Tribal Elder Dedicated To The Younger State Honors Spokane Indian For Helping Pass On Language, Customs
He teaches best by example.
By living simply and nobly. And by doing, he says, what anyone in his shoes would do.
“I have something to accomplish,” says Robert Sherwood, as he slumps comfortably into a swivel chair, folding his arms over his stomach.
His mission is to help teach the Spokane Tribe as much of its culture as he can.
He teaches customs like praying at wakes and funerals, singing and drumming at powwows, and showing respect for elders at meals and other occasions.
He also is helping to preserve the tribe’s Salish language, which only a few Spokane Indians speak fluently.
“The language, it’s yours, it belongs to you,” the 65-year-old grandfather says. “You can’t carry out traditions unless you have the language.”
The self-proclaimed “traditionalist” heads the Culture and Language Preservation Program for the Spokane Tribe, and helped form the Cultural Committee several years ago to preserve Spokane Indian culture.
Part of his job is “protectorate” of cultural resources, a task that has propelled Sherwood into such projects as overseeing archaeological digs, working on the repatriation of skeletal remains from museums, and passing on the Salish language to younger tribal members.
Sherwood’s work largely has gone unrecognized by the public. But two weeks ago, he received the Governor’s Heritage Award - an honor given to only 31 Washington residents and organizations since its inception in 1989.
“They really go to the best of the best,” says Karen Kamara Gose, executive director of the Washington State Arts Commission.
Gose says she was impressed with the letters of recommendation for Sherwood, who was one of three people selected for the award from a pool of 18 nominees.
He is a “leader in communication across cultures and that work couldn’t be more important,” Gose says.
But Sherwood is the last person to put himself on a pedestal.
The father, friend, tribal elder and teacher remains humble. “I think that people can do the same thing that I’m doing, with some effort,” Sherwood says.
Sherwood considers the award an honor, but not his alone. It also belongs to his parents, his family, and his people, he says.
And to the role models - John B. Flett, Antoine Andrew, and Francis Sijohn, among other men - who lived and died in the same silent humility Sherwood bases his life upon. Because of them, Sherwood learned the traditions.
“You have to recognize all the elders before you,” Sherwood says. “All they had to do was be an example.”
Now, it’s his turn.
His duties extend far beyond the Cultural Committee.
Sherwood and his wife raised seven children (four of whom have died), and have 17 grandchildren. Friends say there’s always an extra plate at the Sherwood home; the couple continue to take in many foster children, both Indian and non-Indian.
Sherwood retired in 1991 after working for 26 years as an engineering technician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in several cities across the state.
A heart attack in 1991 and six surgeries couldn’t slow him down. Instead, they’ve made him work harder, he says.
On the reservation, Sherwood juggles his time between duties on the Cultural Committee and chairman of the Senior Citizen Advisory Board. He also served as former commander and quartermaster of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, and former adviser and chairman of the Spokane Indian Days powwow committee.
When he finds time for himself, Sherwood likes to fish, play bingo, and participate in powwows.
He is a prayer leader, often called upon to ask blessings at meals, and sing and pray in his native tongue at wakes and funerals.
His work has inspired other Spokane Indians, including Christine Sijohn, one of eight Cultural Committee members.
“He’s very interested for people to learn the ways of our people and to get their foot in the right track, to travel the cultural path,” Sijohn says.
Sherwood also is known for building bridges between the Indian and non-Indian communities.
He helped steer negotiations between Washington Water Power Co. and the Spokane Tribe two years ago when the groups were in a dispute over the rights to a hydropower project on the Spokane Indian Reservation - a task that won him much respect from WWP employees.
Toni Pessemier, adviser to the WWP president who wrote a letter of recommendation for Sherwood, says Sherwood was able to break down barriers because of his people skills and sense of humor.
“His laughter is one of the things I find most appealing,” Pessemier says. “It’s hearty.”
Sherwood and others on the committee also speak to school groups and museums.
At the Cheney Cowles Museum, Sherwood served on the American Indian Advisory Committee, offering advice and prayers at various museum events involving American Indian people.
Museum director Glenn Mason calls him a “living history book.”
Mason is struck by Sherwood’s sense of urgency - an enthusiasm that stems, in part, from Sherwood’s fear that Spokane tribal culture is slipping away.
Despite all his work, Sherwood says he wishes he could do more.
But his heart is full. There is no room for regret. He only has a few wishes for the tribal youth: that they learn the language, and stay off drugs.
And that someone picks up the slack after he passes on.
“I don’t believe it’s going to end with me,” Sherwood says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo