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Vi Hilbert passes on at age 90

(Vi Hilbert)
Caption: Vi Hilbert is greeted by Freddie Lane as she arrives Oct. 21 for a preview of the Pacific Coast Salish art and artists exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo by Alan Berner, courtesy of the Seattle Times.

Upper Skagit Tribe elder dies
Tahlia Ganser, Skagit Valley Herald, Dec. 19, 2008
      A nationally known Upper Skagit Tribe elder died Friday morning, leaving behind the legacy of her preserved language and culture. Vi Hilbert, who died at age 90 of natural causes, dedicated much of her life documenting and translating the Lushootseed culture and language. Lushootseed is the language of the Northwest tribes, which Hilbert called "the first people of this land."
      "My mother believed there was nothing she couldn't do," said her only daughter, Lois Schluter, 70, of Bow. "She had incredible energy."
      Born in Skagit County, Hilbert was one of eight children — the only to survive past the age of 3. As a child, she was sent to boarding school, where she was punished for speaking her native language, Lushootseed, which she later dedicated herself to saving. At 5-foot-2, she plowed through life with dedication and ambition, working in everything from hair salons to restaurants and teaching at the university level, her daughter said.
      In 1967, she met linguist Thom Hess, sparking a partnership bound by the passion of the Lushootseed language. The two delved into the regional language and culture, writing a number of books together, including a dictionary. She also translated a collection of traditional Lushootseed stories.
      "She was an outgoing, regal, adventurous woman who was really on a mission to preserve the culture of our people," said her 48-year-old grandson, Jay Samson, who lives on the Nooksack Reservation near Everson. Hilbert eventually taught language courses at the University of Washington.
      Hilbert died peacefully knowing that her ancestors and relatives "would greet her on the other side . . . and be really delighted to see her," Samson said. "It was sad, but it was also part of the natural flow of life." There will be a wake for Hilbert at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 26, and a funeral service at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 27, both at the Upper Skagit gym.
      Journal ed. note: the gymnasium is on the tribal reservation. Drive east out of Sedro-Woolley on Hwy. 20 and turn north on Helmick Road. Continue up the hill and follow the signs to the reservation.

Vi Hilbert, revered Upper Skagit elder
who preserved her native language, dies at age 90

By Lynda V. Mapes and Christine Willmsen, Seattle Times staff reporters, Dec. 21
      She was one woman with one mission: the preservation of her native Lushootseed language and culture. An author, teacher and linguist, Vi Hilbert and her passion transformed the language into a legacy. The revered Upper Skagit elder died of natural causes Friday, Dec. 19, at her home in La Conner. She was 90.
      "She was an inspiration to me," said her daughter, Lois Schluter of Bow, Skagit County. "She was humble about being a carrier of the culture."
      A woman who lived in many worlds, Mrs. Hilbert managed to be comfortable in all of them, whether it was helping to open a major Pacific Coast Salish art exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, or raising house posts in a private ceremony at Suquamish. She did both just before she died. Mrs. Hilbert was generous with her cultural knowledge, believing it should be shared, not hoarded, in order to keep it alive.
      As long as they worked hard, Mrs. Hilbert would teach anyone — any age or race — wanting to learn Lushootseed, a native language of Puget Sound. She was named a Washington State Living treasure in 1989, and received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Clinton, in 1994.
      She co-wrote grammars and dictionaries, published books of stories and teachings and of place names of Puget Sound. And always the one to make the Rice Krispies treats for road trips, she invited schoolchildren to address her as Grandmother.
      Mrs. Hilbert, whose Indian name was Taqseblu, was born July 24, 1918, near Lyman, Skagit County, to Charlie and Louise Anderson. She was one of eight children, but the only one to survive past the age of 3. Her father was a fisherman, logger, and a canoe maker.
      She grew up along the Upper Skagit River, moving frequently with her parents to places where they could find work. She attended a boarding school in Oregon that prohibited her from speaking her native language, Schluter said. Over her lifetime, she worked at many careers, from running a beauty parlor at her South Seattle home to teaching Lushootseed for 17 years at the University of Washington, where she touched many lives before retiring in 1988.
      "She was independent and strong-willed," her 70-year-old daughter said.
      Mrs. Hilbert spent years transcribing and translating Lushootseed recordings made in the 1950s. Along the way, she compiled a trove of tapes and papers. Hers is the largest audio archive at the UW Libraries. Mel Sheldon, chairman of the board of the Tulalip Tribes, said she could be strict — even bossy, as she liked to say about herself — but for a reason. "In this fast-paced society we live in, we sometimes have a tendency to forget our teachings, and she was there to remind us," Sheldon said
      Colleen Jollie, former tribal liaison for the state Department of Transportation, remembered that Mrs. Hilbert, at an agency conference with tribal leaders, shared a traditional story about people lifting the sky, by working together.
      "If you can speak Lushootseed, it's because Vi Hilbert taught somebody, who taught somebody, who taught somebody," Jollie said. "She always had the big picture, she thought in terms of humanity," said Jay Miller, recently the coordinator of Native American studies at Ohio State, who worked with Mrs. Hilbert for 35 years. "She was larger than life, until you looked closely and saw she was just a tiny thing," he said.
      She left a lasting impression on many.
      "I will miss her guidance and teachings. That is gone," Schluter said. Schluter's daughter will carry on Mrs. Hilbert's goal of continuing to research the language
      In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Hilbert is survived by a granddaughter, Jill LaPointe, and a grandson, Jay Samson. She was preceded in death by two sons. A wake will be held at the Upper Skagit Tribe gym at 6 p.m. Friday and a funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the same location.

