JoAnn Kauffman slides into a secluded booth at a restaurant in SeaTac, Washington. There is a Māori tattoo on her left arm. Besides celebrating New Zealand’s proud indigenous people, it is a testament to her family, whose strong women have inspired her life’s work.
“The Māori tattoos are so beautiful,” she says, leaning across the table. “I’m in New Zealand. I’m an adult. I thought, ‘You know what? I think I’ll get one.’” Her daughter Julia discovered the tattooist last November at Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. The event draws thousands of indigenous people from across the globe every four years. “There’s a lot going on here, so you have to look at the negative space,” JoAnn says, returning her gaze to the black ink tattoo covering her arm. “These negative circles are my four kids. This is my lifeline. This section right here is the whole women’s power thing.”
Inspired by her deep Nez Perce roots, JoAnn Kauffman has championed Indian health and justice for more than 40 years. “She’s not one of those aristocracy Indians who just puts on a little bit of Indian jewelry and goes out into that other world,” says Ramona Bennett, a Puyallup Indian elder. “She’s a very charming and hard-working Indian woman.”
The effort has been well recognized. “She often petitions the government on behalf of Native Americans—particularly in the area of health care—and wins,” the nonpartisan Freedom Forum noted when presenting JoAnn with the Free Spirit Award, its highest honor, in 1998.
A striking, vigorous 64, JoAnn shows no signs of slowing down. Decades have passed since she staved off hunger pangs in elementary school by sipping coffee from a thermos. Or hauled an empty bucket to a gas station six blocks from home for clean water. Or huddled under blankets in a house without heat.
But JoAnn Kauffman’s story is also the story of her family, which has made indelible marks on Indian country. JoAnn’s sister Hattie was the first Native American national television news correspondent. Her late brother John was an internationally recognized director, playwright and actor. Her sister Claudia was the first Native American elected to the Washington State Senate. (See sidebar, Seven Siblings, Seven Stories) And they achieved it all in the wake of hardship, prejudice, disease and internal tribal strife.
“How can you come from such an amazing family?” asks longtime Seattle Indian Health Board member, chuckling in admiration. “The competition with her siblings alone would have propelled her to success!”
“People always say, ‘You’re all such overachievers,’” JoAnn says. “‘You must have had a great upbringing.’ Children respond differently to chaos.”
5’2” OF SOLID GRIT
FOLLOW U.S. 12 ALONG the Clearwater to a timber-dependent town in Nez Perce Country. Here, Lewis and Clark once tramped their way across the West. The legends of the Nez Perce Indians, the Ni Mii Puu, live on at sacred landmarks. It’s “like driving down a postcard,” one writer wrote of the majestic route into Kamiah, Idaho. JoAnn often returns here to repair the old gray home she inherited from her grandparents on an original Indian allotment issued in 1887. The faces of her ancestors greet you from the living room. In a wooden frame, great-grandmother Hattie Axtell appears stoic on her front porch. Laundry hangs behind her on a clothesline. “See her fancy dress?” JoAnn says. “She was posing for that photo.”
Even now, JoAnn can still see Hattie as she grew older, slowly sliding her bent frame across the floor in high-top moccasins. At 22, Hattie was traveling by horseback with a group somewhere in the Clearwater River Valley when the labor pains came. That was in 1887—a decade after the Nez Perce fought for their homeland under siege, after weary, battle-scarred remnants of the tribe made their epic retreat and after Chief Joseph dramatically surrendered just short of the Canadian border. Ten years later, the valley remained hostile territory. “It was often dangerous for Indian people to be out,” JoAnn says. “She stopped her horse along the river, gave birth to my grandmother, and was then told to get back on her horse and keep going. It was too dangerous to linger.”
The baby born on the river that day—another face on the wall in Kamiah—grew into 5’2” of solid grit. Lizzie Hayes, JoAnn’s grandmother, wore iridescent headscarves and glasses. She wound her long gray hair into two braids fastened together at the tips by a rubber band. Grandma Lizzie taught JoAnn the power of words when a forester tried to tell her she couldn’t pick huckleberries on a scorching summer day. Grandma may have been old, but she rushed out of her pickup truck, grabbed her false teeth and recounted her treaty rights—fire season or not. “She never let anything go by,” JoAnn says. “If it was off color or off base or totally out of line, she would get in your face and let you know. She commanded a lot of respect from people because of her unwillingness to take any crap.”
