Impressions of the North
Essays about a Northwest Landscape
Part I: Landscapes of
A Home for the Spirits: An Interview with VI
Vi Hilbert (taqwsəblu) was born in 1918 to
Louise and Charley Anderson, traditional Skagit and Upper Skagit
Indians. She attended over a dozen schools, including the Chemawa and
Tulalip boarding schools, and later worked in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma,
Tahola, and Everson. After meeting the linguist Thomas Hess in 1967, Vi
Hilbert devoted her life to preserving and teaching Salish culture,
including Lushootseed, her native tongue. Hilbert taught courses in
Lushootseed for fifteen years at the University of Washington, published
a Salish dictionary, and translated two volumes of stories, titled
Haboo,  plus several volumes of oral history.
Writings About Vi Hilbert,  a
collection of essays edited by Janet Koder, pays tribute to Hilbert and
reveals her influence on others. For further reading, several other
books of note provide background information about Skagit Indian
culture, including Annie Dillard's The Living,  Wayne
Suttles's scholarly West Coast Salish Essays,  June
M. Collins's Valley of the Spirits: The Upper Skagit
Indians,  and Nels Bruseth's Indian Stories and
Legends of the Stillaguamish, Sauks and Allied Tribes. 
Bob Keller interviewed Hilbert at her Seattle home on
March 21, 1996.
Bob Keller: How did you learn Lushootseed?
Vi Hilbert: Well, my parents spoke it and all of
their friends spoke it.
Keller: Was it your first language?
Hilbert: Oh, yes. My mother had eight children and I
was the only one who lived. So I went everywhere with them and that was
part of my training. You don't run around outside and play"You
come with us and you sit right there and you listen." No nonsense
allowed.  This meant discipline and listening skills. I was
obliged, I didn't have any choice, and I knew it. Sometimes it was
pretty boring, hour after hour after hour, but every now and then
something important would be said that's still in my computer. When
people push my mental buttons, it just comes out, important Lushootseed
words left for me to pass on.
Keller: Where did you grow up?
Hilbert: We lived up and down the Skagit River, every
place my dad could find a job in a logging camp or put a short net in
the river.  We never had a home. We lived hither and yon in
chicken houses and empty garages, any kind of a shack with a roof over
it. My mother could make any place home, always a nice one because she
never complained about it. We didn't have money but I never felt poor.
My dad's little leather coin purse had all the money we lived on. I saw
paper bills once in a blue moon but most of the time it was silver
coins. I always had access to that leather coin purse: "Can I count our
Keller: Where was your parents' traditional homeland?
Hilbert: All the territory up and down the Skagit
River, the mountains, the river and its tributaries all the way down to
Keller: North into Canada?
Hilbert: They knew their territory. They went over
the mountains into Yakima and Lake Chelan. Some of Dad's people were
from Chelan who knew that trail as well as they knew the river because
they went back and forth so often.
Keller: Can you describe their route through the
Hilbert: Beats me. It was something I never asked my
dad about, but he told my husband. When Dad used a wagon he had to take
it apart and carry it over the steep places. Dad could describe every
important landmark, special trees, and what was in the lake. In order
not to get lost, my dad had to memorize the space. I didn't get that
gift, never had to, because self-preservation never made me find my way
in the forest.
Keller: What places in the Skagit country especially
stood out for your people?
Hilbert: Well, Ilabot Creek was my dad's territory.
His father had a longhouse at Hamilton, as did four or five other
leading men. Hamilton was sort of headquarters for his group, but they
went up beyond Rockport, too. 
Keller: How did your people travel back then?
Hilbert: By canoe. Dad was a canoe carver who made
many, many river canoes as I grew up.
Keller: Let's discuss the natural environment and its
role in traditional culture. First, the river. How did Skagits like your
father and mother look upon the river? How did they think and feel about
Hilbert: We always considered the river a living and
a home. It's our highway. It's home for the spirits that we access. It's
important as a pantry, a highway, and as a living being.
Keller: A pantry?
Hilbert: A food source, a spiritual source, a
Keller: How is a river spiritual?
Hilbert: Well, anything with life also has spirit. My
people have been given access to that knowledge. It's one of the things
that remains a mystery for Europeans and always will, because we will
never try to explain it.
