Understanding the Atfalati People Of Oregon

This story by guest historian to the Hillsboro Historial Society – Ginny Mapes

Atfalati . . . was the approximate name that they and their ancestors gave themselves. The name the mothers and fathers called themselves, like the old ways, like the land itself. The Atfalati people developed a successful civilization for many millennia before the Euro-Americans arrived.

Artifacts from the Atfalati have been uncovered and are still being discovered showing achievements of an early people who flourished.

The Indigenous people who lived here had their “Atfalati” name mistranslated or mispronounced by the trappers, explorers, missionaries, and others who had early contact. [Work in 1834, Faladin; Himes, Twha-la-ti; McLoughlin, Falatine; also Twality, Tfalati, Fallatahs, Fwalitz, Quality, Nefalatine, Wappatoos, and Twalaties.]

So, the official name became Tualatin —the name that this group was identified as in the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855, a name of modern unity. That name was subsequently vested in the Grande Ronde Indian Reservation.

Atfalati had been managing their landscape for at least 4,000 years primarily by lighting well-timed fires. The Atfalati used these controlled fires to burn the fields in the fall. Open meadows were dotted with small groves of huge Oregon White Oak trees. These hardwoods can withstand both flooding and drought. Fire had little effect on them. Fire actually helped increase the acorn production by destroying the competing brush and insect pests. By burning the undergrowth, future acorn gathering would be easier. Forests and other trees grew in the foothills. In order to ensure an abundance of plants and animals essential to their diet, fire was used to maintain the grasslands. The burning encouraged the growth of camas, bracken fern, tobacco, and the fire kept the forests from taking over. So it went for years.


A circle of Oregon White Oak trees stood as a landmark for the Atfalati. “Chatakuin,” translated as a “place of the mortar & pestle.” It was a place where the Atfalati gathered under the oak trees for celebrations. The mortars and pestles were used to prepare many of the foods the Atfalati enjoyed. Camp meetings held here. It was a gathering place, a powwow time for storytelling, drumming, singing, dancing, and perhaps spiritual ceremonies. Gifts were shared, marriages arranged, and resources traded. Cooking fires and pits were readied, food would be shared. Most likely gambling and gaming was also enjoyed. Horse racing competitions were held.

An epidemic known as “fever and ague” or “intermittent fever” hit in the 1830s and almost completely eliminated the entire Pacific Northwest Indian population which included the Tualatins.

By 1840, many Atfalati people were gone. Some survivors continued to make their seasonal rounds. They continued to burn the meadows in the fall, as early settlers witnessed. Others integrated into the white community.

At the historic Five Oaks, horse racing competitions that had been started by the Atfalati people, continued when the American settlers started arriving in the 1840s. Some of the Indigenous people joined in the races during those early years. The Five Oaks were also referred to as “The Place of the Big Trees” or the “Gathering Place” by the white settlers who followed.

Tribal members today continue to celebrate their heritage —the culture, both past and present, as it is remembered, honored, and experienced today. Actors, artists, writers, musicians, singers, dancers, storytellers, chefs, and leaders —pay tribute to the trailblazers who came before and the groundbreakers who are making a new impression. Classes teach youngsters the history and language. Their artwork, some in the form of painting, basketry, beadwork, weaving, woodworking, music, and drumming, are keeping some of the age-old skills alive.

Photos: Chachalu Tribal Museum & Cultural Center – Grand Ronde, OR . . . . by Ron Mapes

Carving: “Owl brings his gift to Creation”

Thanks to David Gene Lewis for the correct translation of “Chatakuin.”


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