Hilbert, Vi (1918-2008)

  • By Janet Yoder
  • Posted 11/29/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7130
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Vi Hilbert, a member of the Upper Skagit tribe, had as her life's work to preserve the Lushootseed (Puget Salish) language and culture. Vi learned Lushootseed (the language of Chief Seattle) as a child, listening to her parents. This recollected knowledge allowed her to help the linguist Thomas Hess transcribe and translate early Lushootseed recordings of elders, including Vi’s folks. With delight, Vi quickly learned to read and write this oral language. She went on to teach the Lushootseed language and literature (traditional stories) at the University of Washington. She co-wrote Lushootseed grammars and dictionaries, and published books of stories, teachings, and place names. Vi taught hundreds of students, inspiring a few to become Lushootseed teachers and others to support and further her work. She generously shared Lushootseed language, stories, and traditions with organizations such as the Burke Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, United Indians of All Tribes, Tillicum Village, Seattle Storytellers Guild, and the National Storytelling Association. Vi brings out Lushootseed with every audience she addressed, especially traditional gatherings, so that this ancient language can be heard throughout Puget Sound, where it has been spoken for centuries. Vi Hilbert passed away at her home in LaConner on the morning of December 19, 2008.

A Skagit River Childhood

Vi Anderson was born on July 24, 1918, near Lyman, Washington, on the Upper Skagit River. Her father, Charlie Anderson, fished and logged along its reaches. He was a canoe maker and led canoe-racing teams to victory. His canoe, the Question Mark, is housed in the Smithsonian Museum Archive. Vi’s mother, Louise Anderson, was vivacious, dramatic, and generous. Vi received the traditional name (shown at the right) from her grandmother.

Vi’s folks moved up and down the river in search of work. They lived at Lyman, Birdsview, Concrete, Marblemount, and little places in between. Vi reports, “Each place that we lived, my mother and dad spoke of the people who had lived here before and the things they left for us to remember about each place. I felt enriched living in so many places” (Hilbert). Vi’s mother had the talent of being able to make a home anywhere.

As an only child, Vi had ample opportunity to listen to her parents speak Lushootseed to each other, and also to their friends. Vi’s folks often spoke “Indian English” to her, but Lushootseed in her presence. “I had to coax them to speak Lushootseed to me,” Vi reports. “Their Lushootseed was so much more beautiful, in my estimation.” When Vi spoke back to them in Lushootseed it made them laugh, but she also knew that it pleased them greatly to know their daughter was learning their language. “So I continued to try to talk Lushootseed to them” (Hilbert).

Getting an Education

Because her folks moved so often in search of work, Vi attended 15 different schools. “It was a very traumatic time for me, to have to be pulled out of one school and leave a group of people I had begun to get acquainted with, to go to a new school to be tested to see whether I was going to be accepted or not. Kids are mean” (Hilbert).

While her parents went to Yakima to pick apples and other fruit, Vi attended the boarding school at Tulalip. In high school, she chose to attend the Chemawa Indian Boarding School near Salem, Oregon. From there, she transferred to Franklin High School in Portland, in search of the best education she could get, working as a domestic to support herself.

Marriages, Children, Jobs

Vi married Percy Woodcock in 1936 and they lived at Taholah, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. Her first child, Denny was born in 1937, and her daughter, Lois, in 1938. After Denny died of meningitis in 1940, Vi and Percy Woodcock separated and Vi moved to Nooksak (near Bellingham, Washington), to live with her parents.

Vi married Bob Coy in 1942 at Tulalip (near Marysville, Washington), and gave birth to her son Ron in 1943.

Vi married Don Hilbert in 1945. They lived in a house they built in south Seattle until 2003, when they moved to Bow, Washington, in Skagit County.

Vi knew work: berry picking, ironing, housework, running a pool hall and café, processing pears in a cannery, as a stock clerk, a cookie wrapper for a Danish bakery, an electric welder at Todd’s Shipyards, waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant, cashiering at a food wagon at Boeing, as a secretary at Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, and as a hairdresser.

