 30,000 visitors a year. The Institute has hosted 178 public programs, 51 temporary exhibits in ten years and maintains permanent exhibits and collections of Native artifacts. Then, there is the involvement in the tribal history book, As Days Go By, the tribal place-names atlas to be released in 2009 and a regional oral history driving tour available on CD to name but a few Tamastslikt projects. Conner also serves on three boards, writes and speaks nationally about cultural preservation.

While proud, Conner takes a humble view of what she has achieved. “Not all the accomplishments are the kind that make headlines,” she says. Another sense of accomplishment comes from the fact that the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla have provided a homeland, jobs, stability and the continuity of their culture that was at risk of being lost. Young families have the chance to raise their children to know their language, customs and ‘kinship.’ This is the real accomplishment for Bobbie Conner: building the legacy of her homeland and her people that will be celebrated for decades to come.

Johnny Sundstrom – Forest and Salmon Saver – Director, The Siuslaw Institute

When Johnny Sundstrom talks about the Siuslaw National Forest and surrounding land that lies like a 630-thousand-acre strip running from Tillamook to Coos Bay, he can wax poetic. Describing the yearly return of salmon to spawn, he first laughs and says, “The biggest Chinook come first in the lowest water. They need a bicycle or a pogo stick to get up here!” Then, he reverently describes the tremendous beauty of the ritual and how it has influenced him. “I wanted to make sure I could always have that in my life.”

In the 1980s, the salmon population was approximately 4% of what had been recorded in historical documents. A variety of factors contributed to this decline, including rigorous logging. For example, enough timber had been harvested on federal land near his home in the tiny town of Deadwood from 1960 to 1990 to build a walkway to the moon.  When Sundstrom recognized that the salmon were threatened, he knew he had to take action.

Action for Sundstrom has included involvement with his conservation district at the local, regional and national level. In 1994, he founded the Siuslaw Institute, a natural resource management non-profit that serves as the glue between federal, state, and local agencies and land owners. Sundstrom recognized that these parties rarely talked to each other to resolve natural resource problems that effected the entire region. If they did talk, they often came to the table with divergent interests. Environmentalists and loggers, for example, are notorious for emotionally-charged conflicts that tend to end up in court.

Sundstrom has made an art of navigating this type of complexity.  In 2000, Congress instituted stewardship contracting to encourage collections of individuals and organizations to work with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on forest restoration that served the local community. The Siuslaw Stewardship Group was the pilot program and Sundstrom was one of the original members.

The group focused on practices like forest thinning rather than clear cutting and then re-invested timber sales back into local restoration projects. The Siuslaw National Forest has come to be known by some as the ‘profit-making, litigation-free forest.’ With 94% of the forest designated for habitat preservation, the group has met and exceeded their timber production target for the last ten years. Not to mention, preserved one of Oregon’s prized forests.

Sundstrom and the Siusalw Institute, as part of another coalition of agencies, also earned the prestigious International Theiss Riverprize for the Siuslaw River Basin Restoration in 2004.

Sundstrom’s secret to navigating the complex terrain of natural resource management? He is the guy who can translate federal-speak to into local language and vice-versa. “If you want somebody who can talk to a landowner about erosion or tree planting, they better be able to talk about the track coach and whether or not we should fire the sun-of-a-gun or not. That’s what allows people to feel you care about them,” he explains. “It’s around the kitchen table or the back of the pick-up where reality meets government. That’s what I do.”

Susan Sokol Blosser – Pinot Noir Pioneer and Founder, Sokol Blosser Winery

Susan Sokol Blosser knows how the winds of change can whip through a life. She laughs when she remembers herself in a debutante gown with elegant gloves at the tender age of eighteen and then a decade or so later wearing overalls and driving a tractor.

Founding and running a vineyard and winery had not originally been in the plans for Sokol Blosser, but who needs plans when you’ve got instincts, a VW bus and the gumption of a kid in their twenties? These were the seeds that started the Sokol Blosser Winery in 1970 which has since grown into an internationally-acclaimed, LEED-certified winery that helped establish Oregon as a world-class wine region.

Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser were recent liberal arts grads married just four years when Bill got the idea to grow grapes. The big question was whether it should happen in California or Oregon. Bill Blosser started teaching urban planning at Portland State University and the couple began their research that included visits to the rural hills of the Willamette Valley outside of Portland. It was on one of these trips that they learned of a handful of others who had recently had a similar instinct: David Lett, Dick Erath, Dick and Nancy Ponzi. The collective hunch was that the fickle Pinot Noir grape could thrive in Oregon’s mild climate. The young couple purchased eighteen acres in the Dundee Hills for $800 an acre five months after the idea popped up. Two weeks later, the Sokol Blossers also gave birth to their first son and, between the two newborns, their life was forever changed.

The entire wine industry could fit into any one of the enterprising vintners’ living rooms in the early days as they discussed the right way to trellis or how far apart to plant vines. Sokol Blosser spent the bulk of the 1970s raising three children, teaching American History at a local college periodically and assisting her husband at the winery. Over the next two decades, Sokol Blosser continued to blaze one trail after another. First, she began managing the vineyard and became a ‘weather junkie’ and studied the vines to calculate the best time for harvest. Then, she took over as President in 1991 juggling everything from motherhood and marketing to decisions about wine production. She also found herself in the unique position of being one of the few female presidents in the industry. And, she championed the ‘greening’ of the business from organic farming methods to becoming the world’s first LEED-certified winery.

The Oregon wine industry has grown from five vineyards in 1970 to 370 in 2007. Confident that the industry and winery are finally successful, Susan Sokol Blosser has passed the winery on to her children, Alex and Alison, in 2008. “The big transfer of power was giving my Radio Shack weather band radio to Alex,” she jokes. “Now he can listen to the hourly updates.” Now, Susan Sokol Blosser can enjoy living life on the vineyard that she cultivated.

(Published in Travel Oregon magazine)

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