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Umatilla tradition alive

PORTLAND, Ore. - Umatilla religious leader, Armand Minthorn raised his arm,
and the blue satin ribbons on his ribbon shirt caught the overhead lights.
His voice was strong and low and heavy with the weight of tradition, and it
filled the longhouse.

"I always talk about fading away," Minthorn intoned. "Our Indian values.
Our land. Our Indian people." He walked around Kathryn Jones Brigham and
her grandchildren, his moccasins tracking silently across the modern
flooring of the building tribal members share for ceremonial purposes. "But
today we're holding on - we're holding on the best we can. And these young
ones - these young ones have to realize how important their names are.
These young ones have to realize they need to be proud of their names. They
need to be proud of who they are."

Brigham lived much of her married life on the Columbia River where she and
her husband Robert fished for salmon while raising their three daughters.
During those years Kat Brigham also rose to prominence in tribal affairs
related to fishing. More recently with their girls raised and having
families of their own, the Brighams moved back home to the reservation.
Back from the river, Kat has expanded her leadership scope by winning a
position on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation's
governing body, the Board of Trustees. That she has political acumen is
well established. What's new is the opportunity she now has to become move
involved in her culture and tradition.

"My mother raised us Presbyterian," Brigham said. "She didn't want us to
have the suffer from discrimination the way she did. So I grew up without
much understanding of our tribal ways. It's only been more recently since
Robert and I have come back home that I've been trying to learn."

Tribal member Martha Franklin came by the Brigham's the evening before the
naming to drop off some things for the give-away bundles. "I always felt
like Kat could give more to the tribe if she wanted to work that way,"
Franklin said. "Now that she's back, she's learning to cook and bead and
make baskets for gathering roots."

The night before the ceremony was a busy time at the Brigham house,
although Robert was the one that did most of the cooking, filling jelly
jars with the deep purple huckleberry juice. Kat was back in her sewing
room putting the finishing touches on the leggings for her grandson and
pinning homemade bias tape to the wingdresses her granddaughters would
wear. The tiny sewing machine light shone on the green calico fabric, and
the presser foot clattered as it moved over the straight pins. "I remember
telling my mother I didn't like making homemade bias, and here I am,"
Brigham said, laughing. "I bet she's smiling."

In the living room the Brigham's daughter, Charlie her long hair cascading
around her shoulders, was fringing the last of the shawls. Another
daughter, Terrie, looking rez cool in shades, a navy blue bandana, and
running pants, advised her father on the nuances of jelly making. And
granddaughter Jordyn, who will wait until she's 18 for her adult Indian
name, measures off more fringes for her auntie. Kat comes out and shows
Jordyn the technique. "Hold the end on this nail and then just wind back
and forth," Kat said, demonstrating how to wrap the stretchy silver cording
just so around two nails pounded into opposite ends of a board. Eyes on the
family's list of things to get done, Robert didn't miss a beat. "Now, pull
it as tight as you can," he said with a sly smile.

The jokes may have made the rounds that night at the house, but the next
day all was decorum. Their pickup full of provisions that were a year in
the gathering and making, the Brighams drove to the long-house early in the
day. Blue skies of eastern Oregon were laden with giant spring thunderheads
and bits of fluff from cottonwood trees edging the Umatilla River floated
in the breeze. From inside the longhouse came the songs of the drummers and
singers.

Women and children sat along the south side, men on the north, while the
family joined mothers of the children - Charlie, Terrie, and Kim - in a
long row at the head of the room. It was a world of bear claw necklaces and
pink shell earrings and Pendleton vests and fringed shawls and red
headscarves shot with brilliant gold threads. In the center of the floor on
two huge blue tarps, were stacks of gifts the family brought for the
give-away - jars of home-canned salmon and Robert's huckleberry jelly,
sweat bath towels, toys, yardage, vests, beaded necklaces and barrettes and
bracelets, more shawls and blankets, and enough household items to stock a
long row of shelves at any good trading post.

Thick, shoulder length hair parted, tied and braided with fur strips that
hung to her waist, Kathryn Jones Brigham moved among three of her
grandchildren in her wingdress and moccasins alongside Kathleen Gordon who
spoke for the family on the girls' names. "And this one here is the
grandmother on the woman's side," said Armand Minthorn.

The young ones were stationed like teepees. The little boy, 5-year-old
Brigham under several Pendleton blankets. The girls, Tiona, 19 and
Peighton, 4, each draped in three silky shawls with long fringes. The
children, their faces still, stood motionless in their moccasins for almost
two hours. First Brigham and then Tiona and Peighton accepted the
congratulations of family and friends who stepped up to shake their hands
and offer some words on behalf of their new name. In return Kat helped her
grandchildren gift those who spoke with first the blankets and shawls the
youths wore and finally the very clothes on their backs. Grandma, of
course, had a second set of finery for the children to put on. A new set of
clothes to go with their new Indian names.

The proceeding took place at one end of the longhouse. On the other end,
was a seven-foot high salmon carved from dark wood, tail fan mounted on a
pedestal, nose pointed to skyward. Homage to the salmon. Clearly that's
what has marked Kat Brigham's life, and thus it was fitting that her
grandchildren should take their Indian names facing down the long-house
toward the Columbia River's great fish.

Salmon, of course, was the centerpiece of the meal following the naming.
The smell of pink fish roasting in the kitchen grew stronger as the morning
progressed. After all the gifts mounded in the center of the room were
dispersed, and the children in their new outfits, led a circle dance into
which all joined in around the longhouse, the singers abandoned the large
drum in the center of the room for six hand-held circle drums at the head
table. To the beat of a celebratory chant, processions of servers brought
the feast out.

One hundred and twenty witnessed from long rows, chairs pushed back a yard
from the tables to make room for those bearing the food. First water, then
salmon and venison and huckleberries and roots placed in precise order at
regular intervals down the long tables. The women served the women's food -
berries and roots. The men served the men's foods - the deer and elk meat
and salmon and water, although they didn't quite have the confidence they
might have, had they been out hunting.

One group of male servers halted at the end of one row, uncertain over
which way to turn. The woman bringing up the rear, red-flowered head scarf
tied low over her forehead, stage whispered, "go that way!"

The man in the lead rolled his eyes back at his buddies. "Watch out she's
ordering us around," he said. "She's saying 'Keep marching!'"

The joking around was like bookends on the naming ceremony, Robert on the
one hand at home the night before, the men serving the food on the other.
Indian sense of humor, rarely missing a trick, chiming in right on time. No
wonder the kids want to get their Indian names.

And perhaps that's also why the Umatilla tradition and culture hasn't faded
away. Jokes that ease what otherwise might be awkward or embarrassing
moments, just keep coming. Jokes knitting family and friends together with
bonds so kind and loving no one would want to break them. Kindness and love
- perhaps that's why Kat Brigham has come back from the river home and seen
to it that her grandchildren had their naming ceremony.