Keller: Has that changed today?
Hilbert: No, no! The reverence is still very, very
beautiful. It touched me deeply this year when I joined the tribe as
they did a blessing for the fishery. This is something that they
observe at the beginning of the season when a prayer is said for
fishermen and for the fishery itself. Spiritual people went out on the water
with plates of food to thank the spirits that live there.
Keller: If the river is so friendly, how did your
people react to the floods?
Hilbert: A Lummi friend said that the Skagit was
ugly, was always going over its banks. Well, it never flooded while we
lived on it. My parents were not afraid because they understood the
river so well. My dad could tell what was underneath by just looking at
the surface and the motion of the current. He understood. If it was
about to rain when we were near the river, we'd just move back. It was
never a big deal to my family.
Keller: Were forests as important as the river?
Hilbert: Trees have life. They have spirit, so
they're embodied with something that we revere. Our people will go into
the forest to talk to the trees and there is a camaraderie that is very
real because the trees are so ancient. If they have been left to grow
long enough they can communicate with us.
Keller: Are certain trees more important than
Hilbert: Of course. The cedar, naturally, is one of
our most precious trees. Now they're so few. It's pitiful that the
entire Skagit Valley used to be a forest of cedar trees that were cut
down and burned because they stood in the way.
Keller: I assume that your father used cedar for his
Hilbert: Yes. And he always chose a female cedar. I
asked, "Why, Dad? Why a female?" "Cause the grain is finest so it would
be stronger." How could he tell, I asked. "By the bark, of course." I've
asked forestry people if they can point out a female tree. "No." See if
you can find out how to identify one. The female cedar probably has
Keller: Do you recall going into the old stands?
Hilbert: Oh yes, we lived up in the
Rockport/Darrington area where I used to walk to school, walked to the
school in Darrington during wintertime and I remember how desperately
cold it was. The snow would get deep, colder than anyplace else, and my
mother would wake up real early in the morning and put potatoes in the
oven to bake, then she would put her hand-knit wool socks over my shoes
and put hot baked potatoes in my coat pockets for hand warmers. My wool
socks would gather up a lot of snow until I'd be walking ten inches
taller by the time I got to school. It was beautiful in the trees even
if I had to walk in the cold.
Keller: How does the area seem to you today?
Hilbert: I haven't been back there since I was a girl
in school. When I was three years old my mother took me to a hot spring.
My dad was on the Baker River in charge of a boat crew and my mother was
a cook for the crew. In her spare timeI don't know how in the
world she ever found any spare timeshe walked me to a hot spring
and put me in. She didn't get in herself, but she put me in. She wanted
me to have that experience.  I did go back there with a
cousin for a television program.
Keller: What were the most important native plants in
the Skagits' territory?
Hilbert: My mom utilized everything in the forest
that she could gather because we had no money. She knew what to gather
for vegetables along the streams, something that she used for greens,
like a spinach. She would steam them and it was yummy. Then she would
pick fern fronds when they were newly coming up, then
sprouts from different berries. Many things were used for medicinal
purposes. If Dad or I had a problem, we'd go out to gather medicine. Mom
learned this from her parents, but everyone knew, it was just common
Keller: Did she use nettles?
Hilbert: Oh, certainly. My mother took nettles and
rubbed them all over her skin. I couldn't do that, but she could.
Keller: What did your people think about mountains,
the high peaks to the east?
Hilbert: It is part of the spirituality of our people
that the isolated areas, places uncontaminated by other humans, are
where you found the strongest spiritual help. The mountain goat, for
example, could give you some very strong spiritual help.
Keller: Did people go in groups?
Hilbert: No! No! They went one at a time and isolated
themselves and called on the spirits for help.
Keller: How long?
Hilbert: Each person, each family, had a different
set of secret rules. There was no one way people were sent out to quest.
Every family gave directions and instructions to the young people, then
kind of checked on them. If the vision and the spirit revealed itself,
the young person could come home and the family would know it had been
successful. Some people never received spirit help.
