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Something native

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An old quarter horse stands near the house that Linda Wiechman and her husband built on Indian homestead property that was passed down in her family.

The Lower Elwha artist talks about her love of horses that goes back to childhood. “I used to draw pictures of horses all of the time,” she says.

Since those days, her artwork has developed in numerous ways. As a young woman, she learned a variety of indigenous arts and crafts, many of which she now teaches. She took classes at the Lower Elwha Reservation near Port Angeles and at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation.

“My earliest experiences in artwork started when I became president of the Head Start Parent Policy Board at Lower Elwha,” she says. The group would bring artists in to teach traditional crafts, the first of which was drum-making.

She remembers, “My good friend Nancy Littlefish taught us how to cure elk hides. The hides had not been flushed. They still had meat on them and hair.”

This caused problems, as Wiechman recalls.
 
“The hides stunk — nobody could stand the smell!”

At the time, she thought about how the hides had been donated, and despite the odor, she said, “OK, I’ll do it — I’ll flush ’em.”

Once Wiechman started working with the hides, she realized that the smell didn’t seem so bad. As she cleaned them, she thought about how “these animals gave their lives for us.”

She thought, ‘We’re here to learn something and I’m willing to learn.’

She took all the flesh off the hides, despite their condition, so that she and the others could learn. The result? “My friend Nancy taught me and everyone else how to make hand drums — I made over 20 and gave every one of ’em away to the children on the rez, so they could drum.”

That was two decades ago. Today, Wiechman still prepares her own hides.

“I pray over my own skins when I get them,” she says. “I flush ’em first and then I’ll rinse ’em for a couple of days. It takes maybe a week or two for the hair to start slipping and then I start making drums.”

She displays several of her drums at home and each has its own story. One drum shows a man in a canoe — he raises his arms to honor a whale as it rises from the waters beside his canoe. Two other whales leap from the waters as riders cling to their backs.

Wiechman explains the whale’s role as protector and guide to coastal tribes. Pods of them have been known to surround and raise a sinking canoe in trouble, to rescue drowning people from the water and to guide canoes safely to shore during a storm.

After Wiechman learned to make drums, she studied basket-making with Theresa Parker, her friend from Neah Bay. She recalls that Parker taught her how to “switch” the colors, but Wiechman wanted to learn design.

Her quest for this knowledge was practical and spiritual. She describes how she asked the Creator, “OK, God, I’m trying to figure this out — how can I do design?” Her answer came in a dream 28 years ago. Since then she has taught design in baskets and has continued the craft.

She began teaching through Northwest Indian College where she gave classes in basketry and drum-making.

Wiechman discusses her introduction to carving at the Lower Elwha. She points to a large mask with rounded lips that hangs near a window.
 
She says, “That’s supposed to be a Pook mask.” The Pook is a drowned fisherman, but Wiechman tells how the design “transformed” after she and others saw eagles in the wood as she began carving it. She carved and painted a male and a female eagle on the cheeks of the mask — a striking piece for a novice carver. The mask is called “Eagle Woman.”

As a teacher, Wiechman has traveled to other tribes to teach drum-making, hat-making and basketry. She studied traditional foods and medicines at Northwest Indian College for several years and says that she had a calling to work with plants when she was 18.

She describes the tribal protocol for learning this plant wisdom: “You have to ask your elders.”

She recalls how some of these elders practiced non-Native religions that discouraged the practice of this tradition. They were concerned about her intentions, but she sees it this way, “I have this calling about healing people.”

She uses plants and creates art for healing purposes, saying, “It’s just who I am.”

Wiechman brought her indigenous learning back to the Elwha when she worked at the Lower Elwha Health Clinic.

“I learned another craft,” she said, “and that was making salves for arthritic pain.”

The golden salve has a pleasant fragrance of the plant known (in English) as “Devil’s Club.”

Wiechman devised other recipes for lotions and lip balm. She gathers tea and grasses for her tribal elders. She gathers bark and teaches others this native tradition.

The Lower Elwha Health Clinic now has its own “traditional foods and medicinal garden.” Wiechman planted the seed and now it has grown.

As gathering isn’t done in the wintertime, Wiechman decided to concentrate on drawing and painting during this quiet season. After three years of creating unique native designs, her husband helped her get a loan so she could scan her artwork and develop a notecard line for her new business called “Something Native.”

She joyfully confides, “I paid him back within six months … The tribe bought a lot of my art and started giving it away as gifts to dignitaries.”

Olympic National Park began ordering her work. About a year ago, her artist friend Harvest Moon introduced her to a buyer from Aramark, the company that handles concessions for the region’s national parks. Wiechman’s work is now featured in parks and lodges up and down the coast and elsewhere.

Wiechman views herself as “a teacher, a mother and a friend.” The busy artist shares a story: “My aunties call me Sta?ta?ci which means ‘Spider’ in the Klallam language.” I ask them, ‘Why?’ and my elders say, ‘Because you’re always so busy — just like a little spider.” How awesome is that?”

She adds, “I have several names that were all given to me by the Creator. He’s always placed people in front of me, to teach me, so I can share my knowledge with whomever wants to learn. I don’t create a separation between races of people. If they want to learn my culture and about our people, I’m here to teach.”

Contact Wiechman for more details on her work.

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