The annual Oregon Public Transportation Conference was held earlier this week in Pendleton — a small town in the north-central part of the state known largely for its annual livestock roundup. The conference kicked off Monday, October 2, with a general session that included a welcome, prayer and performers (drummers and dancers) from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, whose 250,000-acre reservation lies just to the east of Pendleton.
Further, the opening session included a history session on the confederated tribes, their traditional lands, their culture and their future. In some ways, it is an all-too-familiar story: In 1855, three tribes who called the Columbia River Plateau home — the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla — agreed to the current reservation’s boundaries, ceding the federal government the more than 6 million acres they had previously occupied. There was, however, something unique about the history presentation made by Ms. Bobbie Conner, Director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton.
Titled, A Tribal Way of Going, Conner linked the availability of effective regional public transportation directly with the confederated tribe’s future, and its past. Yes, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has a transit system known as Kayak Public Transit that serves both on and off the reservation with scheduled regional service.
Often, and with good cause, those of us in the public transportation industry link our operations, whether rural or urban, to the economics of employment, education and/or healthcare. And Kayak Transit undoubtedly serves its riders in exactly this way. But Conner saw something more when assessing the importance of transit. She saw a link to the confederated tribe’s past — its history. She repeatedly, during her excellent presentation, pointed out how Kayak Transit connects reservation residents with areas beyond the 1855 boundaries, to hunting, fishing and trading grounds that the tribes used that stretch back centuries. She made the connection with all in attendance that transit — and transportation — is a touchstone to the tribe’s great history and allows current and future tribal members access to their history.
I often find myself (as I did later that same day in a meeting of the Oregon Public Transportation Planning Committee) urging transit leaders and advocates to think about the vital nature of their operations beyond merely counting the number of riders. It’s the outcomes, I emphasize, that are most important. At this opening session of the Oregon Public Transportation Conference, I was reminded that those outcomes are often far greater than we typically imagine.