Chachalu wasn’t designed for tourists. But as curious visitors stop by on their way between the Willamette Valley and the Oregon coast, the Northwest Oregon tribal museum opens its doors to them all the same.
The museum and cultural center run by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sits in a renovated school building on a piece of the tribe’s scattered reservation lands in the town of Grand Ronde, just off Oregon 18. First opened in 2016, the center closed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as of Friday has reopened to the public.
Travis Stewart, manager of the Chachalu Museum, said the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde set out to craft a different kind of museum for its tribal members, one that bucked the traditional approach of informational placards, artifacts in glass cases and what he calls “props,” like facades of Old West trading posts.
Instead, the small museum space is filled with wall-length images of local natural places, like quiet rivers or meadows strewn with camas lilies. A few cultural items are scattered around: a headdress made of dentalium shells, stone mortars and pestles, baskets woven in the traditional style. In the winter, traditional canoes fill the small space, but come summer they’re “woken up” and taken back out onto the water – the museum, as it turns out, doubles as a canoe storage area.
“The space feels different than a typical gallery or historical society,” Stewart said. “We wanted people to feel and be part of the story. We wanted to create more of a connection between the landscapes of the ceded lands and the stories that go with that.”
Visitors expecting a typical museum experience may be surprised or even unsettled by the atypical approach. There is little in the way of written information, and no clear structure to follow. A chronological timeline doesn’t even appear until the very end – included begrudgingly as a concession to people’s expectations of a museum, Stewart said.
Those at Chachalu said the sparse approach encourages people to ask questions, rather than to walk away feeling like they’ve learned all they need to know. There’s also an intentional effort to reconnect people with the natural landscapes outside the museum walls, lands where the ancestors of Grand Ronde tribal members lived for countless generations.
“I don’t want to tell people what to think,” Stewart said. “If they come out of there with a closer connection, be they Native or non-Native, if they’re drawing a connection between places where they live and are familiar with and are seeing, then they’re going to care more for those places and that’s kind of a win for everyone.”
But again, Chachalu wasn’t designed for tourists.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde said the museum and cultural center was curated specifically for tribal members to have a space to learn about their heritage in a safe and welcoming environment. Aside from the museum, the center offers a research library and a staff that can help answer questions about culture, history and traditions, they said.
David Harrelson, historic preservation officer and manager of the cultural resources department for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, said their approach is more like gardening than architecture – curating a space for the community to grow however it needs to, rather than trying to offer everything it needs.
“You’re seeing that idea of manifesting, people manifesting that future while also realizing they’re a result of that,” Harrelson said. “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams and the result of their prayers.”
Chachalu also represents a vital source of cultural information that for generations was intentionally kept from Indigenous people as settler colonists pushed Native communities to assimilate into Western culture, Harrelson said. Older generations grew up without access to traditional knowledge that younger generations have close at hand, thanks in large part to places like Chachalu.
That approach is why the museum eschews rigid timelines and exhibits about the attempted extermination of Indigenous people in favor of a place that encourages deeper connections with nature and access to that long-withheld traditional knowledge.
“What our museum is about is living culture, and it’s about a culture coming anew, being born,” Harrelson said. “When you’re coming out of dark times, it doesn’t mean everything is good, but things are a lot better than they used to be. We’re sort of celebrating that … while trying to plan and project our future success.”
Part of that process does include the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde opening up their museum to those outside their community, even if fresh wounds result in some remaining hesitation, Harrelson said.
According to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the name Chachalu means “the place of the burned timber.” The area where the cultural center is located was traditionally cleared of trees using fire, maintaining it as a travel corridor that existed for generations. The people in charge of Chachalu recognize that it remains a busy travel corridor, and they said they welcome all travelers who want to stop by and learn more about Grand Ronde’s cultural heritage – even if the museum wasn’t designed for them.
“I think that there’s value in Oregonians knowing that the tribes still exist, that there’s knowledge systems and another way of looking at the world,” Harrelson said. “We’re focused on our community, but we know many of these things are relevant far beyond this immediate locale, and we want others to be able to find a way to access that.”
Chachalu Museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday at 8720 Grand Ronde Road, Grand Ronde.