Keller: Well, if they went where mountain goats
lived, they certainly climbed to high elevations and reached
Hilbert: Yes, and they also hunted goats for
Keller: They didn't consider that inconsistent or
Hilbert: No, the Creator gave us ways to utilize the
animals that He had given life to. We spoke to animals who were created
for food so their lives were honored; their spirits would be addressed
and prayed for, and we would ask for permission to take their life. It
was very honorable. We never, ever did things for "sport."
Keller: From what you say about the vision quest and
about your father crossing the North Cascades to Lake Chelan, it seems
that native people were not fearful of mountains or mountain spirits, as
has been said of the Olympics and about Yellowstone National Park, as a
way for whites to justify taking the land. It's been claimed that
Indians never used it, that they were afraid of wild areas.
Hilbert: You see, this is how the English language
gets people in trouble. Reverence and fear are sometimes thought to be
synonymous, but the reverence that we feel for life and nature is
something akin to respect. Some people just don't know about it.
Keller: You've already mentioned the role of salmon
in your culture as a food source. But what else?
Hilbert: Salmon were people. They were always thought
of as people, as tribes of people given life so that we might live. They
were created to be food for us and it was never a casual thing to take
the life of a salmon. It was something I lived with while growing up.
Anytime my dad could catch one salmon and bring it home, there was joy
in the home and a reverence in this act of taking a salmon from the
river to our house. My mother never took it for granted. She would greet
that salmon with the affection of a newborn child sometimes. Anytime I
watched my parents respect that gift, I felt that it was coming to us
from the earth. You never take it for granted. Every bit of that salmon
Hilbert: Eagles have vision. They were much respected
because of vision. If people were lucky enough to receive the spirit of
the eagle, why, they became very, very powerful medicine. With that
vision they could find the illness of the patient. The same with the
owl, vision that the owl had because he could turn his head all the way
Keller: Elk and bear?
Hilbert: Elk were revered because they brought food
to many people and their hides were respected by all because they made
good warm covers. Bears were abundant, but not something that my dad
hunted because they were one of his spirit guides. Other people did. My
mother would never eat it because she knew it was my dad's spirit
Keller: All bears, including the grizzly?
Hilbert: I don't recall seeing a grizzly. I saw lots
of brown bear. When out on the Baker River, my mother and I wandered
quite often in the woods because she loved to explore. I was never
afraid, my mother was never afraid that some animal might pounce out and
kill us. There were cougars and bobcats as well, and they too were part
of my dad's spirit guides.
Keller: Let's see, any animal could be a spirit guide
and that's part of what a person needed to discover in the
Hilbert: Correct, but not only animals. Inanimate
thingstrees, bushes, the wind, the water. There's no end to gifts.
My Aunt Susie  talks about the power of a spirit guide
that's in two tree limbs rubbing together. The raccoon, of course, was
quite plentiful and the skunk, some grouse. My dad was a
good shot and could spot grouse to bring home wonderful meat for our
Keller: So you think that Upper Skagits today,
especially young people, have these attitudes?
Hilbert: I hear it anytime people get together. I
hear the reverence for all these things that have been a part of our
culture, and it's taught in the home and it's lived in the home.
Keller: How do you compare European attitudes toward
nature with those of Skagits?
Hilbert: It's pitiful. I say that because people are
so ignorant, and I mean that in all of its implications. They haven't
taken time to understand how important earth is, how it is to be shared,
because it's been grabbed. "This is mine! And now you can't have it."
The area where my dad's longhouse sat is now fenced off: "PRIVATE
PROPERTY, KEEP OUT!" and that was very hurtful when I went there this
year to film the documentary. But we went near and I said I want my
children and my friends to know that we're as close as we can get to the
place of their grandfather's longhouse and where all the leaders of the
Skagit tribe at one time gathered. A fence says we can't even step into
that property. And that doesn't feel fair to me. I was taught never to
hold bitterness or anger because it's counterproductive. It only
reflects back on myself. But I can speak that. It's a fact! I
don't need to be angry about it, only it feels sad. But when I say that
the Europeans are ignorant about what importance land has to native
people, I mean that they don't know the history of how respected every
bit of this land is, how it has a memory for us. It has a sacredness
that's important to us. The Creator gave us access to knowledge about
the spirits of the land that was given life, and a lot of people were
given access to how to use those spirits. This is something that
Europeans will never know. They have no respect for the land, therefore
it could never be revealed to them.
