What Vi Hilbert’s Legacy Means to me: A First Person Account


A photograph of storyteller and linguist Vi Hilbert hangs on the library

We will not be quieted. Native Americans, my people, my great ancestors, the ones still here with us and the ones that have passed on to the other side, are still passing on our great teachings. We are winning the hearts of the settlers even to this day.

Honoring those who fought to keep our culture alive, for our culture has died down a lot since the taking of our land. We are not letting our culture slip away; we continue to teach the younger generations, for they will be carrying that knowledge to pass it down when the time comes.

Vi Hilbert is a great known ancestor of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe who lived in many different worlds and was comfortable and humble in each and every one of them. In her youth, Hilbert moved all over the place from different homes to different schools. Vi Hilbert found her calling in standing up and keeping our language alive, because she believed our culture should be shared, not hoarded.

After working in a beauty parlor in her south Seattle home, Vi Hilbert set out to teach our native language, lushootseed, at the University Of Washington. Vi Hilbert helped her community in many ways even up to the age of 90, when she helped open S’abadeb The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, a 2008 art exhibit that showed Salish art, and artists very known to tribes all around her. It was a place to share small teachings, and treasures of the future. Vi Hilbert has been honored with a building in her name, Vi Hilbert Hall, located in Seattle Washington. She was also honored at Sedro-Woolley High School with a picture in our library.

“I love the way she has her arms spread, as if she is inviting, welcoming, and encouraging all of us,” says school librarian Linsey Kitchens. This picture shows that our spirits live. They’re very real, and it’s so hard to try and put it into words the power each and every one of us carries, no matter how hard settlers try to wipe us of everything we’ve ever known, trying to shut us out, stomp on our way of life. Through every battle we overcame, we stayed together. Our elders, our ancestors such as Vi Hilbert fought to share those same teachings they were given, passing them down to the younger generations.

Vi Hilbert represented her tribe by teaching our spoken language, a language so beautiful and so heart warming to hear, at The University Of Washington. You don’t hear it spoken as much these days, because in our ancestors’ time, our land was invaded and eventually taken by cold-hearted people. Who wouldn’t even try to understand, people who sought us out as “different”  just because in their eyes we were nothing but savages. They stopped our people from participating in our traditional dances, wearing our regalia’s, our ceremonies and even stopped our people from speaking our spoken language. Vi Hilbert’s spirit and her strength inspired us as a tribe to keep fighting, even though we are still grieving, for many of our ways have been lost. She saw a chance to make a change, take a stand for her people. And that is exactly what she did for seventeen years as she taught our native language.

You can see in many videos with Vi, in her regalia, her cedar headband speaking Lushootseed, shares many great stories. My favorite is “Rock and Coyote,” a story about a coyote who puts himself in a bad situation that eventually wears him out. causing him fear where he runs and runs, finally until he finds himself alone and hungry and thirsty, with nowhere to go; he is stuck. So unsure, not knowing what to do, he finally calls for his younger siblings to gather with him as one to overcome this huge rock. I love this story, how she moved her hands when she spoke in Lushootseed, and the way you can feel what she is saying even through a screen. It is so powerful and is a peek into how strong we really are as a tribe.

Vi Hilbert didn’t do what she did for our people by herself: she had so many relatives who supported her and a whole tribe behind her. Vi Hilbert was not alone, but as one person, she was strong, her spirit was strong. She was a true born leader, she was someone you looked up to so dearly. She was someone you’ll hear about even to this day. She did wonders for our tribe, and her spirit will forever live on to encourage others to have an open heart, open mind to try and understand something we cherish with our lives. As Native Americans, we will forever be thankful for Vi Hilbert and everything she lived for in her days for her community and her tribe.