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 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.
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“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.