She thought she was retiring, but when Adeline Smith came back home to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s reservation for good, after coming and going to jobs away from home for some 40 years, she began what would turn out to be her most enduring work.
Beginning in the 1990s, Smith, a tribal elder, went to work to revive the Elwhas’ language, culture, and most famously, the river that bears the tribe’s name.
By the time Mrs. Smith died Tuesday at 95, she had helped the tribe publish its first written dictionary, train two generations of Klallam language teachers, and bring down two dams on the Elwha River to restore the salmon runs.
She fought in federal court and the halls of Congress to help win the landmark 1974 Boldt decision affirming tribes’ treaty right to half the catch, and the 1992 vote in Congress to tear down the dams.
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“She was a hero and a warrior for our tribe,” said Robert Elofson, river-restoration director for the tribe.
Born March 13, 1918, Mrs. Smith grew up on her family’s homestead along the Elwha River.
Her life spanned a vast sweep of history. She grew up speaking only Klallam in a household with an unbroken oral history, through her great-grandparents, that stretched all the way back to the time of the first explorers and settlers of the Olympic Peninsula in the late 18th century.
“She learned a lot from her elders, not just the language and the stories but living with them, the way that they were, and the way that they carried themselves,” said Theresa Parker, of Neah Bay, Clallam County, one of her nieces.
“Just in speaking, she always gave you a lesson. Not to carry bad feelings, and always putting things in a positive manner,” Parker said. “Even when something is hard, there is a lesson in it, and as long as you carry that lesson forward you wouldn’t have to be walking such a rough road.”
Mrs. Smith did not have an English language name until entering public school at age 7. She went to high school at the Chemawa Indian School near Salem, Ore., but had to leave just before graduation because of her mother’s death.
She and her niece, the late Bea Charles, headed to Seattle at age 18 to find work. Prejudice was so strong against Indians she hid her identity to get work. “If you were Indian, you never admitted it,” Smith once said.
She worked hard at all kinds of jobs, from waiting tables and working at Goodwill, to welding on submarines in San Francisco and at the Boeing defense plant in Seattle during World War II.
After a stint picking salal in Neah Bay, Mrs. Smith returned to the reservation for good, where she found her calling: teaching Klallam culture, history and language.
She helped train two generations of teachers who today teach tribal history, language and culture from elementary through high-school grades in Port Angeles tribal and public schools.
In January, Mrs. Smith held in her hands the tribe’s first written dictionary, just published by the University of Washington Press. A labor of three decades with linguist Timothy Montler, of the University of North Texas, Mrs. Smith contributed 12,000 words to the tribe’s first lexicon.
“She really did love seeing the children speaking the language and she was so happy to see the dictionary be done, she felt so filled with that,” said Wendy Sampson, one of Smith’s students who has gone on to be a Klallam language teacher herself.
Just months before her death, Mrs. Smith was continuing to transcribe stories from her native Klallam, to preserve them for future generations. She was the last of the native speakers left on the Olympic Peninsula who was actively teaching her native tongue.
Mrs. Smith in her last year of life often said she was witnessing things she never thought she would see, from salmon coming back to the Elwha as the dams came down, to the recovery of the tribe’s creation site along the river, lost for a century under dam floodwaters.
Active to the end, she had plans to record more stories this spring. Just last week she celebrated her 95th birthday, surrounded by children singing to her in Klallam, learned from the teachers she had helped train.
“We had a great loss in the community, not only with the knowledge and the history and the stories and the language, but the capability that she had in sharing it with the surrounding community,” said tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles. “She had so much more to tell.”
She is survived by nieces, nephews, many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Roy Smith; a previous husband, Roosevelt Suppah; her sons Mark Suppah and Roy Smith Jr.; a daughter Patricia Forbes, and five brothers and two sisters.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions be made to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, with the check memo denoting the Adeline Smith Memorial Scholarship for Language Students. The mailing address is Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Education Department, 2851 Lower Elwha Road, Port Angeles, WA 98363.
Services will be private.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org