For Native American Heritage Month: A Gift that Keeps on Giving

This blog has been fairly quiet since I moved to the West Coast along with the pandemic in March 2020. It’s been a complicated transition! But what a joy to be nearer my daughters and their families.

Growing up in New York and Virginia, I remember my mother’s interest in Native American culture, particularly that of the Hopi Tribe, a northeastern Arizona sovereign nation. Jane Hall adored her childhood home in Arizona; she had learned about the Hopi from her father, Dick Wick Hall, who spent time with the tribe as a young man. She often supported Native American causes. A hand painted sign with green lettering was propped up over the kitchen sink admonishing us never to judge anyone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins. That worthy sentiment may or may not have had a Native American origin.  

So when I roamed around my great aunt’s farm as a naive early tween hoping to spot an arrowhead in the tilled soil, I was torn between pretending to be an Indian brave or Hopalong Cassidy with silver cap pistols. Usually the brave won out. At age nine I had a stereotypical image of what it meant to be Native American. But I made my own bows and arrows out of pliable lilac bush branches, and often clambered up on the rusty tin roof of an equipment shed near the barn to shoot these limp arrows at the farmer. On one grim occasion, he had just chopped the head off a chicken. I watched in horror as the headless bird ran around the yard. 

Fast forward to the 1980s when I was a program officer at the National Endowment for Humanities in Washington, D.C.  Working in public programs, I noticed how few film, television and radio stories were told from a Native American perspective. One of my first adventures on leaving the Endowment in 1989, thanks to the generosity of the Rockefeller Foundation and NEH, was a journey to Neah Bay, WA, a census-designated place on the Makah Reservation, at the northwestern tip of the United States.

Over the next few years we had the privilege of working on a documentary film with the members of an extraordinary community. Our production team included Native Americans and non-Indians. Collaborating with the Makah was an unforgettable experience for all of us. These were not Native Americans who used bows and arrows or fit any of the TV and toy store stereotypes of Indians that had been so prevalent when I was a child and long afterwards. That’s why it seemed so important then (as now) to have their story reach a large public audience. This past June the significance of the Makah’s Ozette archaeological site was examined in depth by Brendan Sainsbury for the BBC in a lengthy illustrated travel article, “Ozette: The US’ lost 2000-year-old village”.

As Sainsbury notes: “The Ozette dig lasted from 1970 until 1981 and ultimately unearthed around 55,000 artefacts from six beachside cedar houses covered by the slide. The Makah, like many indigenous groups, have a strong oral tradition, with much of their history passed down through storytelling, song and dance. The evidence unearthed at Ozette affirmed these stories and added important details. “It was a spectacular place to excavate; the preservation and richness was extraordinary,” recalled archaeologist Gary Wessen, a former field director at the site who later wrote a PhD dissertation on the topic. “Ozette is what we call a primary deposition. We have all these materials preserved in the places where they were actually used. It helps tell us more about the social and spatial relationship of the people who lived in the houses.”

The Ozette site is also the focus of A Gift from the Past, which aired on PBS nationally in 1994. The film is still shown daily at the Makah Museum.  I just learned it’s  available to stream on archive.org. (Click to see the film.) This link will give you an opportunity to explore a unique culture and an archaeological discovery that was unlike any other in American history. All of the 16mm film footage for A Gift from the Past was donated to the Makah.

Not everyone you see on the screen is still here, but they are alive in our hearts. We are grateful to have met these remarkable people many years ago. One of these was Isabell Ides who lived to be 101. The little girl in the picture on the left is her granddaughter, also Isabell Ides, who lives in Neah Bay with a son about the same age that she was when the film was made.

To order a DVD of this 58 – minute documentary contact  makahmuseum@centurytel.net  <> Better still try to visit Neah Bay, WA

Happy Holidays and thanks to all of you!  We will be back soon with more unusual journeys through history.