Ore. residents help Native icon pay her rent

By Mandy Valencia
Medford, Oregon (AP) September 2012

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, Agnes Baker Pilgrim turned 88. Grandma Aggie, as many know her, is the oldest living descendant of the Takelma people and serves as a Native American spiritual elder and indigenous stateswoman.

She has been written about or videotaped for countless local stories. It’s her likeness, along with an eagle and a bear, in “We Are Here,” a 20-foot-tall wooden totem-like sculpture that greets visitors in downtown Ashland.

But while she may be widely known in the region, few know that she struggles to pay her rent and bills each month. So friends and acquaintances have banded together to help her. “We started the Agnes Baker Pilgrim Fund,” said Alice DiMicele.

“A group of people in Southern Oregon and other places help to pay Grandma’s bills and rent every month, but now her bills and rent have gone up in the last few years, and the amount of people who donate has dwindled because the economy is bad.”

As September approached, there were no funds in the account, so DiMicele decided to create a “virtual birthday party” for Baker Pilgrim on Facebook as an event, to try to raise money for the elder for her birthday.

“So many people love her and appreciate the work she does, but a lot of people don’t realize she doesn’t have a way to pay her bills and rent,” said DiMicele, “She’s going to be 88, she doesn’t need to be worried about paying her rent and bills.”

The seventh of nine children, Baker Pilgrim was born on Sept. 11, 1924, in Logsdon, on a tribal allotment near the headwaters of Oregon’s Siletz River. According to the biography on her website, www.agnesbakerpilgrim.org, she explored a variety of careers in her lifetime before following a more spiritual path in 1970.

“It’s ironic that we are raising rent money for someone while we’re occupying her land,” said Mary Dodd, a supporter of Baker Pilgrim. “Maybe we should be paying rent to her? It was her land to begin with, in a real way.”

In her earlier years she worked as a bouncer at a nightclub, a barber in a jail, a scrub nurse at a hospital, raced stock cars and managed a restaurant, all of which no doubt prepared her for her role as mother of three sons and three daughters, having married three times in her life. She is now the real-life grandmother of 18, great-grandmother of 27 and great-great-grandmother of one.

Baker Pilgrim was not available for comment as she was traveling to Pendleton to give offerings of berries and buffalo meat to prisoners in the state correctional facility there.

“If we can pay her rent for a while, then we can do fundraising to support her projects she wants to do, like the Salmon Ceremony,” said DiMicele. “The money that goes into the fund only goes to support her needs like rent and bills, or if she has a health emergency.”

After Baker Pilgrim decided to shift her life in the early `70s, she took on the medicine name of her Takelma great-grandmother, “Taowhyee,” or Morningstar. From 1974 to 1989 she worked as a manager and counselor at the United Indian Lodge in Crescent City, Calif. There she focused on alcohol-related problems, prevention, intervention and rehabilitation. Baker Pilgrim also dedicated her time to helping children of poverty-stricken families. In 1985 she graduated from Southern Oregon State College with an degree in psychology and a minor in Native American studies.

“It’s not like a charity thing, it’s a duty for all of us, not only because of what she teaches but because of what we took,” said Dodd. “That’s part of the teaching is knowing what we took. It’s not something to be defensive about – just wanted to throw that out there as someone with blonde hair and blue eyes.”

Donations to the Agnes Baker Pilgrim Fund can made at Rogue Federal Credit Union, or by mail to Agnes Baker Fund, C/O Julie Norman, 596 Helman St., Ashland, or by donating online at www.agnesbakerpilgrim.org.

“I want to send her a list of everyone who donated like a big virtual birthday card,” said DiMicele, “Julie and I will make sure she sees everyone’s name, but we want her to know that these are beautiful people that support her.”