Crumbling asphalt roads and docks still mark where the town of Umatilla once stood, but even deeper are the remnants of the 2,500-year-old...

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UMATILLA, Ore. — Crumbling asphalt roads and docks still mark where the town of Umatilla once stood, but even deeper are the remnants of the 2,500-year-old tribal village of matalam.

Almost nothing has been done with the 70-acre Umatilla town site, found within 800 acres owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The city was moved to its current site in the mid-1960s to make way for the Columbia River to rise behind the John Day Dam.

Now the city of Umatilla and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have started talking about what can be done to preserve the area and its history.

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The site, which is closed to the public, won’t be developed with restaurants and hotels, said City Manager Larry Clucas. “We did that once 150 years ago. We can’t do it again.”

Plans are more likely to involve interpretive signs or possibly a center that could store artifacts and teach visitors about the area’s history and culture, he said.

Before pioneers came to the area and made Umatilla a shipping center, matalam was home to up to 1,000 people during the salmon runs, said Teara Farrow, tribal program manager.

It was one of the largest village sites in Oregon, and it was a center for food and trade, she said.

Previous excavations have turned up objects 2,500 years old, said Julie Longenecker, anthropologist and archaeologist for the tribes. The majority of what is out there is still in undisturbed layers up to 12 feet deep.

“There is layer upon layer and level upon level of human occupation here,” she said during a recent tour of the town site.

Inside the town site is a separate enclosed tribal burial grounds. The tribes monitor the entire area, which is covered in dense undergrowth, for looters and other problems.

As Longenecker and Farrow walked along the river bank, they pointed to where looters have dug looking for artifacts. Longenecker showed some city officials an exposed shell midden that was disturbed.

The piles of old mussel shells aren’t monetarily valuable, but they can mark where something valuable might be found, she explained. So looters, who sometimes come in from the river, dig in the middens and end up destroying the historical information they contain.

There should be a way to honor the past while using the town site, said Umatilla Planning Commissioner Boyd Sharp. The site could be a signature statement for the area.

After the tour, Clucas said the city would like to partner with the tribes to protect the site but also “make it available for interpretation so people will see it as a historical site.”

Farrow said the tribes and city must work together to come up with a plan they can present to the Corps.

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