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Masks of past pass on culture with Lelooska Foundation festivities

‘Winter Ceremonials’ shares tradition

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
7 Photos
Kolus is a thunderbird whose mask opens to reveal an ancestor.
Kolus is a thunderbird whose mask opens to reveal an ancestor. Photo Gallery

ARIEL — Mariah Stoll-Smith Reese was nearing graduation from Western Washington University in 1996 when she learned that her uncle didn’t have long to live. It was January, the start of the term, but she ran home and cranked up the tape recorder in order to document her uncle’s stories and songs — as well as his detailed instructions to his brother about how to keep vital cultural traditions alive. How to tell the stories and sing the songs. How to connect with audiences who have lots to learn.

“Those needed to be recorded. A lot of teaching, a lot of learning. For me, a lot of listening,” Stoll-Smith Reese said.

Her uncle was Chief Lelooska, a renowned wood sculptor and cultural touchstone; her father is Chief Tsungani, who became chief and storyteller for the Lelooska family after his brother died. And Stoll-Smith Reese’s intimate and unexpected documentary work became a vital part of her mission in life.

Her self-designed college major was Native American cultural preservation; she went on to become executive director of the Lelooska Foundation and Cultural Center. That’s a network of buildings, yards up the road from Merwin Dam, including a museum, administrative offices and a one-quarter-sized replica of a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial house.

That house may be significantly smaller than the old houses would have been, she said, but its long wooden benches still accommodate an audience of 230. All are invited to sample the cultural excitement on three Saturday nights in October and November, as the extended Lelooska family stage their annual “Winter Ceremonial” living history program.

If You Go

What: Living history performances by Chief Tsungani and the Lelooska Family dancers.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Nov. 4, Nov. 25. (Museum and grounds open at 5:30 p.m.)

Where: 165 Merwin Village Road, Ariel (15 minutes east of downtown Woodland on state Highway 503).

Admission: $12; $8 for children 12 and under. Reservations necessary.

On the web:

Phone: 360-225-9522

• Special needs/access: All abilities can be accommodated, but please call ahead to plan. 

Did You Know?

Lelooska is not the name of a tribe. The name, which means “he who cuts against wood with a knife or whittling boy,” was given to Don Smith at age 12 by the Nez Perce after he had carved them a figure of Chief Joseph.  Smith and his family were later adopted into the Kwakwaka’wakw (prounounced “Kwak-wak-ya-wak”) nation by Chief James Aul Sewide.  The Kwakwaka’wakw currently consists of around 5,500 people who mostly live in and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

You’ll experience the very songs, dances and stories that passed down through the family; you’ll share a sense of wonder, beauty and strangeness as gorgeous, elaborate, handmade masks and costumes — many of them immense and “articulated” with moving mouths, transforming faces and other startling changes — are inhabited by members of the Lelooska family.

There are a couple of points to these performances, Stoll-Smith Reese said. Mainly it’s to maintain the cultural heritage of the Lelooska family and the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, of course; but it’s also to get people familiar with the very idea of exploring and embracing different cultures, she said.

This big world contains many different peoples, she said. After you’ve experienced a Lelooska performance, “maybe the next time you’re introduced to a new culture it won’t seem so scary or foreign,” she said. “There’s just so much to learn.”

And then there’s the basic exposure to nature, she added. Approximately 10,000 schoolchildren visit Lelooska and its thickly forested setting each year for daytime presentations, she said; you’d be surprised how many of them “have never seen fire (like in the ceremonial house’s fire pit), have never gone camping, never even seen a big tree,” she said.

To them, Native Americans are legends — or maybe bad guys in their grandparents’ John Wayne movies. It’s not uncommon for Stoll-Smith Reese to field the innocent question: “Are there still real Native Americans?”

Artistic family

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the governments of Canada and the United States did their best to undermine indigenous cultures in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to the re-education of children (and adults) in now-notorious “Indian schools,” those efforts also included the imprisonment of leaders, the confiscation of sacred masks and costumes and the banning of community-building ceremonies known as potlatches.

These were community-wide ceremonies that lasted days at a time and aimed not just to feast and celebrate with food, song and dance, but also to build community bonds in myriad other ways, Reese said: by marking special occasions and passages, by redistributing wealth, by acknowledging loyalties and bonds — even by officially, publicly delineating what property belonged to whom. Even rivals might be invited; the potlatch could serve as a temporary respite from conflict.

Disrupting these key cultural events was devastating, Stoll-Smith Reese said, but not fatal. Don Smith, a boy of mixed Cherokee heritage, seemed destined from an early age to become a great artist and storyteller; he spent his youth learning carving and tale-telling from his elders and grandfather and went on to become a key figure in the renaissance of Pacific Northwest Indian art. He was given the name Lelooska by the Nez Perce when still a boy; later on, his artistry brought him to the attention of the highly respected Chief James Aul Sewide, who adopted him and his family into the Kwakwaka’wakw nation.

As a scholar and educator, he also studied Indian languages and cultures across the continent. “He transcended the normal confines of any single tribe,” his biography on the foundation website says. “His life was devoted to the quest for knowledge.” Plus, he was reportedly charming and broad-minded, which made him a winner when interviewing elders and engaging audiences.

“Our grandfather advised us to take the best of both worlds — the Indian’s and the non-Indian’s — and combine them so that they would complement and enrich each other,” Lelooska is quoted on the foundation website. “This we have done, but, always, our Indianness is the focus of our lives.”

Many members of the extended Lelooska family (Don Smith himself didn’t marry and had no descendants) learned wood carving and mask making from him; the result, Stoll-Smith Reese said, was a whole family of artists who proudly pursued Lelooska’s traditions — and, starting in the early 1960s, amassed on and around this “family compound” in Ariel. There’s a family art gallery on-site, but in recent years it hasn’t been open regularly.

Potlatch vs. performance

The living history performances offered annually by the Lelooska family and their friends and fans — about a dozen people in all, including Stoll-Smith Reese’s two children, Isaac and Mara, her husband Eric, her sister Lottie, and her father Tsungani Fearon Smith, aka Chief Tsungani, who is the principal storyteller now — are modeled on the ceremonial singing, dancing and storytelling that went on during traditional potlatches, Stoll-Smith Reese said. A fire is kept alive in the center of the room throughout. Evening shows last just under two hours, with one quick break to stretch your legs, she said, but don’t expect to sneak off to the concession stand to restock your Twizzlers.

“This is not going to the movies,” she said. “Yes, it’s a bit smoky from the fire.”

But although these events are performances — not actual potlatches — the performers take their mission seriously, she added. “When you put on the mask, you transform,” she said. “This is not a dress-up game. It’s not Halloween.”

Stoll-Smith Reese views her work as executive director of the Lelooska Foundation equally seriously. It used to be a totally volunteer gig, she said, but eventually she started winning modest grants and other support for the place, which now struggles along on a budget of about $100,000 a year. That’s still not nearly enough to do everything the Lelooska Foundation ought to do, she said: deliver cultural programming as well as create appropriate display and storage space for the myriad artworks and artifacts that keep finding their way here from all around the nation.

Volunteerism and support from both extended family and local community have been crucial to the effort, Stoll-Smith Reese said, but that always comes and goes. Meanwhile she and her father — and her late mother, her sister, and her husband and children — have provided much of the continuity over the last 20 years.

“I happen to love this,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with what our family did. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon. I was planning more time with my uncle.”