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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 7, 2004 - Issue 106


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Nisqually Surprise Elder on Her 85th

credits: photo: Blanche Simmons celebrates her 85th birthday at the Nisqually Tribal Center on Saturday. Photo by Leila Navidi/The Olympian

Blanche Simmons celebrates her 85th birthday at the Nisqually Tribal Center on Saturday.  Photo by Leila Navidi/The Olympian NISQUALLY RESERVATION -- More than 300 relatives, tribal members and friends gathered Saturday to celebrate the 85th birthday of one of the tribe's most beloved elders.

The party at the Nisqually Tribal Center was a surprise for Blanche Simmons, who walked into the large room thinking she was attending a Hawaiian luau with strings of red and gold balloons and a feast menu that included kalua pig, crab and lomi salmon.

"This has been a well-kept secret," said her sister, Zelma McCloud, 75, a playful grin on her face. "She doesn't even have a clue."

If she was caught by surprise, Simmons wasn't about to let on.

After entering the room with her son, John, she didn't miss a beat before hugging and thanking well-wishers, having her picture taken and working her way around the room to greet everyone as if she were throwing the party.

Many of her family members journeyed from California and Oregon to attend.

More than 80 years haven't quelled the feisty spirit that family members and friends say keeps her busy with tasks around the reservation.

"I'm just mad at everybody because I told them not to do this," Simmons quipped.

Only three tribal elders are older than Simmons. The oldest, Marie Haws, will turn 89 next month.

Simmons is the daughter of a former chief of the Nisqually tribe, Peter Kalama. Her son, John, is a former tribal chairman.

Her grandfather, John Kalama, was a full-blooded Hawaiian who left the islands at age 16 to work on one of the fur-trading vessels that sailed to the Northwest in the early 1830s. He eventually married Mary Martin, daughter of the Nisqually chief. The river and city off Interstate 5 are named after him.

Simmons, who has lived her entire life on the reservation, is a descendant of Queen Kalama, a governor of the former island nation during the 1800s.

In the 1970s, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to ensure the protection of the tribe's fishing rights, her son said.

Two decades later, Simmons helped regain free access for tribal members to Rainier National Park, where they traditionally gathered medicinal plants and huckleberries.

Among tribal members, Simmons is known for her homemade huckleberry pie and clam chowder. She and her late husband, Jack, constantly fished the river and dug for clams.

Simmons would drive pots full of her clam chowder and fry bread in the back of her pickup to ball fields and fireworks stands throughout the area and feed hungry attendants and ballplayers free of charge, her son said.

"They all knew her truck and when she was coming," he said.

Jinx Wells, whose husband, Reuben, is one of Simmons' nephews, described Simmons as hardy and independent.

Simmons sews, crochets and helps cook the tribal elders' dinner, including fish stew, three times a week. She makes and sells hats and other items at local bazaars through the year, Wells said.

"She's always busy," she said. "Whenever I turn around, she's making some new thing people want to buy."

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