UO remembers George Wasson after tragedy

George Bundy Wasson, an elder of the Coquille Indian Tribe, renowned storyteller and longtime fixture at the University of Oregon, died Wednesday at his home in Eugene under tragic circumstances. He was 79.

Eugene police say they suspect Wasson was killed by an acquaintance, Ricardo Antonio Chaney, at his home, and that Chaney subsequently set fire to Wasson’s house, according to news reports.

Wasson first enrolled at the UO in 1953 as an undergraduate, studying music. By his own account he struggled, so he took a break before returning in 1968 to complete his degree. He went on to earn a master’s degree in education in 1971, and it was while studying for his master’s he was hired as assistant dean of students, and served in the Office of Academic Advising and Student Services until retiring in 1989.

“Even now I have a number of students tell me my advice or guidance changed their lives,” he said in a 1996 interview. “A lot of students have become some of my best friends. I have gone through their marriages, births and deaths. That is special and rewarding.”

He earned another master’s degree in 1994, and received a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1996. After earning his doctoral degree, he was an assistant professor in the UO’s Central Oregon program in Bend, and in 2006, he was an adjunct professor of history. From 2004 to 2011, he was an adjunct instructor in anthropology.

Wasson helped found the Native American Student Union at the UO in the late 1960s, said Gordon Bettles, a longtime friend of Wasson’s and steward of the Many Nations Longhouse. The men met at a cultural preservation conference in and remained friends for more than 25 years.

“We shared the same interests and issues facing the tribes,” said Bettles, a member of the Klamath Tribe. “We needed to put our minds together.”

Bettles said he’ll miss Wasson’s sense of humor and his storytelling.

“It’s not there anymore,” he said. “The experience he had, the knowledge he had of the Western Oregon tribes, was phenomenal.

“What I learned from George was how to put the truth out in front. He said, ‘If no one is going to tell (students) how to see the truth, how are they going to learn?’

David Hubin, senior assistant to the president, said Wasson conceived and helped lead the Southwest Oregon Research Program, in which he and other Oregon tribal members traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s to gather documents about Indian culture in Oregon, which they brought back and gave to the tribes. The documents are stored at the Knight Library.

“He was known and regarded as an inveterate, wonderful storyteller in native oral traditions,” Hubin said.

As recently as last Tuesday, Wasson participated in an evening storytelling event at the Many Nations Longhouse.

In teaching his anthropology class on Oregon Indians, Wasson sought to fill gaps in Coquille and southwest Oregon history, and to dispel myths about Oregon’s native peoples.

"There is so little known about the southwest coast of Oregon because the cultures of the people were dissipated so rapidly at the time of settlement and white contact,” Wasson said in the 1996 interview. “Almost nothing was collected of Coquille tradition, culture, history, ethnography and language. That's one of  the driving forces for me, and I enjoy being a bridge between cultural anthropology and archaeology.”
- by Tim Christie, UO Office of Public Affairs Communication