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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 11, 2001 - Issue 42


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Honoring a Tribal Elder


by Kari McGinnis Skagit Valley Herald-July 28, 2001


photo by Tsutomu Fujita / Skagit Valley Herald

LA CONNER, WA — Vi Hilbert seems much like any grandmother on her birthday.

She kisses her grandchildren and great grandchildren and marvels at the beauty of her new great-great grandchild.

Her face lights up each time someone new arrives at her party. She greets them with a handshake and a hug or kiss, and insists that they eat something.

But Hilbert’s birthday party is not like the celebrations many people host.

Hilbert is an Upper Skagit elder who has devoted her life to preserving the culture that began with her ancestors. She has spent many years researching and recording the ways of Lushootseed (La-SHUT-seed) — the indigenous culture and language of the Puget Sound tribes. Her annual birthday celebration spans four days and is a time for friends and family to gather and honor her and her life's work.

In native cultures, it is the host who bears gifts at such gatherings. This year, Hilbert has a special gift to offer her loved ones in honor of her own 83rd birthday.

Her new book is finally finished.

"The party is like the book," she said, her soft voice full of confidence. "It's to encourage people to learn the stories and keep our culture alive."

The celebration, held at the Swinomish Indian Reservation, will be the first signing of the new book. For four years Hilbert has worked with her editor Zalmai "Zeke" Zahir, an anthropologist, piecing together "Names of Ourselves: Lushootseed, Puget Sound's First People."

"A hundred years ago," Hilbert said, "people named places by what they saw. People were taught to look at the land and memorize the details of what was there."

Her new book is based on the work of Thomas Talbot Waterman, who interviewed tribal elders in the early 1900s.

"This book is a reminder to all of my people that we have a responsibility to the land in our memory," Hilbert said. "We need to connect to places by their history, by the memory of the people who told stories about events that happened there."

The stories become legends, and the legends maintain a place's history, she explained, her dark eyes sparkling. Without written language, storytelling was the only way to pass on history and culture.

Storytelling, Hilbert said, will come back.

"People are getting bored with the boob tube," she said, laughing. 'They see that there's nothing there, nothing for them to learn."

For her birthday, Hilbert asks people to share their stories and songs with her. Throughout the year she travels around the country telling the stories of her ancestors. So on her own birthday she just wants to listen.

But her desire to have friends and family share their stories is not merely so she can enjoy them. She wants everyone to understand that they, too, have a turn in preserving their history and their culture.

As an only child, Hilbert said she believes she was given the responsibility of passing on the stories of her ancestors. Lushootseed is her first language, and she is one of the last who knows this language of the area's indigenous people.

"I am so lucky that I was given the opportunity and the good health to be able to do what I've done," she said. "So many good people have helped me, people who also want to honor what is sacred on Earth and in our history."

Greg Watson met Hilbert in the mid-'80s when she was teaching Lushootseed language and culture at the University of Washington.

"When she becomes your teacher, it sticks," he said, trying to explain her importance to him. "Vi is one of my two live heroes."

Watson, who took a course from Hilbert as a graduate student, said he learned the value of preserving culture from Hilbert.

A self-proclaimed hillbilly from East Tennessee, Watson said Hilbert is someone who embodies the very values she talks about.

"Vi says something like, 'Don't say nice things about yourself; if they're true then someone else will say them,'" he said. "And she reminds us that tradition is not the past, but tradition is what remains valuable."

Andie Palmer also studied under Hilbert at the University of Washington. She said she feels lucky to have had that honor.

"Vi modeled respect for the people she worked with," Palmer said. "And that is not something you can learn from a textbook."

Palmer went on to become a teacher herself, and remembers the lessons Hilbert shared with her.

"She always taught us not to be afraid to say what we didn't know," Palmer recalled. "And she showed us the value of citing elders — that it is just as important to credit an elder for saying something as it is to credit a textbook."

Hilbert said she wants all the best people to come to her party — friends, family and people who have worked with her or want to learn about her culture.

"The people with the good hearts," she said. "That's who should be here."

 Maps by Travel

Lushootseed Digital Archives
The Lushootseed Archive Project ws formally begun at the Center for Advanced Research Technology in the Arts and Humanity in June 1996.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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