Raised at the epicenter of the movement to convert Nez Perce Indians into Christians—where America’s first Indian Presbyterian church opened in 1871—Grandma Lizzie told stories of missionaries who ordered the Nez Perce to bury all things Indian in their backyards, never to be seen again. “So if you had some things that are sacred to you, it’s not sacred anymore,” JoAnn says. “Maybe it’s a feather; maybe its beadwork; maybe it was a buckskin shirt that was handed down.” The movement split the tribe in two: Christians versus non-Christians, or as the missionaries called them, “Heathens.” “Terrible damage was done by dividing the Nez Perce people this way and vilifying non-Christian Nez Perce,” JoAnn continues. “Because of that, there remained a schism and a mistrust between Christian and traditional practice until only very recently, which was sad and unnecessary.”
Yet Grandma Lizzie remained equally proud of her Christian beliefs and her Nez Perce culture all her life. You could find her up near Mason Butte at Talmaks, where Nez Perce Presbyterians have camped for more than a hundred years. You could spot her racing off with a towel to find the sweltering heat of a sweat lodge or with a digging stick prying camas root from the landscape. Grandma Lizzie was a strict Christian, an orderly homemaker and a proud Nez Perce Indian who could singlehandedly erect a tipi or pound venison into pemmican, a powder so fine it would melt in your mouth. Lizzie’s life spanned the clash of cultures between whites and Indians. Her childhood unfolded in an America determined to “kill the Indian and save the man.” By 14 she was thrust into white culture at Carlisle Indian School where she wore a Victorian uniform and pinned her long dark hair in a bun. For six years, Lizzie bounced from the famous boarding school in Pennsylvania to the backroom pantries of upscale white households where she learned to bake most anything and cook elaborate dinners.
Like many mothers of her era, Lizzie was a survivor. She buried six of her nine children. One died of whooping cough, the other five of tuberculosis. Her oldest son, Ira Grant—a bright boy with a knack for checkers—succumbed to TB at 13. “No matter how many times she told me this story, a big old tear would always roll down her cheek,” JoAnn remembers. But for all that sorrow, Lizzie wore her happiness well. “When she laughed, her whole body laughed,” JoAnn says, recalling how her shoulders shook, her elbows jutted, her belly rose and fell.
“SMALL BUT MIGHTY”
THERE IS NO MISSING Grandma Lizzie’s daughter on the living room wall in Kamiah. “She was very beautiful,” JoAnn says of her mother, Josephine Moody, a meticulous dresser with a mahogany hue to her skin. She could play a mean honky-tonk piano, too.
Born in 1923, Josephine grew up a Nez Perce Presbyterian on the reservation in Kamiah. She refused to attend Indian boarding school and was one of the few “brown faces” in Idaho public schools. Josephine sang in the glee club and was secretary of her high school class in 1940. Her peers knew she was tough; they called her “small, but mighty.” Some also labeled her a “squaw.” “One time she got fed up with hearing it and hit a fellow classmate, a boy with red hair who was taunting her,” JoAnn says.
After graduating, Josephine left Kamiah and became one of America’s 6 million female factory workers on the home front in World War II—a “Rosie the Riveter” in both Ogden, Utah, and Spokane. Her father used to show visitors the impressive bullets of all shapes and sizes she helped make.
Josephine met her future husband at a dance in Spokane celebrating the end of World War II. John Kauffman, a gunner in the U.S. Army, had a battle scar on his belly and a bullet still lodged in his back. He was hit by friendly fire near an abandoned Nazi outpost along the Rhine while on assignment as a decoy.
Josephine and John made it official in Coeur d’Alene a year after the war ended. The full-blooded Nez Perce wed the German-American GI decades before interracial marriages were fully legalized in the U.S. In the beginning, the happy parents took an array of photos of their children.
