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The Difference a Word Makes

April 18, 2019

Written by: Oregon Heritage Commissioners Todd Kepple & Chelsea Rose

The change of a single word in a law on the books in Oregon will bring about a significant change for the Oregon Heritage Commission, a citizen panel that oversees efforts to preserve and promote the state’s rich history.

The change comes about after the Commission members were asked in 2017 to designate the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail as a statewide celebration. This is a typical duty of the Commission. Statute 358.595 gives the Oregon Commission the authority to coordinate statewide anniversaries, and in the past the Commission has declared a handful of celebrations including the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage in Oregon and the Sesquicentennial of the Treaty with the Tribes of Middle Oregon. But in discussing the request to designate the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, the Heritage Commission quickly recognized a limitation in the language set out in statute.

Previous declarations of statewide anniversary celebrations.

Statue 358.595 specifically indicates the Commission coordinates statewide “celebrations.” The Heritage Commission makes a concerted effort to include all Oregon voices in the heritage efforts it supports, and commission members felt some aspects of the Trail’s history would not be cause for celebration among all residents of Oregon. The Commission determined that while the event is historically significant and worthy of recognition, the long-lasting impact the Oregon Trail has had on Tribes is an aspect of the event that cannot be deemed a celebration. Therefore, the Commission voted against declaring the anniversary a statewide celebration.

The discussion prompted the Commission to start a bigger picture conversation about this statute and administrative rule. The term “celebration” limited the Commission’s ability to recognize other significant heritage events and draw public attention and valuable educational opportunities to them, such as the 75th anniversary of Japanese Internment or anniversaries of the restoration of Oregon tribes. The Commission also wanted to recognize the impact of historic events on the collective history of Oregon people and to uphold the historical truth about that impact. To do this, the Commission worked with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to introduce a bill to change the language in statute 358.595(2f) from “celebration” to “commemoration.”

On March 27, 2019, House Bill 2081 was signed by Governor Brown and will become effective January 1, 2020. This bill modifies just one word. It changes the language related to the Oregon Heritage Commission’s coordination of statewide activities from “celebration” to “commemoration.” Yet the impact of that change is much greater. The Heritage Commission can now work with groups and causes across the state to address significant events in history that are important to understand and acknowledge, but not necessarily celebrate.

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