Texts by and about Natives: Texts

16. Elizabeth Woody, “By Our Hand, through the Memory, the House Is More than Form”

Elizabeth Woody, “By Our Hand, through the Memory, the House Is More than Form,” in A Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians, ed. John Gattuso (Hillsboro, Ore.: Beyond Words Publishing, 1993), 82-90.

In contemplating the house of my childhood, the one that I grew up in, it is not the structure or the condition of the house I recall as much as the sentiments about dwelling and homeland that gave strength to its structure.

My childhood home was fourteen miles from the Warm Springs Reservation, in the town of Madras, Oregon.  We were some 160 miles removed from the Columbia River and the pathways of the salmon that my mother’s people cherished, celebrated, harvested, dried, and incorporated into their lifeways for over 14,000 years. Few will understand how we came to be so far removed from our ancestral homeland of the Columbia River system, which carries large volumes

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of water inexorably to the Pacific Ocean.  The geography of our landscape—the snowcapped Cascade range of volcanoes, surrounded by evergreen forests and high desert—is an integral element of the culture of the Plateau, as we are collectively called. I belong to a people who cherished the land.

My maternal grandparents were the first of several generations to be born within the reservation boundaries after the treaty of 1855 at Walla Walla, Washington, between “the Bostons” (as U.S. citizens were called by the Plateau people) and the political affiliations of people presently called “tribes.” We had not called our people “tribes” prior to the treaty, as it is a term brought from feudal Europe. It is better to think of the basic component of Plateau society as having been set up for participants of shared political principles, living in villages governed by a leader who was not subject to outside authorities. Decisions were made by acclamation, and those who disagreed moved to another village.

The nature of our current regard for and belief in these inhabitants of the past is more than participation in the old coexistent economic system of task sharing and consensus. It is more than the ethno-racial identity of the citizens. It is the pre-existent honoring and knowledge of the land that held the people together. Human beings flourish with a conscious regard for all beings, for the place that holds their lives, for the deceased, and for their stories of creation and creating. To speak of the spiritual in this context is too personal to present arbitrarily. That sense is a common bond we have with our bodies and share with one another, which I feel requires no explanation.

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In the house of my childhood, my grandfather, Lewis Pitt Sr., was a Wasco/Wishram/Watlala (Cascade/English) descendant of the ancient Fisher people, who made distinctive art objects of X-ray figures, male and female, of people, ancient sturgeon, condor, and deer. He spoke six dialects of Sahaptin and Chinookan Northwest indigenous languages as well as the intertribal trade language—Chinook Jargon. My grandmother, Elizabeth Thompson Pitt, a descendant of the Wyampum and a smaller Deschutes River band, was born and raised at the Hot Springs now known as Kah-nee-ta Resort. She was as settled on this land as the old junipers, the volcanic formations, and hillsides that she loved to walk about on. She was an artisan and possibly, for a time, a healer. She made sure that we understood her reverence for the land and the traditional beliefs by taking us as children to the places where the people gathered for worship—places filled with symbolism and ceremony.

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He was an “Agency” man, she a “Simnasho” woman. Two small gatherings of longhouses and houses, churches and tule shacks, and families—two distinctive cultural communities on the reservation. When they married, each planted a cedar tree, side by side. The trees intermingled their roots and boughs, symbolizing the tentative touchings of two separate beings. In the structures where these people gathered we heard all the many different languages spoken by both my grandparents and all the neighbors and visitors, but in their children they encouraged the use of English. They brought into it a passion for expression, and in that passion, a love for all things.

They moved off the reservation to be nearer to the schools for their three children. In this move, my grandmother was distanced from her immediate connections to her relatives and from the beading circles, healing gatherings, celebrations, winter dances, and the casual visiting at the general store/post office. She had to adjust to her new location.

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My uncle, Lewis Jr., recalls that she took refuge in her bedroom. Her room held the many bundles of the beaded objects, cornhusk bags, and Klickitat baskets inherited from our relatives. It seemed that to visit these things was to contact the thoughts of relatives who had passed on. The house brightened when she decided to make some leggings. For the first time alone, she drew her pattern and started beading. She asked Lewis Jr., “Do you like my leggings?” He was ecstatic, “Yes, they are beautiful.” He knew at that moment, by the startling burst of her creativity, in her pleasant circle of light, that they would be all right in their new home.