Finding Her Lushootseed Work

Vi’s wake-up call came in 1967. Linguist Thom Hess had been working on Lushootseed with the Nooksak elder Louise George for a number of years in her Seattle home. When they began work on a tape recording of Vi’s mother telling the Basket Ogress story, Mrs. George told Hess he should call Vi, who lived nearby and ran a hair salon in her home.

So Vi came to Louise George’s home to, as Hess put it, “look into this white kid who was writing down in Skagit [Lushootseed] one of her own mother’s stories” (Hess). Hess reported that Vi’s interest was caught, first by the fact that he could pronounce her traditional name correctly and second by the writing system.

“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). By the end of that session with Louise George, it was arranged that Vi would come again to our next meeting and that she would begin to learn to read and write Skagit” (Hess).

Teaching Lushootseed

Vi attended the Puget Salish (Lushootseed) class that Thom Hess taught at the University of Washington in 1972. As he recalls, “Vi sat in the front row and made it a success in several ways, the most important of which was by assuring the students that the words that white man was saying were indeed Skagit” (Hess). The following year, Hess arranged for Vi to teach the class. “She was reluctant in the beginning, but felt a strong sense of obligation to do it in memory of her people and for the need of native young people” (Hess).

So Vi converted her hair salon into the Lushootseed “Brain Room” and went to work. She and Thom wrote lesson plans for daily classes, a textbook, then a dictionary and the first Haboo book, traditional stories written down as they had been told. Vi used these materials in her 15 years of teaching at the University of Washington, followed by two years at Evergreen College as the Evans Chair scholar.

Transcribing and Translating

Vi worked over the course of years to transcribe in Lushootseed and then translate into English tape recordings made by Leon Metcalf. According to anthropologist Jay Miller, Metcalf had grown up partly among Tulalips and heard them speaking Lushootseed. As a high school music teacher in the early 1950s, Metcalf had possession of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He feared the loss of Lushootseed information as eloquent speakers grew close to the end of their lives. So with his own time and money, he traveled around Indian Country to seek out and record the most fluent speakers, with the greatest wealth of stories and memories.

Vi’s Aunt Susie Sampson Peter was one of these elders. On meeting Metcalf, Aunt Susie commented in Lushootseed, “What took him so long to get here?” Since she did not have electricity, that first session was recorded in another home. By the time Metcalf returned for the next session, Aunt Susie had electricity in her house and was ready to work. Years later, when the Metcalf tapes finally came into Vi’s hands, she too was ready to work.

“I listened to a few words, then stopped the tape and wrote those words down. If I didn’t understand something, I left a blank. Sometimes there were lots of blanks. Then I rewound and listened again, then again. Maybe I could fill in a blank” (Hilbert). Vi worked her way through the tapes, writing down in Lushootseed what she could, then translating into English. According to Hess, he and Vi went out in search of elders, like Dewey Mitchell, Martin Sampson, and Helen Ross, who could help her fill in the blanks and answer questions about grammar and shades of meaning.

As Hess described it:

“I do not believe anyone can fully appreciate what Vi has accomplished with those Metcalf tapes. First of all, there are lots of them. Secondly, very many of them are in poor quality so that they are difficult to hear -- sometimes well nigh impossible. Thirdly, the people recorded spoke sophisticated Lushootseed with lots of words unknown today. With all this Vi grappled indefatigably, listening over and over and over again. She scoured the entire region seeking out the best remaining speakers to listen to this and that passage in hopes that still more might be gleaned. No one else could have done this work and almost no one would have been willing to. Thanks to her Herculean efforts, much more history, grammar, lexicon and myth has been saved from oblivion than posterity had any right to expect. Only she knows at what effort this has been done” (Hess).

Vi describes this work as a gift: “switulis uyayus. Work that the Creator was wrapping around me. I was ordained to do this work. It was always there, waiting for me to do” (Hilbert).

Publishing and Speaking

Vi Hilbert always made the information she collected available to those who seek it. University of Washington Press published Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound and the two dictionaries.

