May 16, 2024

Digging Deeper with the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project

The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project is the recipient of the 2023 National Trust/Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Award. The award celebrates a project or program in which a federal agency and one or more non-federal partners have achieved an exemplary preservation outcome.

The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project is the perfect example of community based preservation, where local history and public archaeology come together to "challenge dated stereotypes and highlight the transnational lives of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans" in Oregon. In a significant boost to operations, the OCDP was recently awarded nearly $500,000 courtesy of the latest Congressional spending bill. The substantial federal allocation heralds a new chapter in the organization’s mission to unearth the multifaceted contributions of Chinese Americans in Oregon’s history.

Against the backdrop of this funding triumph was a serendipitous encounter. Little did those archaeologists know that their connection would give rise to a groundbreaking partnership among grassroots local, state, and federal entities that would enrich our understanding of Oregon’s diverse heritage and underscore the importance of preserving stories from historically excluded communities.

The following Q&A is with Chelsea Rose, director of the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology. Learn more about the full slate of 2023 awardees here.

Ah Yee site excavation.

photo by: Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology

Archaeologists excavating at the Ah Yee site.

How did the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project start?

The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project (OCDP) came into existence like many great projects, which is over a beer at an archaeological conference. I was presenting on some work I was doing in Southern Oregon. My colleague Don Hann, who was with the Malheur National Forest, was presenting on a site he was investigating up in the eastern part of the state. We realized we were working on projects that really complemented each other. So much that had been done with Chinese diaspora archaeology was particularistic and site specific, and there was so much room to think about this on a larger scale. And we went from there.

Why was it important to use local history and public archaeology to highlight the lives of Chinese immigrants who helped build Oregon?

There is a lot that we don't know about the Chinese experience in Oregon. When we first started doing this project, we were focusing on the traditional topics—mining and the railroad. In a lot of the local histories, there's often exotic footnotes that talk about Chinese immigrants participating in these ventures. We realized that there had been an erasure of so much of the heritage. Yes, Chinese Americans were working in the mines and in the railroads—but also in agriculture, in canneries and fisheries, in mining of other things like borax and copper.

We realized we needed to go out into these communities in the rural parts of the state to access that history, where historically up to 40 percent of residents were of Chinese descent. There was a need to re-center the story out of these footnotes into mainstream Oregon history where it belongs. To do that, we needed to bring in the community and different stakeholders.

The project has an exceptional public education component that reaches a statewide audience. Can you elaborate on these educational initiatives?

Part of the project's mission is to do as much as we can transparently to provide our information in an open-source format. We want to get this work out of the grey literature [material published outside of peer-reviewed journals] silos—where most of the archaeological reports live—because they can be difficult to access by other archaeologists, let alone the public.

We've worked with all the communities that we've been embedded in to set up a free lecture series. We've done open site days where we invite the public so they can see archaeology in action. We've embedded citizen scientists into our programs through Passport in Time (PIT) projects with the Forest Service, and we've also done field schools to bring in students and volunteers and train the next generation. We've worked to make this history as accessible as possible, which has helped change the way that Oregonians view the history of their state.

The National Trust/Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Award honors outstanding partnerships between federal and non-federal entities. How have these partnerships contributed to the project’s success?

One of the secrets to the success of the OCDP is the fact that it’s a grassroot multi-agency collaboration. We think big and get creative in how we make it happen. By bringing in the federal partners, state partners, and local agencies and organizations, we're able to tap into all their networks and resources. As a result, we’ve been able to do a lot more with our projects than traditional budgets or timelines would allow. Sometimes we have limited funding—as archaeology often does—but we can make a big impact because everybody is passionate and helps with the work.

We also have an Asian American advisory committee made up of five members that have a variety of backgrounds and geographical areas they represent. They help us steer this ship, which ensures that the work we're doing on these federal lands and with these federal partners is relevant to the community, as well as meaningful, and accessible. Sometimes we archaeologists have our own research questions, but that might not be what's the most important or needed for the public who are interested in this topic or have other ties to the history.

How do you see the project contributing to broader conversations about diversity, inclusion, and the importance of preserving the history of marginalized communities?

We came into this with very little literature available about Chinese heritage in Oregon. With the exception of Portland, Astoria, Jacksonville, and John Day, Chinese heritage was largely invisible, and therefore assumed to be absent. Years into this, we've got dots all over the map of the state that show where people of Chinese descent were living and working and building community. That's a model that could be replicated in other resource areas.

By intentionally working towards a more inclusive—and accurate—representation of the history of our shared public lands, we are more likely to recognize the resources that tell us about communities that were mis-represented, stereotyped, or erased over time. If you've got enough partners, the expertise, and a way to coordinate this work, you can make a big difference in how historically marginalized communities see themselves represented in the history of these places.

Archaeologist Jacqui Cheung holds a site map.

photo by: Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology

Archaeologist Jacqui Cheung holds a site map.

This project occurred at a time of increasing violence and racism against Asian Americans. How does the OCDP’s work take on an even greater significance in fostering understanding and combating negative stereotypes?

The OCDP prioritized working in rural areas where there aren't descendant communities today. We've also explicitly framed this work as anti-racist archaeology. We come in and directly say, here's where this history is problematic, and here's a more accurate version. This can lead to uncomfortable discussions and resistance, but most folks are quickly on board and recognize the importance of the mission. Reframing and humanizing historical residents and stories has shifted the way these communities think about the past.

Even modern scholarship on this topic is often otherizing and inadvertently perpetuates the foreigner stereotype, which is inaccurate. Many Chinese Oregonians lived in these communities for decades, sometimes longer than the residents that are heralded as pioneers or founding fathers. By contrasting the early compositions of Oregon communities with modern population statistics, we are able to talk about Chinese exclusion and anti-Chinese sentiment and highlight how discriminatory and racist laws perpetuated interpersonal, structural, and institutional violence towards Chinese residents. That has had a tangible impact on the demographics of modern Oregon.

A group of people standing in the woods in Oregon. There are some leafy branches in the forground.

photo by: Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology

Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology group photo at Buck Rock Tunnel.

We try to move away from victim narratives where the stories of these individuals are told solely through what they couldn't do or what happened to them, and instead try to individuate and contextualize their experience in Oregon. This includes acknowledging the oppression, racism and discrimination that they had to deal with, but also recognizing their agency: the many ways in which folks resisted and survived and continued to participate or thrive in these communities despite the obstacles.

It’s important for people today to recognize how incremental the rise in Anti-Chinese rhetoric started. How many white Oregonians worked and built meaningful relationships with their Chinese American neighbors but could still be complicit in this racist legacy by tolerating or ignoring the discrimination and racism around them. Language matters, tone matters, and when left unchecked, can be very harmful and fester in ways we don’t always anticipate. In recentering Chinese history in Oregon, we hope that people will question how, and why, this history was erased. It could easily happen again.

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Catherine Killough is the manager of grants and awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

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