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Walking in her grandmother's moccasins

Keeping culture alive

PORTLAND, Ore. - The women hang together. The men may hold the high-profile
positions, but the women hang together. They always have hung together in
the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation to preserve family,
tribe and homeland.

Thus, even though 12-year-old Jordyn Brigham lives in Tacoma, Wash., a good
five hours drive from the reservation, Jordyn's mother, Terrie Brigham, and
her grandmother, Kat Brigham, have kept the connection to home alive.

Jordyn walked along the banks of the Umatilla River behind her
grandparent's home, orange fleece jacket zipped up around shoulder length
brown hair. Birds twittered in the cottonwoods, and the stream was pewter
under cloudy skies. Soft breezes blew knee high grasses through which she
moved and water lapped along the shore.

"I spend summers with my grandma," said Jordyn. "That's when I learn about
my culture and language."

Not only does Jordyn learn about culture when she stays with her
grandmother who serves on the Umatilla board of trustees and has been
active in tribal affairs for more than 30 years, she also learns about
politics, fisheries policy and education. She also learns about the
sophistication it takes to negotiate and partner with the larger society
from a tribal population base of 2,450 and a land base of 172,000 acres
(down from 6.1 million acres the treaty tribe ceded to the federal
government in the mid-1900s).

Summers are the time when Jordyn Brigham walks in her grandmother's
moccasins.

The girl came down the hall from her grandma's sewing room carrying the
pair of shoes.

"These are my grandma's," she said. "I'm going to wear them if they fit."

And they did fit. Perfectly. So later that morning, when the family went to
the Umatilla tribe's longhouse for a naming ceremony for her cousins,
Jordyn wore them and a traditional cotton wingdress her grandmother made
for her.

Why wasn't Jordyn getting an Indian name like her cousins?

"I have mine from when I was a baby. It's She Who Holds On because when I
used to take my naps I had to hold onto my mother's or my grandma's ear so
I wouldn't cry and could go to sleep," she said. "So since I have that one
now, I'm going to wait until I'm 18 for my grown up name."

But she's not waiting until she's 18 to learn the language and be groomed
by her mother and grandmother. "Mildred Quempts and Cecilia Fredhill teach
us," Jordyn said. "It's mostly Umatilla, but since we're a confederated
group of Umatilla, Nez Perce and Walla Walla, we can learn all three
languages if we want."

And Jordyn does. "I want to learn how they are different from each other,"
she said. "Sometimes stuff is the same, though. Like 'how are you' -
Wayaninamwa - is the same in Umatilla and Walla Walla."

That Kat Brigham is proud of her granddaughter goes without saying. "Jordyn
did the welcome in the Umatilla language for the Affiliated Tribes of
Northwest Indians when we hosted the conference here a year or two ago,"
Brigham said. "So we were able to brag not only about her, but about our
language coming back. She did a really good job, and it was quite an
achievement."

Brigham also sees that Jordyn has opportunities to understand what goes on
behind the scenes. The Umatilla's new charter school opened in late August,
and Brigham included Jordyn in a July trip to Hawaii to visit a Native
Hawaiian school there, the Kanu O Ka' Aina Charter School.

"They put me in different classes, and in one we learned about scale and
orientation, and then we went outside to draw the campus. It was more
hands-on than regular public school, and also you didn't hear the put downs
and everything that you sometimes see in regular schools. The kids
respected each other, and the teachers did too," Jordyn said.

"And when we drew the buildings, I thought it was pretty cool because they
don't have electricity or running water, and they use those long,
container-like storm-center modules for classes. And there were a lot of
classes being held outside, too. And we want to try and do at our school -
our Nixyaawii Community School. And then there were all the language and
songs and chants. It was a cultural approach to education. It was just like
what my grandma and everybody back home hopes we can have."

Jordyn isn't all business though. While in Hawaii, they found some fabric
for a new jingle dress. "My other dress from when I was about 5 or 6 is
purple. My grandma made it," she said. "But it's too small now, so she's
going to sew me another one out of this new material. It's orange and black
and has Hawaiian designs on it."

Cotton wingdresses decorated with ribbons, though, is what Umatilla women
wear more often than full ceremonial gear. And Jordyn wore her green
wing-dress not only for her cousins' naming at the longhouse last spring,
but also for going to pick huckleberries with the women elders last year.

"We went up on the mountain," Jordyn said. "It was my first time going with
the elders. Some of them sang songs while they picked, but mainly what I
remember is that it was sort of hard because you're not supposed to eat the
berries while you're picking them. Also, you have to be careful not to
squish them or your fingers will get purple."

What does the future hold for a 12-year-old that's as involved with her
tribe as Jordyn Brigham is?

"I was thinking about coming to the Umatilla reservation to work when I get
through school and everything," said Jordyn. "I probably got the idea
because my grandma does it. And I know it's really important to do this
stuff to help out the tribe. It's important so our way of life won't die,
and the white man won't take more from us because they've already taken
enough."