Where the Language Lives
Vi Hilbert and the Gift of Lushootseed
The life and work of Upper Skagit tribal elder Vi Hilbert, who, more than anyone, revitalized her native language—Lushootseed—and shared it and the culture it expresses with the world.
In 1978, Seattle writer Janet Yoder took a Lushootseed class at the University of Washington. She was expecting to learn a little about this Salish language, and while Yoder did begin her Lushootseed lessons, what followed was lifelong learning and lots of adventures with Skagit tribal elder Vi Hilbert.
Drawn from thirty years of friendship and interviews, Where the Language Lives is a tribute to Vi Hilbert’s life, work, and her quest to preserve her native language. Vi carried her culture by the example of her life as she shared her beloved Lushootseed language through her teaching, speaking, storytelling, recording, and publishing. Without her diligent research and her transcription and translation of early recordings in Lushootseed, much of the language could have been lost to the world. Her historical preservation efforts were recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, presented by First Lady Hillary Clinton. She was also named a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989. Vi tasked Yoder with this collaborative book as a way of bearing witness, sometimes referring to Yoder as her “chronicler” and showing appreciation for the essays written during her life.
To celebrate the legacy of her dear friend and mentor, Yoder poured decades of Vi’s teachings and stories, along with her experience of knowing Vi, into these essays. Ultimately, Where the Language Lives is a tribute to the memory of a woman who profoundly impacted a culture, a history, and the longevity of a language.
Vi’s commitment to preserving Lushootseed contributed greatly to the renaissance of interest in Lushootseed and the growth of tribal language programs across western Washington.
These essays cover the cultural significance of canoes, baskets, blankets, the bone game, naming ceremonies, stories, and story places, as well as the ritual burning of Vi’s parents’ house in order to send it to them in the spirit world and how Vi came to commission the Healing Heart Symphony.
One foreword note is written by Vi Hilbert’s granddaughter, Jill La Pointe, and the second by Vi’s great-granddaughter Sasha La Pointe. Sasha, who carries Vi’s traditional name, is the author of the forthcoming memoir Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk (Counterpoint Press).