December 14, 2006
AUNTIE VI: Even if you didn't know her -- and more's the pity if you didn't, from what we hear -- you might have noted the passing of "Auntie Vi" last week if you were reading the obituary pages in the local dailies. You might have sat up straighter in your chair, propelled by wonder -- and then chuckled. And that's because of two striking, seemingly incongruous facts included in the write-up about "Auntie," as her closest family members called her: "She was a fluent speaker, teacher and strong advocate of the Karuk language," and she "was preceded in death by Elvis" (as well as numerous relatives). Karuk? Elvis?
Now, granted, there's a whole lot more about Auntie Vi than a mere obituary, no matter how wonderfully scribed by her great-nephew, Andre Cramblit, can transmit. But those two particularly distinct characteristics brilliantly encapsulate her spirit, which embraced tradition and innovation all at once.
Violet Ruth "Vasihtínihich" Super (nee Johnny) was born on Dec. 3, 1917, on her family's Indian Allotment, Butler Flat, in Siskiyou County. The Johnny family came from the villages of Katimiin, Ike's and Amikiyaarem. She was full-blooded Karuk and a life-long resident of the Klamath and Salmon rivers country. And, at the time of her death (as a result of a house fire on Nov. 29 in Orleans), she was one of only about a dozen elders left of her generation -- the last generation to grow up speaking Karuk as its first language, said Cramblit on Monday. Cramblit and his brothers were raised mostly in Oregon, but they spent their summers and holidays living with their auntie -- their mom wanted them to be exposed to their culture. But even so, said Cramblit, their auntie didn't actively try to teach them Karuk. That came much, much later.
"When I was growing up, she liked to visit her elders and go to ceremonies," Cramblit recalled. "And they only spoke Karuk. So we heard it. But she never taught us the language, because, at that time, it wasn't necessarily good to be Indian." In the '50s and '60s, speaking English was the route to "fitting in" with the rest of society. "After we went to college, and then came back, we wanted to learn the language. And she was frustrated: Why did we want to learn it? Why didn't we already know it? And we said, `Auntie, we were never taught it.'"
Slowly, haltingly, Auntie and her great-nephews studied together -- she had to learn how to teach the language she was born into, and they had to help her so they could learn it. She had been legally blind since she 7 years old, and had never learned to read or write. "We started doing it -- sitting down, identifying words, having conversations." A master-apprentice program, sponsored by Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, helped, in which a student could learn one-on-one with an elder. By the early 1990s, Auntie Vi was formally teaching Karuk, and she helped found the Karuk Tribe's Karuk Language Restoration Committee in 1988. Now, says Cramblit, a new generation of Karuk-first speakers is emerging. "My niece is raising her kids speaking strictly Karuk at home," in Orleans, he said. They're generally growing up multilingual, learning Karuk at home, and English and sometimes another tribe's language at school.
In 1996, Auntie Vi had eye surgery that restored some of her vision for a time. Suddenly, the word "purple" had meaning. "She started wearing purple all the time after that," said Cramblit.
Which, in a way, brings us to Elvis. Cramblit wrote in his tribute to her that Auntie was "always young at heart." And she loved -- loved -- Elvis. So much so that she appeared in a book about people's personal shrines. "Hers was called The Elvis Shrine," said Cramblit. "She was the easiest person to buy a gift for: Elvis phones and action figures, a clock, posters, T-shirts. Anything Elvis, she liked it. I remember, when I was 10, she went to an Elvis concert in Portland. She had the Rock `n' Roll spirit. She was one of the first people to have a Victrola on the Salmon River, even though we had no electricity or running water. She also had a battery-operated turntable."
In his tribute, Cramblit wrote: "úum vúra yéeshiip afyiiv, auntie. koovúra yav pookúuphiti. páy nanu ávahkam. úum káru mu'áraaras vúra a' kunikrîi. váa káan úumak vúra yav pookúuphitiheesh. koovúra tanusáyriihva." Which means: "auntie was a true best friend. she did good things. now she is up above. and she is just up there alive and living with her family. and when she gets there, she do more good things again. we will all be lonesome for her."
One can just picture her up there, now, putting a shiny vinyl disc on the turntable -- perhaps Elvis' "Are you lonesome tonight?" -- and crooning along, before heading off to the house of one of her older relatives to chatter away in Karuk.
-- Heidi Walters
THE GOOD STUFF: 'Tis the season for giant boxes marked "toy, food, and clothing donations" to be parked in the foyer of my office building. I walk past this box every morning when I arrive, when I go out for lunch and then again when I leave at night. That box has been sitting there for two weeks just waiting to be filled, and yet I walk by without a glance, too busy to pay any attention to something that matters.
Last weekend, however, when I began packing for my upcoming move, I remembered the box and made a suggestion to my husband. "When we clean out the cupboards, let's donate all the food we haven't used and give it to charity." Brilliant, I thought. I will have done my good deed for the season.
"Okay," he agreed, eyeing the can of SpaghettiO's we have both refused to eat for the last year. "I'm sure we'll have plenty."
To further my campaign to be the next Mother Teresa, I pointed out that my family visits the mall every year and always picks out a few gifts for the Salvation Army children. We are, after all, very wonderful people who always do such generous things.
My husband laughed, his big wooden spoon hovering above the pot of stew made from cow tails. "Well my family really appreciated your family's generosity," he said, stirring his cow-tail concoction. "I especially liked those heavy-duty, pig-skin boots your family gave me in high school, which I wore every day for about five years." He continued to stir and smile, and I swallowed his comment with shock. "I loved those boots, man. They were exactly one size too big, which meant I could wear two pairs of socks, and the laces were made of leather. They slid through my fingers like spaghetti every time they got wet."
"You were one of those kids?" I asked with horror. "Weren't you embarrassed to go to the Salvation Army to pick up your gifts?"
Because my husband knows I am from a different planet, and because we celebrate this on a daily basis, he withheld the urge to chuck his hot, wooden spoon at me and answered the question. "When you're a kid and you already know you're poor, and you've been teased a million times about it already, I guess the excitement of knowing that you'll definitely be getting a Christmas present overrides any feelings of embarrassment."
"I'd be humiliated." (Did I say that out loud?)
"Yeah, but I loved those boots," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "They were really nice."
My husband tells me stories about going to the Food Bank and leaving with disappointment, because the "good stuff" was already taken. But, sometimes, there was "good stuff," and his family would end up with a fresh salmon or a tasty ham. He compares the humiliation of using food stamps in grocery stores to buying condoms at the local drug store, and says that many times, he and his friend would hide the stamps and use their pocket change to buy food instead, so no one would find out.
This year, my husband wants to buy presents for all the children on the Salvation Army list, even though we're pretty much broke ourselves. "We gotta buy good presents, though," he said, staring into space, his stew about to boil over the edges of the pot. "They have to be nice."
Because all he can think about, as Christmas approaches, are those sweet, pig-skin boots that he wore every day for five years.
-- Reagan Henderson
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