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Dara Williams-Worden spends most of her days recording tribal elders tell stories about the Confederated Tribes of The Umatilla Indian Reservation’s past. She works in Oral History for the Department of Natural Resources, she uses these stories to help protect and preserve the community’s sacred spaces.
Illustration by Emily Whang
Listening to the past: One woman’s journey to preserve tribal history
Dara Williams-Worden has been listening to the stories of tribal elders for most of her life. It’s a big part of her day job today, but it was her late grandmother who helped her make most of her connections.
When Williams-Worden was growing up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, her grandmother would take her to visit community members around the area. The two women would often tag along with her grandfather while he finished his route as a sanitation collector.
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“We would drive all over the mountains … around different places,” she said. “And I remember [my grandmother] would tell me things about where we’d be going.”
Interacting with the community at such a young age has helped Williams-Worden shape her relationships with the tribal elders of today.
“Ever since then, I’ve been – building and maintaining relationships with a lot of tribal elders in the community,” Willams-Worden said.
Dara Williams-Worden stands in front of stone pillars that represent the three sets of seven Washat songs. Washat is the religious practice of tribal members. (Photo by Lily Sheoships)
Williams-Worden is currently the Oral History/Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act assistant within the Culture Resources Protection Program for the Department of Natural Resources. She spends most of her days recording tribal elders tell stories about the tribe’s past.
The purpose of her job is to protect and preserve the reservation’s culturally significant places and resources for the benefit of current and future generations.
“The preservation is important so that we can keep those areas protected,” she said.
Williams-Worden looks through notes on her desk. (Photo by Lily Sheoships)
When a land project such as a building or wind farm is planned on the Umatilla Indian Reservation or the ceded territory — 6.4 million acres that stretches roughly from the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River, along John Day River up to Tucannon River — Williams-Worden contacts tribal elders and community members.
If they are familiar with that specific location, she invites them on a tour of the area.
“We find that it’s better to take them to the project area because once they’re out there, they have a better sense – it spurs the memories a lot better,” she said.
Williams-Worden does not approach the interview process as “just trying to get information out of them.” She wants to hear what they have to say and learn more about the Umatilla land.
It’s more than just a professional responsibility for William’s-Worden. She spends time with these tribal elders. She listens to their stories, and she builds these relationships with them.
“Getting to go to a lot of those places and then hearing those stories of remembering, it’s precious, and you become friends,” Willams-Worden said.
Some of her most precious memories with tribal elders are from early in her career.
It was July, and temperatures were scorching hot in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area. That day, she invited two vans of elders on a jet boat cruise on the Snake River. Once the jet boat came to a full stop, the elders started to get out of the boat and jump into the river.
“They jumped in the Snake River. And it was just the craziest thing to see,” she said. “I was just like, ‘What are you doing?’ I thought they were going to be swept away, but they loved it. They were having a ball.”
Williams-Warden also got to travel as far as Montana to visit the Bar Paw Battlefield memorial, a space that commemorates the people who died in a five-day battle between the U.S. Army troops and the Nez Perce in 1877. Williams-Worden joined a tribal elder who was a descendant of someone who fought in the war, and it was one of the most powerful interviews in her career.
The Bear Paw Historical Park preserves the location of a five-day battle and siege after which Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe gave his immortal speech, saying, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
“The thing he said was, ‘I always wanted to be able to come here before I die.’ ” She said. “And so being able to do that for him and be there with him for that was …just a great experience…”
Today, there’s a heightened sense of urgency in Willams-Worden’s work.
Like most tribes throughout the nation, the Umatilla Tribe has lost a lot of elders in the last few years. Lately it’s become “harder and harder,” she said.
“Speaking with them, it’s like it’s a part of my grandma. So that when they’re gone, it’s almost like losing a little bit more of my grandma.”
The Next Generation Radio Project is a week-long digital journalism training project designed to give competitively selected participants, who are interested in radio and journalism, the skills and opportunity to report and produce their own multimedia story. Those chosen for the project are paired with a professional journalist who serves as their mentor.
This edition of the #NPRNextGenRadio project was produced in collaboration with the Native American Journalists Association in March 2021.
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye - Managing Editor, Indian Country Today, Washington, D.C.
Phyllis Fletcher - Senior Editor, American Public Media Studios, Seattle
Audio Engineer lead:
Selena Seay-Reynolds - Freelance audio engineer, Los Angeles/New Jersey, with Patrice Mondragon - Audio Tech, Colorado Public Radio
Visuals team lead:
Erica Lee - Freelance photojournalist, New Jersey, with Kevin Beaty of The Denverite and Colorado Public Radio, Denver
Illustration team lead:
Emily Whang - Freelance Illustrator, Los Angeles with Ard Su - Freelance Illustrator, Baltimore, and Lauren Ibañez - Freelance Illustrator, Houston
Manuelita Beck, Politics Now Editor, USA TODAY, Indianapolis
Alexis L. Richardson, Chief Innovation Officer & Digital Strategist, “The Mom Edit,” Philadelphia.
Cameo Hill of NPR station KJZZ in Phoenix
Robert Boos of Metropolitan State in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Our journalist/mentors for this project were:
Brian Bull - Reporter, KLCC, Eugene, OR
Carrie Jung - Education Reporter, WBUR, Boston
Graham Lee Brewer - Associate Editor for Indigenous Affairs, High Country News, Norman, OK
Savannah Maher - Rocky Mountain News Bureau, Indigenous Affairs Desk, KUNM, Albuquerque, NM
Christine Trudeau - High Country News, Contributing Editor to the Indigenous Affairs Desk, San Diego
NPR’s Next Generation Radio program is directed by its founder, Doug Mitchell.