JoAnn, the third of seven, came along in 1952. Before long, she was climbing trees. A tomboy, she could outwrestle and outrun her siblings. Like her brother and her sisters, JoAnn looked to her mother as the dominant authority: “Whatever my dad said was advisory and whatever my mom said was the law.” But the photos stopped when the once stable home fractured. Years of racism caught up with Josephine. She was eventually diagnosed with lupus, a mysterious autoimmune disease that targets women. It can impact any part of the body—skin, joints or organs.
“I have great compassion for her,” says Hattie Kauffman, JoAnn’s younger sister. “She was frequently sick and nobody knew what it was. She was taking 22 Prednisone!”
“I think she always felt a little insecure about her lack of higher education and the racism she endured,” JoAnn adds. “Her challenge was alcohol, which affects a lot of American Indian people—in her generation in particular. When she drank, the hostility and the insecurity came out.”
ONE OF JOANN’S FIRST MEMORIES takes place in Clarkston, Washington, on a small farm on a dead-end road. John and Josephine are gone. JoAnn, 5, is left in charge of her three younger sisters. “We were just kind of sitting around,” JoAnn says. “I remember hearing this weird breathing.” One of her sisters was having convulsions.
“I went to the telephone and I dialed zero. I got an operator and I told her that my baby sister was breathing funny, and generally described where we lived. Twenty minutes later this guy knocks on the door. He’s a doctor. He’s got a black bag and milk. He examined the baby and brought us all some food.”
But these were the days when Indian children were often removed from their homes by local authorities and placed for adoption. When JoAnn tells her mother what happened, she becomes irate. “She was unhappy about my calling in an outsider and bringing the authorities on her,” JoAnn recalls.
The downward spiral escalated when the family moved into Seattle public housing in 1960. Josephine worked hard to keep her children safe in the projects. She washed her seven kids’ hair with Fels-Naphtha laundry soap to ward off lice. She tried to make mealtime fun, even with little food to go around.
“I remember having a prized chicken dinner and it being cut up into nine separate pieces,” Hattie remembers. “Somebody gets the wing. Somebody gets the back. Somebody would get the heart. Who gets the gizzard?” During one particularly eventful dinner, Josephine cooked chipped beef on toast. “In the Army, we used to call this ‘shit on a shingle,’” John said teasingly. Josephine grabbed a bowl of canned peas and slung it at him. Peas lined the walls and slid down the kids’ cheeks.
The family had reached an all-time low. As the marriage descended into violence, the parents’ absences became more frequent. Sometimes the kids were left in a home without electricity or running water. JoAnn took her turn hauling a bucket of fresh water from the gas station six blocks away. She discovered she could heat the water in a percolator and—after a dozen trips from the kitchen—take a warm bath.
A HALF-DRAWN PICTURE
“SHE REALLY FELT there were periods in which she and her siblings raised themselves,” says her longtime spouse, Tom Keefe. “Their real mission was to fly under the radar and stay away from the social services people. JoAnn would tell me about not having a lunch to bring to school, but preparing a sack anyway to make it look like she had a lunch.” The absences were so constant that the parents divorced and remarried in the early 1960s with little notice from the kids, Hattie Kauffman writes in her memoir, Falling Into Place.
Yet hardships only describe certain chapters of JoAnn’s childhood, like a half-drawn picture. “I think there was a lot of love that the parents had,” says JoAnn’s husband, Tom. “Through all their own problems they never stopped loving those kids.” JoAnn agrees: “She was a great mom—an excellent mom and someone I was very proud of. She worked multiple jobs to support us, including waiting tables and folding sheets in the basement of Seattle’s Frye Hotel— all cash jobs with no Social Security. When she was present and in the home she was very loving and engaged. She had expectations for her children. We had chores. We had to pluck chickens and iron clothes.”
No matter where they lived, no matter the hour, Josephine would pack up her brood whenever she could and take the children back to their Nez Perce roots—back to the fast-moving Clearwater River with its 20-pound steelhead; back to the forests where they would pick huckleberries. When JoAnn was 9, her arm grew swollen after a TB test at school in Seattle. Her mother took her to the King County Health Department for chest X-rays and monitored her pills. She knew too well what TB could do; she lost her own sister to tuberculosis in 1947. Josephine carefully marked cups and plates with a “J” to limit exposure to the other kids. Finally, JoAnn was sent to Idaho to live with her grandparents for a couple of years. There she had plenty of food, her very own bed and a pair of shiny shoes. “It turned out to be a great win for me,” JoAnn says, “like winning the lottery.” And she never developed tuberculosis.
