Interview with a Siletz Elder

It’s All About Eels…

Submitted to the Siletz News for the May 2022 issue by Teresa Simmons, Vice Chair, Siletz Tribal Arts and Heritage Society

In 1996, Skakol: The Decline of the Siletz Lamprey Eel Population During the 20th Century, an eel study about the decline of the eel on the Siletz River, was published. It consists of 19 oral interviews with Siletz, Oregon, residents, mostly Tribal. The interviews were conducted by Siletz Tribal members. The study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation to the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, and the NAMS program. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians assisted with the cost of publication.

The following interview with Tribal Elder Nellie Orton was conducted by Tom Downey and Darin Rilatos at her home in Toledo, Oregon, on July 10, 1991. Nellie was born in Siletz on March 6, 1913. She was a Siletz Tribal member.

Nellie and Charles Orton, courtesy photo from Kay Steele and Danielle Billmyre

How long have you lived in the Siletz area and were you born here?

I’ve lived here all my life; I was born here. Since 1951 we moved over here because our house burned down. Because Sonny (son, Charles Orton) was only 10 years old. I was born in 1913.

What area of Siletz Valley did you grow up in?

Down there by the Grange Hall (Siletz Grange Hall on Metcalf Road) … my dad owned all that land there where the Grange Hall is. He had a house there. That is where we used to live. It is where those government buildings sit now. He used to have a house there. He never sold any of that land, he just sold that little piece of the Grange Hall. He owned clear down to the Gibson berry patch.

How far back do you remember fishing on the Siletz?

Well, I know I have been fishing ever since I could remember, since I was a kid, you know. I know Charles (husband) used to set net all the time, long time ago.

Did you ever fish for eels yourself on the Siletz?

Not really, but I watched them hook eels. I never hooked or anything. I have picked up the eels as they are being thrown on the bank and put them into a gunny sack. They told me to put sand on your hands so you can pick them, they are so slimy.

Can you remember where the traditional eel hooking grounds were?

Just about any place a person wants to build himself a platform or had a good riffle, you know. Everyone had their own place to eel wherever it was the closest to them, you know. So, we never really had no special place, each family had their own fishing holes. When we lived in Siletz we fished down there where the Old Mill site was, you know, they have a park there today. There is a good riffle down below there. My dad owned land on the other side so they built a platform, then they hooked eels and fished from that, you know. You had to go across in a boat to get to the platform. Just about everybody had their own eel stand … each one had their own so when they want to go hook eels they could, you know. Here lately they have been hooking off the bank up by Logsden. Rock Creek.

What year do you think they started hooking up in the Rock Creek?

It was when my kids were small. Jimmy (grandson, Jimmy Pyle) would be 40. He was just a little fellow going up there hooking eels. They would take the kids along to pick up the eels and put them into bags, you know.

Was this at the Rock Creek area?

Yeah, Rock Creek, uh huh. People would build a big fire on the bank and one kind of close to the water so they can see the eels. Then they, more or less, they feel around with their hooks because the water was always kind of boiling like. When they threw the eels out, there would be kids there to pick them up and put them into sacks. You know, they never really counted their eels until they were to split them up.

Was there a great number of eels hooked?

Yeah, there was.

You talk about using pitch when you hooked eels in the boat. Did they take it out in the boat with them?

Yeah, they took them out after they have built a place on the boat. They would use a piece of tin or something that wouldn’t burn the boat and then they would pile other things … they wouldn’t make a big fire, but just enough to have a blaze so you can see into the water. A lot of them used to use gas lanterns. After they got away from using pitch, using the modern way, gas lanterns, and when you seen a white streak going, you know it was an eel.

It was probably a lot cleaner; you didn’t have to deal with the smoke.

When they come you can see them. Before they climb that riffle, they would wait to give themselves a chance to rest. And generally, that is where they get hooked.

How long were the poles that they used?

Oh, a lot them had real long poles because up Sam’s Creek it is quite a ways down. You would feel for your eel rather than see them. When it would run good you could just throw them out one, two, three, if the eels were running good.

What did they usually make their hooks out of?

Pitch forks. Charles (husband) always used to cut up dad’s (Wilberton Orton) pitchfork. His dad was pretty mad at him for cutting up his pitch forks. Then they use the great big nails too. Then they file it down.

What were the signs to you that the eels are going to run?

Well, generally it is about this time of the year, like June or July. It has to be a hot day and the eel is going to run good, you know. Since they have been plugging up the waterways, the eels can’t go up to spawn. So, they just don’t come in any-more, it seems like. Or they are putting too much chlorine into the water. It just kills them.

