PORTLAND — Agnes Baker Pilgrim, the oldest member of Oregon’s Takelma tribe and a vocal advocate for clean water and Native American rights, has died. She was 95.
Pilgrim, who was better known as “Grandma Aggie,” died Wednesday in Grants Pass as doctors tried to repair a brain aneurysm, her alma mater, Southern Oregon University, said. The university awarded Pilgrim a presidential medal — its highest honor — in August for her extensive work to preserve and protect Native American culture and clean water around the world.
Pilgrim, the granddaughter of a tribal chief, traveled the world well into her 80s advocating for environmental, animal and indigenous rights, including a trip to Rome to lobby Pope Benedict XVI to repeal a centuries-old Roman Catholic edict that many Native Americans say provided the legal justification for European encroachment on Native American land in what is now the United States. She also met with the Dalai Lama.
Pilgrim also fought to bring forgotten tribal rituals back to her home community, including a sacred salmon ceremony that is now performed each year on the Applegate River in southern Oregon. She referred to her work as being a “voice for the voiceless.”
Pilgrim, a mother of six, said in an online essay that at age 45 she began to feel restless. Until then, she had varied careers, including as a race car driver, a boxer and a log truck driver, she said in a 2010 speech at the Earth and Spirit Council.
“This sensation was not only present in my waking hours but also in the dream time. There was a force pulling me toward a spiritual path. I was told to cleanse my inner-self. Ultimately, I did what I call a ‘dying to self,’ ” she wrote in the essay, posted on the website of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. “But first I fought this inner-calling, thinking I wasn’t worthy to do it. Looking back, however, I can see where I began to change.”
Pilgrim enrolled at Southern Oregon University in 1985 and graduated at age 61 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in Native American studies.
She co-founded SOU’s Konaway Nika Tillicum Native American Youth Academy, an eight-day residential program for Native American middle and high school students, and in 2004, co-founded the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a global alliance of female elders who promote protection of the Earth and awareness of indigenous culture.
“Never did I think when I retired way back then that I would get to his point in my life. … Being this ‘international grandma’ is not an easy job. I put in 10, 14, 17 hours a day — and try that when you’re nearly 86 years old,” she said to applause in a 2010 speech. “But I’m very concerned about our water all over the world and you should be too. Water is a precious commodity. Without water, all life dies.”
Pilgrim was the granddaughter of Jack Harney, the first elected chief of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, and was recognized as a “living treasure” by the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. Her likeness is featured in a statue in downtown Ashland, Oregon.
Married three times, Pilgrim had six children, 18 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-granddaughter.