Where the Language Lives by Janet Yoder
Vi taqʷšɘblu Hilbert was 49 years old when she got a phone call that changed the course of her life.
Thom Hess, a linguist at the University of Washington, called Hilbert and asked her to review an audio recording of one of her mother’s traditional Coast Salish stories he was transcribing.
In 1972, Hilbert began her formal study of Lushootseed, the language she had heard at home as a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. Before long, she was teaching the class herself.
She wrote a textbook with Hess, and then the first Lushootseed dictionary. Hilbert gathered traditional stories into book form, transcribed tape recordings of elders speaking Lushootseed and made it her mission to revive a language that was nearly dormant.
Hess once said, “Thanks to [Hilbert’s] herculean efforts, much more [Lushootseed] history, grammar, lexicon and myth have been saved from oblivion than posterity has any right to expect.”
Janet Yoder experienced her own transformative moment at the age of 27, when she joined Hilbert’s class at UW to fulfill an academic requirement for her master’s degree. After volunteering on several projects, Yoder was welcomed into Hilbert’s circle.
Over the course of 30 years, Hilbert became Yoder’s mentor and dear friend. Hilbert brought Yoder along to hundreds of cultural gatherings, rituals, canoe races, lectures and celebrations. In turn, Yoder faithfully recorded and transcribed conversations with Hilbert and published essays about her work.
“Where the Language Lives: Vi Hilbert and the Gift of the Lushootseed” gathers these essays into one volume, presenting a sympathetic portrait of a formidable woman whose impact on Indigenous culture and our understanding of it earned her the distinction of being named a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989.
Although Hilbert died in 2008, Yoder’s sensitive depiction of her will live on, as will Hilbert’s work and the Lushootseed language she shared with the world.
Yoder begins with “Ten Things I Learned From Vi Hilbert” (No. 1 is “Make Strong Coffee”) and this list vividly illustrates Hilbert’s personality and verve.
According to Yoder, “Vi was happiest when her calendar had a lot of entries on it,” she loved shopping and gift-giving, honored her ancestors, and worked with increased urgency after a stroke and an aneurysm reminded her that time was short.
In the book, Yoder points out that Hilbert could be generous and loving, but could also become angry and hold a grudge. Mostly, she writes, Hilbert expected people to do what she wanted and did not accept “no” for an answer.
Yoder’s essays are straightforward, her diction plain and terse at times. One gets the sense that Yoder has internalized Hilbert’s speaking pace and delivery in her writing. This allows moments of wisdom to shine through, and touches of humor, too, like when Hilbert, who consulted daily with the spirit world, was asked where the “other side” was.
“Beats me,” she said.
Yoder muses, “Perhaps we don’t need to know where the other side is, only that we may reach it via fire or prayer. Or through love.”
This book was nominated for a 2023 Washington State Book Award for Creative Nonfiction/Memoir, an award won by Vi Hilbert’s great-granddaughter Sasha taqʷšɘblu LaPointe, her namesake. LaPointe’s “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk” is the Whatcom READS 2024 selection.
Reviewed by WCLS Executive Director Christine Perkins
Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Nov. 6, 2023