Keller: Given that, how do you feel about logging or
Hilbert: Sacrilege! It's just sacrilegious. People do
not think seven generations ahead as my people have always been advised
to do. What effect is our action going to have seven generations from
now? What will result from acting like this? Very wise people made that
rule of thumb many years ago. I heard a statement from a wise, wise
speaker, Russell Jim of the Yakima Tribe, at a conference. He said, "You
have to constantly protect yourselves from the logic of the uninformed."
I thought, boy, that's beautiful, so elegant, and exactly what we mean
when we say people don't think, when they have a tiny bit of information
and not the whole picture.
Keller: One thing which white people and Indians
share is love of hunting. Do Europeans hunt differently than your father
Hilbert: They're out hunting for sport, not because
they're hungry and not because they can't buy something at a
supermarket. It's sport. It was not sport to my people. It was survival.
Sure, the first people can do things wrong alsoI've seen that.
Once I was allowed to join a hunt on the Quinault Reservation. We
paddled up the Quinault River in a canoe. Now these were Indian people,
for it's not only Europeans who do things wrong. These hunters told us
where to go and wait on the river, a certain place where the deer was
going to come out and cross the water. So, all right, we sat quietly by
the side of the river in the bushes and I heard dogs barking and pretty
soon a frightened doe jumps out of the forest and heads for the stream.
I stood up and started screaming at the deer: "Run, run! Get away, go
away." It didn't get shotthat time, anyway. The man with the dogs
was absolutely furious. I didn't care. I thought it was ugly, nothing
fair about it. An animal needs a chance.
Keller: What are your opinions about the North
Cascades National Park and the Park Service?
Hilbert: I hope there might always be beautiful,
pristine areas so that my great great-grandchildren could come and see
moss growing on a tree, see wildflowers growing in a forest. I want
something here forever, some giant old-growth trees allowed to survive
so that their progeny could give life to all the things in a forest.
Parks are needed because we must protect ancient trees that are a bosom,
the nurse maid which nurtures all other plants and creatures that depend
on trees that have existed for centuries. The National Park Service, if
it takes the long view of things instead of shortsighted profit, can
protect that. I hope it will always be true.
Keller: What changes in this century have most
affected your people?
Hilbert: The dams, I think. Dams have done a lot to
make our salmon almost a thing of the past. Pulp mills have polluted the
water, of course, and logging has done its damage.
Keller: Yet wasn't your father involved in that?
Hilbert: Yes, of course, but people were not aware of
how they were affecting rivers by the logging, done in ignorance because
most people were too greedy to stop and think about what they did. My
dad was a logger. An illiterate person in the academic sense, he
couldn't go and fill out an application to get a job anyplace, but he
did what he could do and he was good at it. He worked in the logging
camps. My mother was illiterate also, but of course intelligence and
illiteracy have no correlation. Instead my people had memory and they
practiced what they remembered, everything that was important.
Keller: Of all the changes, do you consider dams the
most significant for Indians?
Hilbert: I think so. They've decimated our salmon
runs. And, of course, the highways. And the diet. Changes in our diet, I think, have had
a severe effect on many people. My mother didn't have diabetes and I don't have it,
but a lot of our people do.
Keller: A final question: you speak of hopes for
great-great-grandchildren. What is your vision of the future, of the
Skagit River and the North Cascades? What will happen in the next
Hilbert: Had you asked me ten years ago, I would have
painted a very bleak picture. But, you know, I have a little hope that
more and more sincere people are looking at the damage that has been
done and are becoming thoughtfully aware of what can be done to reverse
things at this point in time. With cooperative effort by all people, we
can indeed make things a little healthier. I doubt that I will ever
drink the Skagit River again, like when I was a child, but I think we
can certainly make it better than the present if people become more
aware. My mother used to take buckets and go places where she found
good, sweet springwater. That was nectar. I'm a person with lots of
faith that human beings aren't completely stupid. I think we will
eventually come to a realization that the end result of greed, of
thoughtlessly using up everything, is to cause the human race to
disappear. I think it can happen. I really do.
Keller: Thank you very much for meeting with me to
share your memories and ideas.