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Lois Thadei. Photo by Kay Schultz. View more photos on Flickr.

Lois Thadei. Photo by Kay Schultz. View more photos on Flickr.

KUOW News

Lois Thadei

Marcie Sillman
01/08/2010

As a young girl, society didn't expect Lois Thadei to amount to much. At age 7, the native Aleut was sent away to an Indian boarding school. Now Lois Thadei is recognized as a master Aleut weaver. Marcie Sillman traces Thadei's journey from the mean streets back to her traditional culture.

TRANSCRIPT

When Lois Thadei was a small child in Alaska, she learned the traditions of her Aleut people at the knees of her elders: cooking, weaving, music.

Thadei: "I remember as a little girl, laying underneath chairs, and feeling the drum vibrations in the floor. When I was in boarding school, that was a sound my ears were lonesome for."

Thadei spent most of her childhood far from her home, and the traditions she loved so much. The journey back took more than 15 years.

Lois Thadei is a small, round woman, with short white hair. Her formal name is Lois Chichnikoff Thadei but everyone calls her Louie. She says white people had trouble pronouncing the native Aleut language. When Louie was still a toddler, her mother left her and her dad in Alaska. Louie's father wasn't around much either.

Thadei: "I was with grannies that had babushkas, spoke the old languages. I learned to talk like they did. Family members have said at the time, at maybe three or four even, I was talking like a 60-year-old grandma, bossing people around."

And she was imitating the things the grannies did. Louie remembers helping the old women collect berries, and bark and grasses. The grannies showed the little girl how to smoke salmon, how to weave a basket. All that ended in 1949, when Louie Thadie was seven-years-old.

A U.S. law mandated that native kids be sent off to special boarding schools, to learn white culture. Thadei was put on a train for Minnesota.

Thadei: "It was pretty traumatic. They stick a piece of paper on you, your name, and where you're going.The only problem with all that was there wasn't a piece of paper with a return address. So when I did get out of boarding school, I didn't know where to go. Nobody tells kids anything, you know?"

Apparently, they didn't tell the grannies anything, either. Nobody from Ketichikan ever contacted her in Minnesota, and Louie Thadei was too young to remember where home was. That was sixty years ago, but for Thadei, the images of the Roman Catholic–run boarding school in St. Paul are still painfully vivid.

Thadei: "We couldn't speak our langauge, couldn't do cultural things because we got punished. Any words we remembered, anything about our homes, we'd whisper under the covers at night. And every so often, a sister, in her habit, would swish through quietly. We'd be under the covers, quiet until she was gone."

The kids traded stories and secrets, and they tried to hold onto the things they learned from their families, their native traditions. For Thadei, it was the weaving her Alaskan grannies had taught her.

Thadei: "We would take bits of string, weave into something, then unweave them, turn them back into what they looked like, a piece of hair ribbon or something, so that nobody would catch us weaving."

Any kind of craft, even commercial weaving, was out of reach for the Indian boarding school kids.

Thadei: "We weren't going to be that elegant factory worker. More like mucking out the trough, or something like that. We weren't being schooled for much."

When Louie Thadei turned 15, her boarding school tenure was over. Thadei was put out without a nickel to her name.

Thadei: "One time they took us to a rose garden. The sweetest place. I slept under the roses the first night. I thought, this would be okay, it's so much better than the school. It got rougher, the winters were brutal. I didn't know how to do anything different."

Thadei had no contacts for her Alaska relatives. The police picked her up for vagrancy. Thadei had heard of Boys Town and told them she wanted to go there, but no girls were allowed. So Thadei talked her way into a variety of day jobs, from picking onions to ironing clothes.

Thadei: "Then I got a job at Lakeside Plastics making Miller Highlife beer signs. Ha ha! It was sort of arty."

Actually, making art wasn't something Louie Thadei had given much thought to, as a child or an adult.

Thadei: "The word art wasn't in our language, and it wasn't something we did on the side. It was part of our everyday life."

Making beer signs, weaving hats and baskets, they were things you did to get along with living. Louie Thadei liked to make things, she liked to use her hands. So that's what she did, job to job, city to city in the Midwest.

That's what she thought her life would be. Then, in 1971, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement was signed. It was an attempt to give Native tribes restitution for their traditional homelands, and the natural resources discovered on them.

Thadei: "There was an advertisement in a magazine on the back page. Time showed a picture of a girl on the steppes. This girl is an arctic heiress. You could be one too if you're an Alaska Native. Call 1-800-la-da-da. So I called one-800-la-da-da. The person I talked to was named Elaine Itakiyak. She told me where my family was. My aunties had already enrolled me."

All of a sudden, Louie Thadei wasn't a young girl all alone. She had a family in Ketchikan. Thadei's father was still alive, but in bad health. A friend lent her the money for a bus ticket to Alaska. It was time for Louie Thadei to go home.

Thadei: "Eventually I snagged a sweetie, bought a house in the boonies, the bush. I lived out there, I loved it, it was like being six again. I'd go out and hunt and gather all day. I was still collecting grasses, skinny things. Not sure what to do, I'd twiddle around, but I couldn't make sense. It was six-year-old twiddling."

But Thadei says the memory of weaving was in her fingers. She looked for people who could show her what to do with those skinny grasses.

Thadei: "As I'd learn something, something else formed in the depths of memory, piece together. I don't know much, but what I do know, newbies and advanced weavers take a few days a year to learn."

Louie Thadei teaches weaving now. On a rainy Saturday morning, a dozen women of all ages converge on her home near Olympia for a day of lessons:

Thadei and two more experienced students help those newbies struggle to transform nests of thin waxed twine into basket bottoms. Eventually, the students will use some of the dried grasses that are tied in sheafs and stacked against the walls of Thadei's cozy living room.

Thadei: "I need to teach, to give it away, pass on what I know, so my learners can connect. So what I do know, I'm passing to these gals who made a commitment to retain the memory of Aleut weaving and teach it to other people."

Few, if any, of Thadei's students are native Alaskans. That's not as important to her as keeping the craft going.

Thadei: "I'm part of a string of weavers and Aleuts who do what they've done for centuries. I consider myself traditional, but not wearing a seal bladder raincoat. I have on London Fog."

Even though there's no word in the Aleut language for it, these days, Lois Thadei does consider herself to be an artist. She says during the week, when she's not thinking about her job with Washington State's Department of Social and Health Services, she's dreaming about her next weaving project.

Louie Thadei has come a long way from the time when she to hide her weaving under her blanket at night. But she just smiles when you ask if her journey has a happy ending.

Thadei: "It hasn't ended, it's just starting."

With that, Louie Thadei turns that smile to her roomful of weaving students.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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