Can you describe what the eels look like? Color, size, and general appearance?

Night eels are dark. They are longer. The sun eels are kind of lighter color, they eat them too, but they say it doesn’t taste as good as the night eel. The night eel is always longer, and they come in from the ocean, but the sun eel is always in the river. The night eel come just certain times of the year. Same as fish.

What were the stream conditions in the past? When the eels were running good, was it low water or high?

Generally, in the summertime it is never really too high, but that is why they still need to be at the top of the riffle.

You could just about see them coming?

Yeah, you can see them coming.

Did you ever see or hook eels during the day?

I never did …

Have you ever seen where the eels spawn?

No, but they say when they do spawn, they get in a ball … just pile together …

What color did the little ones look like?

I don’t think they looked any different when they are ready to spawn. The day eel and the night eel I don’t think changed in color.

How long did the eel run last?

It will run for oh, at least two to three weeks anyhow, good eeling. You can get quite a few eels. A lot of people smoked them, and they canned them. My mother (Ellen Metcalf) used to salt them, like you would do fish. Did you ever eat eels?

Yeah, that was a long time ago. How many people did you see hooking eels at one time?

Oh, I don’t know, but when they get a gathering they have like Indian dance, you know, people would bring whatever they could. Like I’ll bring eels and you bring jerky …

Did you know of anyone who trapped eels on the Siletz?

Oh, you mean in the eel basket? Older people used to do that. Their baskets were made so the eel can go in, but not out. Then they would go and pick up their basket the next day and sometimes they would get quite a few. It was a round basket like, and there was a round funnel. The eels would go in there and not know how to swim back out.

Was there more than one run?

No, just that one. Generally, it is in between May and June.

What other types of animals were abundant on the Siletz?

Deer and stuff like that.

I was talking about like the river mussels and etc.?

Yeah, river mussel, they were good. They were in little black shells, and they grow where there is a lot of rock. They are good to boil and if a fellow grinds them up, it would make good fritters.

Today is there people still eating them?

I don’t know of anyone going out and looking for them today. There used to be a lot where (Archie & Victoria) Ben’s place is. We use to go dig them for her and she would put them in a pot and boil them the same as with mussels.

Do you think that the abundance of these animals have changed over a period of time? Have you seen less of them?

Yes, I think so because you do not see them as much as you used to. And there’s not much of anything now, not much deer or anything.

How were the eels prepared after they were caught?

Some would bake them, some would fry them, some would smoke them, boil them. Some canned them after smoking them a few days and eat them right out of the jar. It was like kippered. My sister used to do that; boy they were good.

Just to change here, how was the salmon fished for?

Well, mostly in them times they had nets. Because you see, they had a license to fish… the government gave him. They moved them around so much that the government let them fish because every time they settled down in one place, they would strike gold and so they would take their place away from them again. They had to give them something, you know. I don’t know who got away with the old man’s, I think that Clarence’s (Orton) wife (Lee) did. Dan have the license from way back, that’s why they could not arrest him. That was to be their food.

That was right from the start as soon as they moved onto the reservation?

That was the only way they could get any amount of fish. When they first moved on the reservation, they set nets and even made their own, you know.

Did you see anyone gaff hook on the Siletz too?

Yes, when they were looking for some fish when it was high water time. They had a pole as long as an eel pole, they would hook with.

When did they finally take the nets from the Siletz?

When they moved them this last time or took everything away this last time. Charles’s dad would not give his up. He said that the government gave him that and he wouldn’t give it up. We did not have brains enough to save it. It would be a souvenir now …

What was it like for you growing up on the reservation?

I didn’t mind it at all because I’m a “Genuine Buckskin’” I have been around Indians all my life and I understand what they are talking about. Because I told my kids, “Don’t make fun of old people because they did not look that way long time ago.” I said that everybody gets ugly when they get old.

Why do you think there is a decline in eels and other game in the Siletz River?

Well, I don’t know. I think that it’s because of the junk that they put in the water. Our water here, you can taste it when they put all that chlorine in the water.

In the past, when the eels were abundant, was there a difference in trees and other vegetation overhanging the streams, compared to today?

Yes, there was more shade … that is where the fish like to swim, in the shade. The same as us, we like to find a cooler place.

What was the importance of eel fishing to you, your family and friends?

It was food for the people. We never had a refrigerator or anything. We had to salt it or smoke it or can it, to put it away. You know you had something to eat. You had your potatoes. We had our own garden … and we had to pick apples to put away. Now people don’t do that. We had our own root cellar to put our food in, so we learned to save and not go hungry. If you go hungry nowadays, you are just too damn lazy.