Volume 7
An Online Literary Magazine
November 30, 2012


Ten Things I Learned from Vi Hilbert


Janet Yoder


Vi HIlbert photo by Josef Scaylea, courtesy of Paul Eubanks.


i Hilbert was a member of the Upper Skagit tribe of Western Washington state. She spent the second half of her ninety years researching and teaching her language—Lushootseed. Chief Seattle spoke Lushootseed, as did tribal peoples throughout the Puget Sound region from the Skagit River in the north down to Squaxin in the south. Yet Lushootseed nearly disappeared and was saved in a large part by Vi Hilbert’s work. I took Vi Hilbert’s Lushootseed class in 1978 at the University of Washington. I can still speak a few words of that beautiful language. Vi taught me even more from her life. Here are ten things I learned from Vi Hilbert.


1. Make Strong Coffee


Every day Vi made pots of triple-strength French roast coffee. She poured it into a big thermos that lived on her kitchen counter. She offered coffee to everyone who walked through her door. Vi’s coffee fueled her work on Lushootseed, fueled her helpers: linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists, writers, teachers, filmmakers, family, and friends. You drank Vi’s coffee and you got wired on the sublime combination of being with Vi and doing the work. Magic and caffeine.


2. Fill Your Calendar


Vi was happiest when her calendar had lots of entries on it, when she had not one but two or three events a day: Zeke and Jay coming to work on place names, Vi giving a talk to grade school teachers, then dinner with the Storytellers Guild. When I came to visit, Vi held out her calendar and asked, “Can you join me for any of this?” Her calendar marked her anticipated pleasure of being with people she loved or people she might come to love, of representing her culture, of doing her right work.


3. Spend Indian Time


My iPhone calendar has me select the start time and duration of anything I schedule. Vi Hilbert’s calendar only needed a start time. It was a given that she would take Indian Time whenever she gathered with people she loved. Vi’s events lasted long enough for her to speak her heart, for you to speak your heart, and for some work, food, and strong coffee. Indian Time is shimmery. It expands to accommodate need, so you can pick mountain blackberries until you have enough to make jam that will last through the winter. Or to smoke salmon just pulled from the Skagit River. Indian Time is generous, longed for, savored, and remembered.


4. Find Your Right Work


Your right work is a gift. Vi’s ancestors guided her to her right work—her Lushootseed work—as if they knew all along and were just waiting for Vi to know. Vi guided others to find their right work: a book, a play, a musical, a map, a documentary, a children’s show, a canoe program, teaching. Your right work will keep you energized, active, and in the world. Your right work will keep you connected to others doing their right work, perhaps keep you connected to your ancestors, perhaps even to the Creator.


5. Honor Your Ancestors


Vi honored her parents and her Aunt Susie and all of her ancestors in the spirit world. She received their guidance daily at the altar in her living room, and she received their guidance at night through dreams or songs. Vi knew that when a message came to her, it was her ancestors speaking. She listened to their messages and knew she had to do as they guided her to do. If she did not, she could get gravely ill. Or never again receive such a message. Vi knew each message from her ancestors was a gift.


6. Claim People


Vi called us her Lushootseed family. When she left messages on our answering machine, she always began, “Hello, family.” Vi called me Daughter a few times. I know I am not her daughter, but I felt the desire to live up to her claim.


7. Be si?ab


Be si?ab. Expect others to be si?ab. si?ab means respected one. si?ab means noble or high-class. si?ab means treasured one. si?ab means honored one. Vi was si?ab and she modeled how to be si?ab. Vi addressed everyone in her world as si?ab whenever she spoke. She set her expectation this way. You needed to behave in a si?ab way to be invited into Vi’s world. You needed to become si?ab if you wanted to stay there.


8. Be Frivolous


“I am going to be frivolous,” Vi announced. That meant having fun, going shopping at Nubia’s for a lovely cape or a cashmere sweater. Or eating out at the Space Needle or Anthony’s or The Brooklyn. Or finding the perfect long black skirt and leather boots to wear in the longhouse. Being frivolous meant Vi was stepping outside her role as cultural icon, as elder, as teacher, as wise one, as the voice of Lushootseed. Yet she would treat those being frivolous with her to a meal and perhaps to a pair of earrings, thus being si?ab even while being frivolous.


9. Don’t Worry About Money


Vi never worried about money. Not the money she lived on, not the money she needed for her projects, and not the money she gave to someone in her world who might need it. She did not worry about having enough money to last to the end of her life. She had better ways to expend her energies: commission a symphony inspired by spirit songs, make a documentary, gather the words of the ancestors into books, share those books with the world. The money was always there when needed.


10. Consider Danger as a Gift


In 1985, Vi nearly died of a stroke. She had surgery for an aneurism. After an arduous recovery, Vi worked on Lushootseed with new commitment. She gave it her all, pushed to get everything done. She transcribed and translated recordings, worked on a new dictionary, a book of place names. She published books of her material, and she distributed them herself in all her travels around Indian Country and beyond. Her work came into a tight, sharp focus. Through her stroke and her survival of it, she got close enough to shake hands with death, and she took that meeting as a gift.


Vi Hilbert passed from this world into the spirit world on December 18, 2008. I miss her with my full heart.



Skunk’s Important Information


Told by Walter Williams in Lushootseed at his longhouse at Deming, Washington, 1982


It was the season for the spirit dancing and everyone was gathered there at one of the longhouses.


Someone came in.


The people turned around and saw it was Skunk.


He silently sat down.


The people spoke to him.


They asked about his silence.


“What is the matter with you, Skunk? Why don’t you tell us your news?”


Skunk replied haughtily,“I have important news. I can’t possibly take the chance of being overheard by someone listening outside this longhouse. I can’t talk unless you plug up all the cracks in this building so no one outside can hear.”


One man spoke up. “Go out and find moss to plug all the cracks.”


Soon they had all the cracks stuffed with this moss.


The people all turned expectantly toward Skunk. What could Skunk’s important information be? They turned to face Skunk and listen to his story.


As they stood there waiting, Skunk turned away from them. He raised his tail. Spoo! He sprayed them. He killed them all.


That is the end of the story.


Janet Yoder is working on a book about Vi Hilbert. Her writing has appeared in Enchanted Companions: Stories of Dolls in Our Lives, ed. by Carolyn Michael, published by Andrews McMeel, 2003, Chautauqua Literary Journal, River Teeth, Tusculum Review, Passages North, American Literary Review, The Baltimore Review, Evansville Review, Passager, The Massachusetts Review, Ellipsis…, The Texas Review, Raven Chronicles, Bayou, Fugue, Left Curve, Porcupine, Forge, Rio Grande Review, The Binnacle, StringTown, HistoryLink.org, The MacGuffin, North Dakota Quarterly, and Pilgrimage.


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