It is this blessing of being able to make things that reconstructs my life, that gives me the knowledge to restore myself. The things I saw—the collaborative living structures, the places of worship and feasts, the outfits of antiquity, the buckskin garments, the beaded objects, the woven baskets for subsistence, the cradleboards for protection, the feathers of prayer, the couriers to a higher thought—are still magnificent. They were made, traded, and collected by great-grandparents and by living relatives, and I saw that they loved deeply. These messages—the beaded birds, horses, trees, stars, and geometric abstractions—are like prayer, a prayer for our present world to know again the root connection to our existence. The Earth provided for us, and through the Earth we prosper and absorb into ourselves the potency of life.*

*All these objects were made from the Earth and did not disrupt its systems. The events and stories elaborated the cultural significance of place through the coupling of land and experience. The perspective and treatment of land, animals, and things to events during our tenure and to myth told in current life made the experience of telling and retelling a source of inspiration.

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To be a granddaughter was my privilege; to be a daughter, a niece, a sister, a cousin an honor. In this honor, this state of being respected, I thrived. To thrive is to learn how to respect others and how to act with courage, humility, generosity, and compassion. Although this is simple to say in English and is overused in daily language, it is complex to be an independent being, responsible to the nuances and dynamics of ancestral continuity.

As a segment of the great weaving of cultures, which is continuous and as ancient as the mastodon and condor who have perished from this area, it is only ingenuity and the simple intention to live well that rendered the ability to endure. Our legacy is that we still live, in some manner, in congruence with the past, not in a linear fashion, as people tend to think of time, but cyclically, in accordance with the cycles that are as efficient as the spirals found in baskets and shells and petroglyphs.

After speaking about artistic collaboration at a recent conference, a Wasco “aunty” told me, “Collaboration, in our language, is also the word for science.” I feel that this includes nature, which holds everything and which directs the patterned chaos and the tranquility of being complete, even in its smallest forms. Our language, now physically unspoken in my life but active in my brain, has a lucid regard for our environment.

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I have heard from people who are native-language speakers that to use their language is to be more efficient in thinking. One Inupiaq man who had several advanced degrees said to a friend, “It’s a shame you don’t know your own language. The language holds all this knowledge by a greater conceptual capacity concerning the universe.” It may make some people uncomfortable to see how eradication of the native languages through colonization has impacted massive stores of knowledge. Losing the indigenous language meant that I had to become proficient in a language entirely different from that of my Sahaptin-Wasco-Dine ancestors. I had to learn to speak well for myself, as speaking integrates and restores peace. The task of language wasn’t taught; it was learned by example, by noticing what was happening around me. Listening to the older aspects of myself initiated a life’s work with words. Waking up to the aroma of coffee, listening to the Sahaptin words of Grandmother and Great Aunt Mary in the morning went beyond hearing the sounds to the softness of their walk and the song accompanying them from the birds in the junipers. Such simple pleasures elude me to this day, but the memory returns stronger as I age.

I have been learning to weave root bags. It requires a thought process I’ve been in need of for a long time. It reclaimed me, coming from women on both sides of my family who are weavers. My teacher told me as we sat twining, “We are making beautiful houses for our little sisters.”

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I paused, then asked, “Who are our little sisters?”

“The roots—the pia-xi, khoush, sowit-k, wak amu,” she answered.  As we wove, I felt like a child again. Attempting to bead, I had shown my first rosettes to my grandmother and asked her to show me how to bead. She looked at them and said that was I an expert already. I threw the rosettes in the trash. I saw that she dug them out, sewed safety pins to the back, and wore them on her sweater. I worried that I could not accomplish these traditions, being too old to train myself away from the public school’s demand to be like everyone else. My teacher said, “Don’t worry—weave!” It seems that I grow stronger by learning this skill. My teacher said, “It is the spirit you feed when you work. When you bring out from the heart a wonderful being, it is all from the Earth—goes to the Earth. The spirit blooms and we must remember our source of nourishment, or we will starve.”

The house comes to mind—the wild arrangements of the bundled “keepsakes” containing our heirlooms in my grandmother’s room, the photos of family, the roses bracing up the sides of the house. I see that as a person who rested there, as all the people who rested there, the sense of belonging grew inside. We fed ourselves with the work of stories told to one another, stories that explore how we live and the older past that we can know only through story. My grandparents built this creative place to nurture our physical and inner selves.

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Like them, we repair our culture and make it anew. The secret vitality of our imaginations presents itself all around us as this Earth, Homeland, the House of Livelihood and Rest. All around this story, the eyes look into the sway of our industrious behavior, the hands move back to the beginning each time we work with material from the land. We listen, absorbed in the story by blood, by association, listening with the part that is internally one self and many selves. In the sound of water, the sheen of river stone, a song is pervasive and faithful to continuance, and the memory in its own language tells the story well.

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