Eventually, John and Josephine found peace and stability and turned their marriage around. They celebrated the successes, birthdays and graduations of their children, and became actively engaged in Seattle’s urban Indian community. Josephine was a close friend of Bernie Whitebear, leader of the United Indians of All Tribes. During the Indian takeovers Whitebear led at Fort Lawton in 1970, she was arrested scaling the fences. She became active in the Seattle Indian Center, the Seattle Indian Women’s Service League and the American Indian Elders of Seattle.
It wasn’t until JoAnn was about to lose her mother that she came to know her best. It was 1988. Suffering from heart disease and pneumonia, Josephine was skeletal, an 85-pound shadow of the once fearless Nez Perce. Her body was frail and her voice strained, but when JoAnn visited her at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital she shared more truths from a ragged past. “She went from being the completely in control master of the home from my childhood to being a real person who had doubts and fears and stories she wouldn’t share with anybody because of the fear and the shame it might bring. She was a human being, just like me.”
On one particular visit, after a stroke had stolen her ability to speak, Josephine motioned toward JoAnn’s abdomen and smiled. “I didn’t know what she was saying, so she made her hands like a baby cradle. I just laughed and said ‘Nope! Not me!’ She nodded and smiled, pointing at my lower belly. She died soon thereafter, and I discovered she was right. I was pregnant with my youngest child, Julia.”
GROWTH AND CHALLENGE
THE TRIALS OF HER mother’s life and the stories of her ancestors had started to crystallize for JoAnn during her third year at college. “It seemed like on the reservation, we were always going to funerals. I pondered how to channel my concern for the health of native people. I was not the type to poke needles, but I knew I wanted to make a difference.” She graduated from Western Washington University, earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California at Berkeley and began a tireless journey of Indian advocacy.
In 1970, JoAnn joined a delegation of activists supporting Bernie Whitebear at the National Congress of American Indians Convention in Anchorage where a resolution was passed to demand a freeze on the property at Fort Lawton. By 1979, she was executive director of the North Idaho Indian Health Board. And by 1982, JoAnn had taken the helm of the Seattle Indian Health Board. The country’s largest center for urban Indians was under deep financial strain, the vast majority of its clients living at or below the poverty line. Urban Indians scattered about the Emerald City had no real place to call their own.
“There were no resources,” says Rebecca Corpuz. “The native community had no neighborhood, no central place to go.” The solution was a single location where the Seattle Indian Health Board, the Seattle Indian Center and the Seattle Indian Services Commission could consolidate services. JoAnn brokered a deal to create a nearly $5 million Leschi Center. Ultimately, a health clinic, social services and a housing complex for the elderly were created. Dedicated in 1986, the center still stands; plans are under way to transform it into a community gathering place. Amid all this activity, JoAnn was coming to grips with a systemic problem in Indian Country and in her own family—namely, alcoholism. She had learned the hold that the disease can have on the children of addicts as she struggled for years with her own abuse.
“I started self-medicating with alcohol and drugs in junior high and continued through college and even a successful career, uninterrupted by wrecked cars, wrecked relationships, black-outs and even a DUI, until the man I was to marry confronted me with some brutal honesty.” JoAnn did not want her own alcohol abuse to repeat yet another generation of dysfunction. She quit drinking and in 1988 became the founding president of the National Association of Native American Children of Alcoholics (NANACOA) with Indian people from 30 different tribes. Today, she sees its annual conference as a healing place to educate, share stories and help end the cycle of addiction. “From the outside looking in, you’d think it involves personal choice or a character flaw. But from the inside looking out, there are multigenerational factors related to oppression, colonialism and historic trauma.”