At her four-day birthday celebration, Vi Hilbert
gives the gifts — stories of Puget Sound's first culture
150 Years, Seattle By and By

By Sara Jean Green, Seattle Times, July 26, 2001
(Vi Hilbert 2001)
Vi Hilbert at her 2001 birthday party. Caption: Vi Hilbert, an Upper Skagit elder, recalls stories of her main inspiration, her aunt Susie Sampson Peter, who is pictured in an old photograph behind her. Hilbert has dedicated most of her life to preserving Lushotseed language and culture. Photo by Jimi Lott, courtesy of the Seattle Times.

      Vi Hilbert's birthday party is a big deal every year. Some of her friends schedule their vacations so they can come; others fly in from all corners of the world. They pay their respects by sharing the only gifts Hilbert will accept: stories and songs.
      Hilbert is an Upper Skagit elder who has spent the bulk of her adult life researching, documenting and translating the ways and words of Lushootseed — the culture and language of Puget Sound's indigenous people. In the process of preserving her own culture, she's become a bridge to the non-Native world, traveling the country and the globe to tell her ancestors' stories.
      Hundreds of Hilbert's friends and family will begin gathering on the Swinomish Indian Reservation near LaConner today for a four-day celebration. The annual "Coming Together Gathering" will honor Hilbert, who turned 83 Tuesday, with stories, song and food.
      "She gives and gives and gives in terms of her time and knowledge, and her birthday is an example of that," said Bruce Miller, a Skokomish cultural preservationist and spiritual leader who studied under Hilbert. Miller explained that at "Indian parties" it's the host who gives gifts, though not necessarily material ones. "She feeds them with more than food — she feeds their spirits with praise, respect and recognition."
      When Hilbert first started her work, many of her own people criticized her: They said whites had already stolen so much from Indians, and she was giving away what little remained. Her most vocal critics weren't even interested in learning the language or cultural teachings. But the elders Hilbert interviewed, the last of the Lushootseed speakers to remember the stories and ceremonies handed down from their elders, were grateful someone wanted to know what they knew of the old ways.
      Now, Hilbert is the elder. She is a small-framed woman who speaks in soft, soothing tones. Her humor, humility and willingness to share her culture with anyone who wants to learn are the gifts she freely distributes. No one can remember when Hilbert threw her first party.
      But this year, she has a special gift to share: the book she's worked on for four years with anthropologist Zalmai "Zeke" Zahir, "Names of Ourselves: Lushootseed, Puget Sound's First People," is finally finished. It's based on the unpublished manuscripts of Thomas Talbot Waterman, an ethnography pioneer who interviewed Puget Sound elders in the 1910s and '20s, collecting from them thousands of place names.
      Before the arrival of whites here, "first peoples were taught to memorize every detail of their land," Hilbert said, and Waterman's field work "has stood the test of time." She and Zahir took on the task of connecting the Waterman place names with contemporary landmarks and describing the land in both English and Lushootseed.
      This is Hilbert's eighth book, in addition to the two Lushootseed dictionaries she's helped linguists produce. About the newest publication, Hilbert said Zahir "made it his business to go by canoe and discover every place T.T. Waterman's informants told him about."
      "This book is incredible. It's a masterpiece, actually. It will live on in the future as a guideline," she said. Those who know Hilbert know she's not bragging — she is, as she likes to say, "just being honest." `It's my job to keep it alive'
      Hilbert grew up on the Skagit River, her family moving wherever her logger father could find work. Her mother knitted socks, picked berries and hops and did whatever else she could to keep the family afloat. But it was the language, the stories and the teachings embedded in them that defined her parents' lives since both were historians for their people.
      "My mother had eight children, but I was the only one who lived so I'm responsible for everything," said Hilbert, whose first language is Lushootseed. "All my ancestors were historians, and it's my job to keep it alive." Hilbert was in her early 40s with a husband and two nearly grown children when she met Thom Hess, a UW linguistics grad student in 1967. At the time, she was a hairdresser with a beauty parlor in her South Seattle home; he was conducting field work with elders, many of them friends and relatives of Hilbert's parents.
      Sinks and salon chairs were soon replaced with office furniture, reel-to-reel tape recorders and primitive home computers. Using a variation of the International Phonetic Alphabet — a system of symbols used to record every sound the human voice can make — Hess taught Hilbert to write Lushootseed. Half of all sounds in the language don't have English equivalents.
      Then, in 1971, Hilbert suffered an aneurysm and had to re-learn to read and write both English and Lushootseed — skills she quickly re-mastered, said Hess, 64 and now retired from the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