In her urgency to have her work reach her people and others, she established Lushootseed Press and published much of the Metcalf material in bilingual form, including the books: Aunt Susie Sampson Peter and “Gram” Ruth Sehome Shelton. Lushootseed Press also published Haboo: Lushootseed Literature in English. Holding the long view, Vi hoped that future generations will be able to access Lushootseed language and cultural information through her publications and archive.

Early on, Vi insisted that she was not a storyteller. Instead, she sees herself as a channel for cultural information. When she is at a gathering and observes that a particular story needs to be heard, she will stand and tell that story. Her listeners hear a line first in Lushootseed, then in English. The lines alternate, weaving the words into a bilingual basket to carry the story. When invited to speak, Vi never plans ahead what she will say or what stories she will tell. She arrives early to listen to her audience and see whether they need to hear the exploits of Skunk, Mud Swallow, Mink, Coyote, Deer, Bear, Ant, or other animals. Even those who know her well can be surprised by what she chooses to share.

For Generations to Come

Through her years of work, Vi collected, transcribed, translated, and documented materials that include: the Leon Metcalf Collection (1950s), the Warren Snyder and Willard Rhodes collections (1950s), Arthur Ballard’s collection (early 1900s), T. T. Waterman’s Puget Sound Geography (1910s), and the Thomas Hess material (1960s and 1970s). Work remains to be done to preserve this vast archive by transferring it to “a new canoe” of digital storage. Vi wanted to place copies of her archive at several locations, including the University of Washington, with the goal of making the material available to all who seek it, now and in the future.

Over the years, Vi inspired students, teachers, storytellers, filmmakers, artists, anthropologists, and linguists. She had a way of helping those around her find their own switulis uyayus -- work the Creator has wrapped around them. When speaking on Reservations, Vi often makes gifts to young people of books and recordings of traditional stories, as a way of lifting their spirits with the words of their ancestors. She would say it is Lushootseed that inspires people. But Vi is the one offering those rich teachings and setting an example of how to live by them.

A Living Treasure

Vi Hilbert was named a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989. She received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton, in 1994. Vi’s life and work are featured in the television documentary, Huchoosedah: Traditions of the Heart (KCTS/BBC Wales).

Vi served as advisor on a number of boards, including: the Seattle Art Museum, the Burke Museum, United Indians of All Tribes, and Tillicum Village. She has been honored by the Seattle Storytellers Guild and the National Storytelling Association.

Continuing the Work

Current teachers of Lushootseed include Zolmai “Zeke” Zahir (at the Muckleshoot Reservation and privately to adults and children in the Seattle area), David Cort and Tobey Langen (at the Tulalip Reservation), and Carmen Shone at Skagit Valley College and at the Upper Skagit and Swinomish reservations, where Lora Pennington also teaches.

Vi continued to organize and label her archive. She wanted to make it easy for future scholars to find what they were seeking. It was her hope that many will come to the archive, to “go in and dig out that information.” She continued to explore the deep philosophy of her culture as presented through its language and literature.

Vi Hilbert passed away on the morning of December 19, 2008, at her home in LaConner, surrounded by her family.


Dawn Bates, Thom Hess and Vi Hilbert, Lushootseed Dictionary (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Vi Hilbert, Aunt Susie Sampson Peter: The Wisdom of a Skagit Elder with an Introduction by Jay Miller (Seattle, Lushootseed Press, 1995), vii-x; Tom Hess, "That's the Way It Is," in Writings about Vi Hilbert by Her Friends ed. by Janet Yoder (Seattle: Lushootseed Press, 1992), p. 25-27; Janet Yoder interview of Vi Hilbert, February 6, 2004, Bow, Washington, tape recording and transcription in possession of Janet Yoder, Seattle, Washington; Janet Yoder interview of Vi Hilbert, September 11, 2004 at Bow, Washington, tape recording and handwritten transcription in possession of Janet Yoder, Seattle, Washington; "Award Recipients" Governor's Heritage Awards Website (http://www.arts.wa.gov/progFA/heritageAwd/ gov_award_recipients.html).

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