RIDGEFIELD — It’s a common misconception, according to Pat Courtney Gold. People today think of the Northwest’s American Indian tribes, and assume the women historically played a secondary role.
On Sunday, Gold painted a very different picture. She described native women as decision makers in tribal councils, property owners, leaders, elders, storytellers and traders — to name a few responsibilities.
“Women have always played a very important role in these cultures,” she said. “And they still do.”
Gold, a member of a Wasco tribe, gave the presentation Sunday at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. As Clark County residents paused to honor the mothers in their lives, about 50 people
crowded into the refuge’s Cathla-potle Plankhouse to learn about native women and mothers of the past.
Trade was the binding force that tied neighboring Columbia River tribes together, Gold said. Traders convened at historic gathering spots across the region, maintaining an expansive network long before Lewis and Clark and later settlers arrived. Women were key players in the system, Gold said. By some accounts, they were better traders than their male counterparts, she said.
One key commodity: Northwest salmon. Women also gutted and preserved the huge numbers that were caught at Celilo Falls — the historic fishing grounds on the Columbia River. The falls were inundated and disappeared when The Dalles Dam was built in the 1950s.
Plenty of local tribes were known for their craft work. Gold herself is a renowned fiber artist, and described the intricate baskets and clothing that native women made for their tribes with natural materials. The methods used hundreds of years ago are the same she uses today, she said.
That’s a topic of interest for Brenda Mitchell, who has tried her hand at basket making and brought a small project with her Sunday. She appreciated Gold’s expertise in the craft, and hoped to apply it to her own work.
Exploring native history helps keep it alive for younger generations, Mitchell said. Growing up with family in the Columbia River Gorge, the Vancouver resident counts herself among the relatively few today who has seen Celilo Falls in person.
“I think it’s very important,” Mitchell, 69, said of preserving history and culture. To many people, she added, “the Indian heritage sort of got lost.”
Sunday’s event kicked off this year’s “Second Sunday” series, which brings a presentation to the plankhouse each month. Exhibits on display this week offered a look at native woodworking, stone tools, furs and other items. The plankhouse is built to embody a Chinook structure as it would have existed centuries ago.
“It’s a real resource for the community,” said refuge volunteer Eugene Carroll. “Unfortunately, not enough people know about it.”
Gold made it clear her talk and her work are about more than looking backward. Tribal leaders are working to maintain their heritage in an ever-changing culture, she said.
“We want to honor our past,” Gold said, “and we want to make sure we honor our future for the next generation.”