100 hours of tapes
      The next year, Hess and Hilbert taught a Salish language class at the University of Washington — and, serendipitously, came into possession of 100 hours of tape recordings that had been in storage at the Burke Museum. Made in the 1950s by Leon Metcalf, a musician and lay anthropologist, the tapes weren't very clear but they included interviews with Hilbert's father and many of her relatives who'd already passed away.
      "She would listen to the same stretch of tape over and over, lugging a 25-pound tape recorder over to this cousin's place or that aunt's to get them to help her transcribe," Hess said of Hilbert. As a result, a huge body of work — individual stories, autobiographies, and people's recollections of cultural and spiritual practices — has survived, Hess said.
      "Vi grew up with the language and has the native ear — but it was also her drive, her determination, her belief in the cause that made her unusual," he said. Hess returned to Canada after the first quarter, convincing Hilbert "she was the only one" who could continue teaching the UW course, even though she'd never been to college herself. Over the next 15 years, a coterie of Hilbert's students volunteered to help her compile her people's history. Some have gone on to teach Salish people how to speak and teach Lushootseed.
      Many of her students — and many others Hilbert met along the way — are now her family. "She is sort of a mother at large. She has a power that doesn't require yelling or demanding, a power that's just there. She is a magnet," said Miller, 57, the Skokomish leader. "She has a world family. Of course she has her own children, but there are countless other people she's adopted, taken in."
      Katie Jennings, a former public-television producer at KCTS Channel 9, is one of Hilbert's adopted granddaughters. In 1995, Jennings produced a documentary on Hilbert called "Traditions of the Heart"; the title comes from the Lushootseed belief that all cultural learning is stored in the heart, not the head.
      "She knows how to look at people and see the wonderful part of them and pull that out," said Jennings, 40, who is white. "She is a light. She always has an encouraging word, and she makes you feel you are the smartest, most wonderful person in the world — who wouldn't want to be around that?"
      Hilbert doesn't worry about non-Indians abusing information she shares since they can never fully understand native culture. But "the little bit they get to learn makes them richer, and if they're living richer, it can't help but make the world a better place," Hilbert said. For her own people, Hilbert says it's her responsibility "to pass on what the ancestors realized would make us strong."
      And it's Hilbert's mission to leave behind as much as she can — in print and on video and audio tapes. Her eyesight is fading fast, and she was recently hospitalized for a week. Doctors couldn't find anything wrong.
      "The spirit put me down to make me think of what else I have to do, what the rest of my responsibilities are," Hilbert said. Her list: Have a symphony written ("music is a conductor that has healing power"), catalogue her son's artwork to explain the spiritual practices he depicts, and then archive everything "so it's available for people in the future who are truly interested. Then, I think I'm done," Hilbert said. "I'm 90 percent blind now so I have to hurry, hurry, hurry because they tell me the 10 percent is going, going, gone."
      Soon, it will be someone else's job to continue what she's started. In the meantime, Hilbert will celebrate another year of life, another year dedicated to keeping the words and ways of her ancestors alive.
      Listen to the story in English and Lushootseed, as spoken by Vi Hilbert

Turtle Island Storyteller Vi Hilbert
From the Turtle Island Storytellers Network
      Vi Hilbert, whose Indian name is Taqwseblu, is a member of the Upper Skagit tribe. Her life's work is preserving the Lushootseed (Puget Salish for "Puget Sound, connected to the saltwater." ) language and culture. Vi learned Lushootseed, the language of Chief Seattle, as a child listening to her parents. She is widely acknowledged as a respected elder, tribal historian, linguist and storyteller.
      Vi has co-written Lushootseed grammars and dictionaries, and published books of stories, teachings, and place names. She generously shares Lushootseed language, stories, and traditions with organizations such as the Burke Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, United Indians of All Tribes, Tillicum Village, Seattle Storytellers Guild, and the National Storytelling Association. Vi teaches Lushootseed to every audience she addresses, especially traditional gatherings, so that this ancient language can be heard throughout Puget Sound where it has been spoken for centuries. Through her years of work, Vi has collected, transcribed, translated, and documented materials that include: the Leon Metcalf Collection (1950s), the Warren Snyder and Willard Rhodes collections (1950s), Arthur Ballard's collection (early 1900s), T. T. Waterman's Puget Sound Geography (1910s), and the Thomas Hess material (1960s and 1970s). Her recollected knowledge also allowed her to help linguist Thomas Hess transcribe and translate early Lushootseed recordings of elders.
      Vi insists that she is not only a storyteller, but a channel for cultural information. When she attends gathering and observes that a particular story needs to be heard, she will stand and tell that story. When invited to speak, Vi never plans ahead what she will say or what stories she will tell. She arrives early to listen to her audience and see whether they need to hear the exploits of Skunk, Mud Swallow, Mink, Coyote, Deer, Bear, Ant, or other animals. She was named a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989. She also received a National Heritage Fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts, the first American Indian storyteller to be acknowledged with this high honor. [See the Turtle Island Storytellers Network website for a full profile of Vi Hilbert]

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