PROTECTING SACRED GROUND
IN THE EARLY 1990s, JoAnn won federal recognition for 14 sites in Nez Perce Country, sacred places to the tribe that represent history and the conflict of 1877. Longstanding “historical mistrust and animosity” existed between different bands of the Nez Perce at the time. And the bill to expand the Nez Perce National Historical Park had already died twice. The congressional session was about to adjourn, killing the bill a third time, when JoAnn faced another roadblock with the pending legislation. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Washington) had placed a hold on the bill, at the request of the Colville Tribe. The Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce, which is a part of the Colville Tribe, was flatly rejecting the notion of developing its cemetery into a national park. “Their belief,” JoAnn recalls, “is that when you’re put back into Mother Earth you don’t disturb it. You kind of go back into the earth and we don’t want people trampling all over the place, lawn mowers and sprinklers and big giant buses with tourists.”
There was only one more day to salvage the bill. JoAnn solicited the help of Al Slickpoo, a Nez Perce council member and a respected expert on tribal culture. “I told him, ‘The Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce in Colville are going to meet about it at the longhouse tomorrow morning at 9.’ He said, ‘Okay. I’ll get up at 4 a.m. and be there!’ ”
The next day, JoAnn camped out in Gorton’s office until 3 p.m. when a deal was struck. It was too late to add new language to the bill. But a gentleman’s agreement stipulated that nothing would happen to the cemetery in Nespelem without buyoff from the Chief Joseph Band. Today, the 1992 legislation ranks as one of her proudest achievements. “You get to retrace historically significant sites of the Nez Perce Tribe,” she says. “Everything from legend stories, to the gravesite of Old Joseph in Wallowa, Oregon, to the gravesite of the Younger Chief Joseph in Nespelem, to the battlefield sites around Idaho and Montana.”
In 2005, when a 16-year-old took 10 lives on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, the federal government called on JoAnn to help for what ultimately became Native Aspirations, a national project to prevent youth violence, bullying and suicide. “What is amazing about this process is it involves youth,” says Iris PrettyPaint, the project director. “It’s not the adults telling youth what they want them to do, it’s the youth participating and being able to help the communities plan what they need.”
AND THE REST
BACK AT THE RESTAURANT in SeaTac, JoAnn glances at the Māori tattoo on her left arm and tells of her plans to live out her twilight years in Kamiah, at the old gray home that once belonged to great-grandmother Hattie Axtell. Asked how she would like to be remembered, she pauses for a moment. Finally, she responds: “As an old Nez Perce lady.”
SEVEN SIBLINGS, SEVEN STORIES
1. While JoAnn Kauffman may be the most socially active of seven remarkable Native siblings, all have made their mark in the world:
2. Before passing away in 1990, John—the only boy and the eldest of the Kauffman clan—was a noted playwright and theatre director. He created a Native American group called Red Earth and worked with theatrical venues in Seattle, San Francisco and Honolulu. He was, JoAnn remembers, “a good older brother who exposed us to a lot of wonderful things.”
3. Second-born Lilly has made her living in Indian education, in which she holds a master’s degree. She lives on the Nez Perce Reservation and has also served as an economic development planner there for some time, dedicated to improving tribal infrastructure.
4. After the birth of JoAnn, Hattie arrived. She began a broadcast career with college radio and then went to KING-5 news in Seattle. She eventually had a lengthy career in national television, working for all three major networks and coming to be known especially for Good Morning America. She retired after 22 years and, following the publication of her memoir Falling into Place, has done much motivational speaking to educational groups. “I speak. I write. I took up oil painting a couple of years ago.”
5. Carla is the fifth Kauffman child. After serving as general council chairman for the Nez Perce, and twice as an elected leader with its Tribal Executive Committee, she is currently working at the Indian Health Service on the Colville Reservation. A trainer and raiser of horses, she is a horse whisperer as well. She lives in Nespelem, Washington with her husband, Bill Timentwa, from the Joseph Band.
6. And then came Carlotta. Now retired in western Montana, she trod the boards with her brother John’s one-person play According to Coyote—a compilation of many coyote stories woven together into one coherent lesson and message. When he passed away, Carlotta began traveling to tribal communities throughout the country to perform this work.
7. The seventh and youngest Kauffman sibling is Claudia, who lives in Kent, Washington and works for the Muckleshoot Tribe. Currently she is running for a position on the Seattle Port Commission; a primary election will be held in early August. Her goal is to bring more of a grassroots, environmentally concerned dimension to the activities of the Port.
Reprinted by permission of Legacy Washington and the Office of the Washington Secretary of State.