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Words from the wiser side of life: Louis Pitt on life and education as the great equalizer

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have all the usual education programs set up – and all the usual frustrations getting them to work as intended. Still, 57-year-old Louis Pitt, tribal director of government affairs, believes in the process. He believes in life.

The Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute people who make up the confederation live on a high bench of land east of the Cascade Mountains in north-central Oregon, a two-hour drive from Portland. This amalgamation of tribes has achieved notable success in marketing its forest products to the green community, and constructed a resort around the natural hot pools that has served the Indian community for centuries.

Still, removed from their Columbia River home by treaty, the group has found coming to terms with life in a remote part of the country challenging. Without a high-profile casino, finances are tight, and the usual societal problems plague many tribal members.

In Pitt’s day, he’s seen many variations on the theme. “I grew up in Hollywood here on the reservation. We had outhouses and pot-bellied stove, and I’m proud of the way I grew up. The street that came down by our house was called Vine, and the people who lived up there were in what we called Beverly Hills,” he said, laughing. “So we were all stars.”

The “stars” of those simpler days took care of each other, too. “Like my dad said, we were cash-poor. So we had an Indian social system,” Pitt explained. “Old Indians would bring food around. Of course the old folks got first shot, then the sickly, and then us too. Then there was always trading and bartering if you had extra flour and someone was out.

“In those days we either got ripped off by the local store or had to go to Prineville or The Dalles. So we tried to combine those longer trips to town with fishing and hunting. People just didn’t go to the beach, you know. They went out to get food.”

Pitt also remembers the immediate gratification that came after days in the late summer sun picking berries. “There was time to relax and enjoy reconnecting with family, but the main thing was going up to the mountains and stocking up on huckleberries,” he said with a smile. “And then we’d get gas money and go to Jantzen Beach in Portland – an amusement park that had a big roller coaster.”

Pitt came of age in the ’60s and spoke fondly of the era’s great music and its influence on society. Like most rockers, though, he too fell on hard times even though his hair is still properly long, tied back at the nape of his neck. “I don’t know how I ended up the way I did,” he said. “Life is life, and you got to decide it as you go along. Just figure it out as you go.

“I had to come back to the reservation when my dad died, you know – we’re such a small family. But lo and behold – I found a tribe, and the elders helped me get off alcohol and drugs. That was in 1973.”

Pitt has been there ever since, working in one area of tribal government or another and getting a hands-on education. “First I was in natural resources, and I just loved being outside and making money. I talked to the elders about how things worked and were connected, and how things come right back around to your own personal responsibility.”

These days, Pitt’s sense of personal responsibility has matured. “I’m still trying to figure out how to help the tribe here right now. The casino and not making our lands any worse – not doing anything stupid. We’re working on employment both on and off the rez, and, of course, education. It’s the great equalizer, that’s pretty clear. The question is how to do it.”