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  • 20 Dec 2014

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Tilikum Crossing embraces First Oregonians

Most people have just learned the name of Portland’s new transit bridge: Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People.

The committee unanimously recommended this name to TriMet because we believe it holds the most promise to connect the people of our region today with the long past of people who have been here for thousands of years.

In choosing this name, our intent also is to connect us with future citizens, hundreds of years from now. And, finally, we chose Tilikum — a name submitted by and subsequently supported by thousands of fellow tricounty residents — because we think it has meaning for everyone who lives in and visits this corner of Oregon.

“Tilikum” is how the first people who called our region home spell the word that means people, tribe and relatives. It is Chinook Wawa, an international language used by First Oregonians of many tribes and nations to communicate across distinct languages and dialects, and later spoken by explorers, fur traders, settlers and the first few generations of Portlanders. During the passage of time, the word came to mean friendly people and friends.

Chinook Wawa is still spoken today.

Tilikum symbolizes coming together. It suggests embracing the historical, cultural and geographic diversity of our region, as well as what we all have in common. It conveys connections, in not only the relationships between people, but in the connections we will make as we ride, walk, run and cycle across this beautiful new bridge, with its inspiring lines and soaring wings. As we cross Tilikum Bridge, it will connect us with our neighbors, families and friends, our work and schools, and the places we play. 

Reflecting our history

Because there were so many opinions, I imagine there will be some who may think of the new name in terms of winning and losing. Please put this mind-set aside. The process was not a competition or popularity contest. It was not about lobbying and who has the most clout.

The naming process was very deliberate. It was about citizens selecting a bridge name that reflects, as best as possible, the region’s story, landscape and language.

The members of the naming committee represent our region’s three counties and brought strong cultural, historical, academic, professional and geographical experience to the naming process. The 10 of us represent the diversity of gender, age, culture and history that characterizes the tricounty region.

We asked fellow citizens for input — first, to provide possible names, and second, to comment on the four most meaningful names the committee thought best met the criteria we had established and, early on, publicized to encourage submissions. Thousands of people responded.

No other bridge over the Willamette River in Portland was named with even a remote sliver of this kind of community participation. The thoughtful contributions of fellow citizens informed the committee members’ own thinking and decision-making.

During my four-decade career in Oregon history, I have been involved with dozens of similar naming and tribute efforts. I am proud to say this was the most thorough and the most publicly inclusive. I believe it led to our selecting a name that will carry the most meaning to more people for as long as the bridge connects the communities and people of our region.

We know that some folks are disappointed. Several names honoring specific individuals had organized movements behind them.

Be assured that among our committee of six women and four men there was no questioning the significance of the contributions made by these individuals to our region’s and our state’s history. We discussed in great detail dozens of names and how well they met our criteria. In the end, we were unanimous in our selection of Tilikum.

Here are the criteria we applied to all names — criteria used by local, state and federal naming authorities and agencies:

• Origin of name.

• Meaning of proposed name.

• Is it inspirational?

• Regional perspective.

• Does it reflect how the bridge connects people?

• Historical significance.

• Biographical information.

• Is there any special cultural meaning?

• What will it mean to people 100 years from now?

• Spelling.

• Pronunciation.

• Sound/ring/flow.

At the end of the day, committee members feel confident this has been a process that not only engaged many people, but also served to inform and teach us more about our region’s long history, rich cultures, intriguing languages and inspiring individuals.

We hope you will join us in recognizing a name that we know conveyed the meaning of community for centuries and, we believe, will do so for centuries to come.

Chet Orloff, chairman of the TriMet Bridge Naming Committee, was executive director of the Oregon Historical Society from 1991 to 2000.