Once focused on fur trading and the region’s first white settlers, the newly reopened Fort Okanogan Interpretive Center has a whole new different perspective now.
Two and a half years after the state gave this 45-acre site north of Brewster to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the interpretive center is completely redone, with new displays and a new emphasis.
“The way it was interpreted before was very much as a fur trading display, and their interaction with the local tribe,” said Guy Moura, manager of the Colville Tribes’ history and archeology department. “Our emphasis is more on the local tribe, and as an ancillary story, their interaction with the fort.”
Built in 1811, Fort Okanogan was the first American fur trading outpost in Washington state, although a Canadian fur trading company had been established near Spokane the year before.
Representatives of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company built it at the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. The Canadian North West Company bought it in 1814, made it bigger, and later sold it to Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company, which constructed a new trading post about a mile from the original site.
The interpretive center was built in 1959 by Washington Parks and Recreation, on a bluff near the second Fort Okanogan. By then, there were no remnants of either fort, but archeological excavations were conducted before the state bought the land. The interpretive center was operated by Parks staff, and served as a reminder of the history of that spot.
Five years ago, state budget cuts led to a reduction in the center’s hours, and eventually it became one of several state parks given to local governments. The Colville Tribes received deed to the land and building in December 2010.
Moura said it took some time to decide what to do with the interpretive center. All of the displays had been given back to their owners, and the vacant building needed much work. It reopened on June 20.
“We had to start over, which is a good thing,” said Museum Coordinator Kristen Heidenthal. She said only two displays from the original interpretive center remain — a diorama depicting traders and tribal members at the site, and Long Jim’s dugout canoe, which is over 100 years old and was recovered from underwater in the Columbia River.
Long Jim was a chief of the Chelan Tribe who initially refused to move to the Colville Indian Reservation or take an allotment, and won a lawsuit in federal court confirming he never ceded rights to his ancestoral lands. He eventually did move to the reservation, to the location where Fort Okanogan once stood.
The interpretive center’s displays now include many American Indian artifacts, such as root digging bags, baskets, fishing nets and beadwork. It used to start with information about fur traders. Now, it begins with the story of the Okanogan Tribe.
One display point out that tribes had long traded with each other when they came together to fish at Kettle Falls, Wenatchi and Celilo, or to gather berries or dig roots. When the fur trading post was established, they began trading there, too.
“Horses became our main trading item to the new people,” one display says. “In turn, they traded us such new things as copper, awls, bells, beads, cloth, kettles, blankets, sugar, firearms and knives. Along with the new things came diseases, alcohol and a new way of praying and living.”
But, Moura said, the influences that fur trading companies had on tribal ways weren’t as culture-changing as the influences of subsequent immigrants and religious orders.
“This is a good opportunity to help educate the public about the Tribes, and not make it so distant,” he said, since it’s located at the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation, just off Highway 97.
Many of the artifacts in the displays came from the Colville Tribes’ archeological collection, and much is on loan from individual tribal members.
The center also features two touch screens, one showing the photograps and artwork of people who visited Fort Okanogan and the surrounding area, and another featuring tribal families that lived in that area.
Events are also scheduled this summer at the facility, including the Okanogan County Historical Society’s third celebration of Frank Matsura, a Japanese photographer who documented life in Okanogan County in the early 1900s.