November 12th, 2019

Tiny Travels: Drop everything and take a group trip to Grand Ronde’s Chachalu cultural museum

The Tiny Travelers love to tell people where to go and what to do. But this month’s adventure takes on a particular sense of urgency. In this month of Thanksgiving, there might not be anything more meaningful in travel than to take a group of your family or friends to the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grande Ronde, just a short drive from McMinnville. What you’ll get is an immersive experience in the living culture of Oregon’s Native American people, the kind of un-textbook learning that might just change your life.

The museum opened two years ago with the name Chachalu, a Kalapuya word meaning “place of burnt timbers,” which referred to a devastating fire that burned through the Grande Ronde Valley shortly before several regional Native American tribes were relocated by the U.S. government in 1856. Today, the 4,000 square-foot museum honors the idea that just as the forests and streams have replenished themselves in the wake of devastation, the tribe is actively at work revitalizing its cultures and impacting education about tribal life in Oregon. 

In the spirit of inciting you to get there pronto, I’m going to tell you about six moments we had there recently as a family.

Moment 1: The gallery

Right now, an exhibition of contemporary art holds space in the museum’s rotating gallery. It’s a special selection of hand-made, useful objects and artistic expressions, many of which are taken right off the walls and used in ceremony by tribal members. That reed skirt, so delicate and lovely, might next week be worn at any number of events where the tribe practices its culture. The best art feels alive, and these objects particularly so.

Moment 2: The map

Two giant walls are given over to an aerial image of the lands once occupied by one of the tribes that were forcibly removed and relocated to Grand Ronde. It’s an astounding emotional moment when you realize just how much land these people once called home. 

Moment 3: The canoes

Living culture means that the giant, hand-carved canoes in the museum are frequently taken out for ritual gatherings with other tribal groups. The museum is staffed largely by tribal members, so all you have to do is ask what it’s like to row that thing upstream.

Moment 4: The language app

Try the in-museum app (called Chinuk Wawa) or you can download it at home. Created by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community, it teaches the chinuk wawa language through practice, games and quizzes, and has a section on basic tribal history, songs and stories. The real tiny travelers, my kids, are obsessed.

Moment 5: The Bentwood Box

Two years ago, the museum opened with an exhibition called “Rise of the Collectors,” which was a show of loaned objects taken from the area by British ethnographers in the early 20th century and now owned by the British Museum.  It’s a longer story worth revisiting in this excellent piece by OPB. Suffice to say that the objects have returned to the British Museum but are curiously and powerfully honored in the Bentwood Box space at Chachalu. It’s a gut punch of a presentation.

When you go:

  • Consider going with a group and getting a group tour. Stopping by is just fine, and still very much worth it, but you’ll get more value when you engage people involved with the museum.
  • Pack a lunch and eat outside if the weather holds up. It’s a really cool building.
  • You get to pump your own gas at the nearby gas station in Grande Ronde. This holds much novelty for young Oregon children by the way.
  • The museum is one minute off of Hwy 22, making it the perfect stop on your way to the beach.
  • Tell everyone you know about your experience here.

Emily Grosvenor is Editor of Oregon Home Magazine and head storyteller for #McMinnvilleDentist.  Follow her on Instagram @emilygrosvenor.