Portland's Wisdom of the Elders: 20 Years of Priceless Stories
Fire-cooked salmon, a tomato giveaway, flute-playing and stories of the Athabaskan caribou people were some of the highlights of The Wisdom of the Elders’ 20th anniversary celebration at the Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center in Portland, Oregon, in April. More than 150 people gathered to honor the work the organization has done in preserving Native oral history and culture, and promoting multimedia education and race reconciliation. “It was wonderful,” says Rose High Bear, executive director of the event. “There was a lot of socializing and we gave away a lot of tomatoes.”
She says the idea for Wisdom of the Elders started with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. While she was working on the spill in Alaska and the world was watching that disaster unfold, her husband Martin High Bear, Lakota, realized there were other stories that needed to be told. “We started recording at Martin’s urging because he had seen so many elders go home to the spirit world and they didn’t leave their stories behind, they took them with them,” she says.
Three years later, the High Bears moved to Portland and Wisdom of the Elders was incorporated. Since then, over 300 audio and video recordings of Native people from diverse backgrounds have been made. Wisdom of the Elders now hosts a radio program, a monthly television series, a storytelling festival and speaker’s bureau, apprenticeship programs in video production and oral storytelling, an online curriculum and a Wisdom Garden.
Many of the recorded stories and episodes can be viewed or listened to on WisdomOfTheElders.org.
Martin High Bear passed on in 1995, but people have stepped in to help fulfill his vision. With only three people on staff, Wisdom of the Elders relies heavily on consultants, volunteers, and its advisory council. “We believe Native people need to use media in order to get their message out for public education,” High Bear says. “I think our people need healing and reconciliation, so we’ve been working to help our community to heal and to grow.”
Portland has the ninth largest Native American population in the United States, with around 40,000 inhabitants from 380 tribes, according to a report by the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable. Another report says the poverty rate for Natives in Portland is 35 percent, triple the rate of the white population.
Originally, the Multinomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook and others made their homes where the Portland Metropolitan Area now stands. But policies of termination, assimilation and relocation drastically changed the region’s Native population. In the 1950s, Portland was one of the seven cities where people from other tribes were sent to live during the Indian Relocation Act.
The stories on the Wisdom of the Elders media programs and website include people whose roots are deep in the Oregon region, like Agnes Baker Pilgrim, Takelma, a member of the Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, who recounts the brutal 19th century relocation walk of her grandfather but offers hope for the new generations, or Jackie Thomas, an “un-self-conscious Indian” born of Muckleshoot and Warm Springs Washoe parents, who describes the complications involved in getting her children tribally enrolled. Others feature people who came to the Northwest from elsewhere, like Karina Walters, a California born Choctaw professor of Social Work who speaks of the challenges of healing historical trauma, or Toby Joseph, Apache, who describes how he turned his life around, going from alcoholism and addiction to sobriety and a career as a film producer and consultant.
With its Discovering Our Story online curriculum, Wisdom is using the videos of people like Joseph, Walters, Pilgrim and Thomas to celebrate Native resilience and address issues of concern to the Native community, such as career development and healing from addictions, diabetes, violence, and historical trauma.
Students are encouraged to view the real life and traditional stories on the site through the lens of storytelling models like The Hero’s Journey, Traps, and Bringing Light into the World. With discussion, writing and other exercises, they are then asked to look at their own lives through the same lens: “What are some tests we face as we grow in our lives? Do you feel you have a destiny? How many resiliency factors can you identify
in your own life?”
“The hero’s journey,” says curriculum writer Roger Fernandes, S’klallam, “is a story of transforming from one person who’s alone, confused and wandering into a person who has a place in their culture and has an understanding of who they are.”
“You know that dark place you’re in?” asks Toby Joseph in his video. “There’s a place of light, and when you make that choice, you’ll get there. When people look me in the eye and ask me, ‘How do you know?’ I tell them, “Well, it’s because I’ve been there.”
Wisdom has partnered with a variety of organizations in developing the curriculum, including the Native American Rehabilitation Association, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Health & Human Services in Vancouver, Washington, the Lewis & Clark College’s Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program and other organizations.
An important part of Wisdom’s work is also training the next generation of oral storytellers and media producers. “The storytelling has helped our young people to step out and tell their stories where they might have been timid before,” says High Bear.
Daniel Dixon, currently Wisdom’s production coordinator and social media expert, trained in digital storytelling with Wisdom of the Elders and Portland Community Media in 2009 and now helps coordinate Wisdom’s media training program. “It has been a great experience, I’ve really enjoyed it,” he says.
This summer, 12 people will be certified by Portland Community Media and then receive more training by working on the television show and filming other aspects of Wisdom’s work, like the outdoor summer science camp. “Part of the big idea is to get this technology into the hands of the youth and the elders, get them interacting with each other and hopefully going forward with their own media productions,” Dixon says. “We’re not just bringing this to the youth and the community but to our Native youth and community, underrepresented and underserved. And it’s exciting to release that voice.”
Another project where youth and elders are able to interact is the Wisdom Gardens, created in spring of 2012 to provide gardening plots and education for Native families. Dozens of volunteers from the Wisdom Gardens Advisory council, as well as students from Portland State University, Americorps volunteers and others, have turned the compacted clay into seed-friendly soil, planted organic vegetable beds, dug trenches, and installed a talking circle area using cedar rounds turned into seats for future outdoor gatherings. “Getting outside and being a part of the natural world needs to be a part of our educational system,” says Judy BlueHorse Skelton. Professor of indigenous nations studies at Portland State University, and one of the featured speakers in is Wisdom’s Career Pathway videos. “Whether you’re Native, non-Native, indigenous to somewhere else, we have to strengthen that connection.”
“This kind of a project really speaks to me because it’s the story of all of us,” Skelton says. “We think we’ve reached a point where we know that story pretty well and then a project like this invites us to look again and discover there’s more to the story.”