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Vi Hilbert built bridges of understanding, healing with her culture

LA CONNER, Wash. – Vi Hilbert’s family-submitted obituary was humble, just like her, describing her simply as a story-teller and language teacher.

But she was so much more.

Hilbert, whose Skagit name was taq se blu, devoted her adult life to the preservation of Coast Salish culture and the Lushootseed language – a language she once described as “the most beautiful language in the world.”

She founded the Lushootseed Research Center in Seattle and taught at the University of Washington and at Evergreen State College. She co-wrote Lushootseed dictionaries and grammars, and published books of place names, stories and teachings related to her native region, Puget Sound. She was named a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989, and received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton, in 1994.

She recorded albums of songs and stories with Coast Salish storyteller Johnny Moses, and commissioned a symphony, titled “The Healing Heart of the First People of this Land,” which was performed in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall in May 2006. The composition was inspired by the melody and rhythm of traditional songs and included spoken words in Lushootseed.

She was the subject of a documentary in 1995, “Traditions of the Heart.” She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Washington.

Because of her work, generations yet unborn will speak the language their ancestors spoke and will have a richer understanding of their culture.
“She had the most beautiful voice and it came from the most beautiful heart,” former Lummi chairman Darrell Hillaire said.

Hilbert passed away Dec. 19 in her home in La Conner. She was 90. A wake was scheduled Dec. 26 and the funeral service was scheduled Dec. 27, both in the Upper Skagit Gym.

She was born to Charlie and Louise Anderson July 24, 1918 near Lyman, Wash., on the Upper Skagit River. Her father was a fisherman, a logger and a canoe carver whose canoe, the Question Mark, is housed in the Smithsonian. She grew up listening to her parents speak Lushootseed.

She was the only child of eight to survive, a fact that instilled in her a sense that her life had a purpose. Her parents encouraged her education, and she attended Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Salem, Ore., and then transferred to Franklin High School near Portland, working as a domestic to support herself.

“They wanted her to be safe,” Hilbert’s daughter, Lois Schluter, said. “They thought if she got away from here and learned about the world of the majority culture here, she could learn the skills she’d need to survive in that world.”

Those skills would be put to use.

In 1936, she married Percy Woodcock and they lived in Taholah, on the Quinault reservation. There, she ran a cafe. Her first child, Denny, was born in 1937; her daughter, Lois, was born in 1938.

After Denny died of meningitis in 1940, Vi and Percy Woodcock separated and Vi moved to Nooksack to live with her parents. There, she worked in a pear cannery in Everson and then in a café in Bellingham.

She married Bob Coy in 1942 at Tulalip; their son, Ron, was born in 1943. When that marriage ended in divorce, she worked as a stock clerk in a grocery store, then as a package wrapper in a Danish cookie bakery, to support her children. She trained to do electrical welding and became a “Rosie the Riveter” at Todd’s Pacific Shipyards during the war. When the war ended, she waited tables at a Chinese restaurant in south Tacoma.

She married Don Hilbert in 1945 and they lived in south Seattle until 2003, when they moved to Bow, in the heart of Skagit country. She worked in a food wagon at Boeing and took classes to become a secretary at Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle. She later went to beauty school and opened a beauty salon in her home.

In 1967, she met Dr. Thom Hess, a linguist who was collecting information on the Lushootseed language. He introduced her to the International Phonetic Alphabet, a set of symbols intended as a universal system for transcribing speech sounds.

“She seemed intrigued by the fact that there was a system for spelling the language which had a symbol for every sound, and she was definitely interested when I told her that she could learn to read and write it in a month or less (which she later did),” Hess told author Janet Yoder in the book, “Writings about Vi Hilbert by Her Friends.”

Hess and Hilbert worked together recording stories and producing dictionaries, grammars and books of place names, stories and teachings.

Hilbert saw the writing of the Lushootseed language, songs and stories – since time immemorial handed down orally – as vital to the survival of her culture. She also saw it as a way to share Coast Salish teachings on compassion and respect. She believed sharing would build bridges of understanding between cultures and would bring healing to a hurting world. The Coast Salish symphony she commissioned, for example, incorporated melodies and rhythms from songs by Sealth, the famed leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish; her relative, Patuse, a healer. The symphony included words spoken in Lushootseed, “Honor the spirit. Know the sacred. It will help you.”

“It had to be written, it had to be recorded,” Schluter said of her mother’s philosophy about her work. “All living things have a spirit. If we live our lives with compassion, we wouldn’t be killing each other.”

Petite at 5 feet, 2 inches, Hilbert could seem larger than life in her unwavering pursuit of what was right. She preferred “First Peoples” to “Indians,” saying that the former was an accurate description of the original inhabitants of this land. After she raised money to support the commissioning of her symphony, she said she succeeded “because I’m a bossy old lady.”

But she was also gracious, surrounded by admirers who were drawn to her by her compassion, her encouraging words and her sense of social justice. “She treated everybody the same and shared with everybody,” Samish Chairman Tom Wooten said. “She treated everybody fairly and honorably.”

Remembrances have come to the family from near and far; Schluter said she has had calls and e-mails from as far away as New York and Puerto Rico.

Sue Charles, a Lower Elwha Klallam journalist, called Hilbert “a true model of strength, gentleness, humility and grace.”

“We remember her fondly as an educator, storyteller, historian, preserver of the language and culture, honored elder and friend,” Charles wrote in an e-mail. “She will be greatly missed in all the tribal communities. We love and admire Vi, and that could never change. Our prayers go out for her family and all our people during this time of loss.”

“We will miss you. Thank you for all that you have taught us and shared with us about our ancestors,” Laurie Cepa, Tulalip, wrote in an Online guest book hosted by Hawthorne Funeral Home in Mount Vernon. “Your words and translations will always be of great value in my heart. You have taught me things about my relatives that I would have never known if it were not for you. My hands go up to you.”

Hilbert was preceded in death by her parents, Louise Jimmy and Charlie Anderson; her husband, Henry Don Hilbert; her sons, Denny Woodcock and Ron Hilbert-Coy.

She is survived by her daughter, Lois Schluter and her husband, Walter; grandson, Jay Samson and his wife, Bedelia; granddaughter, Jill La Pointe and her husband, John; great-grandchildren, Sasha, Beau, Shain and Stacy La Pointe, Jermaine Wade, Damas and Lillian Samson; great-great-grandchildren, Oryian, Skyler and Shawn La Pointe. She is also survived by countless friends, colleagues and adopted relations.

– Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at

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