Words of Warm Springs woman reach the spirit world

By Lauren Dake
Warm Springs, Oregon (AP) 9-08

At daybreak, Neda Wesley stood at the edge of the grave.

She watched as her friend’s remains vanished under a blanket of dirt. Like countless other funerals, Wesley attended as a neighbor and community member. But the 70-year-old, fluent Sahaptin speaker served another purpose as well.

They call her an echo.

When the medicine people speak, Wesley translates their words into Sahaptin so they can be passed on to the creator. Wesley is glad she can send friends into the next world, the way they would want.

She spoke for her friend, MaryAnn Winishut-Meanus, 75, a well-respected elder of the tribe, a mother to many and a grandmother to more.

Wesley is the reservation’s last echo.

So who will speak for her?

It’s well past midnight when Wesley takes the floor in the longhouse, a community meeting place that sits on top of a hill, overlooking the reservation.

A small woman, with a crown of silver framing her young-looking face, she wears handmade buckskin moccasins, paired with white anklets that say USA in black letters.


The hundreds inside the longhouse – children, elderly, everyone – are still wide awake after more than 12 hours. The constant dancing, and periodic feasts of salmon, deer meat, berries and roots have kept the night feeling young.

In the middle of the floor is the body of Winishut-Meanus.

Wesley circles the woman’s body, holding a long wooden stick. People chant and sing, to heal and remember.

Although she is no longer with us, her spirit – her life – went to the creator, the medicine people say.

En chi chow ga ee wa tchana. Pun mee wa gish wit uttook na, Wesley translates.

Her words help carry on the medicine tradition.

“For her to speak it in our native language, is to tell the creator, we are still native,” said Brent Florendo, who grew up in Warm Springs and is the academic program coordinator for Native American Studies at Southern Oregon University.

“That’s the way the creator always heard us speak,” he said.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.

At one time, the echo translated the medicine people’s words into English, so the audience could understand.

Now, many of the medicine people cannot speak fluently in Sahaptin.

Traditions have been altered to fit the two worlds – modern and traditional – that many American Indians are straddling.

When Florendo, now 51, was a boy, children weren’t allowed in the longhouse. Now, the young are encouraged to come and learn.

Defining the medicine tradition is difficult. Each tribe and every region sees it a bit differently, Florendo said.

And historically, the practices have been passed on orally, making a concrete definition complicated.

“Not many people have been able to understand it,” said Virginia Beavert, an 86-year-old Yakama elder who teaches Sahaptin at the University of Oregon.

Florendo said it’s a very personal belief system that has been around for ages.

“It means, I’m a spiritual person, I believe in something greater than myself,” he said. “We believe there is a creator, and that’s how it manifested for us before we met the white people.”

The spirituality is a way to show respect for the earth and for each other. But more than that, it is a way to hold on to the traditional ways that make the tribes who they are.

The Warm Springs Reservation is home to three tribes: Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute.

Not everybody believes in the practices of the medicine society, and it’s a belief system that does not prevent one from practicing other religions. Wesley is also a Presbyterian and admits to grooving to the gospel music at the evangelical church.

“You don’t have your language, your customs, your culture, you don’t have your tribe.”

Throughout the night, thoughts of the history, culture, kindness and knowledge being buried along with Winishut-Meanus are voiced.

Her body, wrapped in several thick blankets, stays in the middle of the floor until it is moved and lowered into a grave at the same time the sun rises.

Winishut-Meanus was a medicine woman, a fluent speaker.

“If we had two elders left, and nobody in our tribe could speak to them, and they passed – we would just be American citizens,” said Brigette Whipple, an anthropologist with the tribes’ Cultural Resources Oral Histories Program. “We wouldn’t have an identity. My biggest fear for any Indian people is one day the federal government is going to say, you don’t have your language, your customs, your culture, you don’t have your tribe anymore. You’re just American citizens and that’s it.”

“It’s like you go to Scotland and they have their tartans, and family crest and clans,” she said. “They have their identity based on the way they are dressed, the area they come from. That’s how we are.”

The longhouse gathering is a way to preserve and show respect but also throughout the night and into the next day, it brings the community together to mourn.

“When you lose somebody like that, lives are disrupted,” Florendo said. “All our ceremonies that we have might seem mythical or romantic ... but it’s science. It’s giving us a path that goes through all those stages and come out the other end and let go.”

“That is the essence of a true community, the entire community is there,” he said.

To keep the words alive has always been a struggle.

As a girl, Wesley was punished for uttering a word in Sahaptin in the reservation’s boarding school. The language technically encompasses different dialects, coined as Sahaptin by linguists.

She remembers a younger cousin crying for home in the dormitory during the night.

To comfort her, Wesley would whisper words in Sahaptin softly into her ear. It helped Wesley retain the language, and then each summer returning home, the words would come back quickly, spilling out of her.

Her fluency led to her being chosen as an echo.

“I was kind of tricked,” she said. “They told me they wanted to have an honor dinner for someone and wanted me to be there. Never did I dream that person was me. After the meal was over, they got up and dressed me in the regular garb we wear for doing the ceremony. They gave me the stick and said, ‘You are that person.”’

That was 18 years ago.

The reservation offers language programs, and Whipple and others work to preserve the traditional ways. But it’s not easy.

Wesley is a joyful person, with a mischievous smile. Maybe it’s raising four grandchildren – whose ages range from 4 to 18 – that’s kept her young.

But one subject wipes away her smile: her culture, her traditions and beliefs, what will happen? And yes, she worries that when she passes, will somebody translate the medicine people’s words for her?

She is encouraging her younger sister to start thinking about learning the ways of an echo.

But Eliza Brown-Jim, 68, isn’t so sure. And others Wesley considers passing the traditions on to really aren’t much younger than her. She had a daughter who would have been perfect. She was fluent and interested, but she died at 30.

Wesley’s 22-year-old granddaughter Martina Stwyer learned her grandma is the last echo during the ceremony in the longhouse.

“Really?” she asked. “That’s cool.”

The statement prompted Wesley to give her granddaughter a long stern look.

“Or not cool,” she said, “for the reservation.”

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