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Yakama Nation elder Virginia Beavert celebrates new book and her 101st birthday

Nov. 30, 2022 Updated Thu., Dec. 1, 2022 at 8:49 p.m.

Virginia Roslyn Beavert signs a copy of her book, “Anakú Iwachá: Yakama Legends and Stories,” on Tuesday at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center in Yakima. Beavert turned 101 on Wednesday.  (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic)
Virginia Roslyn Beavert signs a copy of her book, “Anakú Iwachá: Yakama Legends and Stories,” on Tuesday at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center in Yakima. Beavert turned 101 on Wednesday. (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Tammy Ayer Yakima Herald-Republic

TOPPENISH – Virginia Beavert smiled broadly as she headed inside the Yakama Nation Museum and saw the crowd eagerly awaiting her visit Tuesday.

“Shiyax maytski (good morning),” she said softly in the language called Ichishkíin, also referred to as Sahaptin. It’s spoken by the Yakama people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and Beavert has dedicated her life to its revitalization and preservation.

Beavert, or Tuxámshish, was at the museum to sign copies of “Anakú Iwachá: Yakama Legends and Stories,” an expanded collection of foundational Yakama stories she edited with Michelle Jacob and Joana Jansen. It’s the second edition of “Anakú Iwachá, The Way It Was,” an important educational and cultural resource published in 1974.

The book signing in the museum took place the day before Beavert’s 101st birthday. It made the gathering even more special for those who attended and for Beavert, a cherished Yakama Nation elder whose continuing efforts to save and share her language cannot be overestimated. A crowd of more than four dozen people listened intently as Beavert spoke.

“I’m so glad to be here this morning. I kind of had a hard time getting started, being old, but I like to get up. I don’t want to miss too much of my days. … I never thought that I would last this long,” said Beavert, who sat next to Jacob. “But the work that I’m doing, that my family told me to do, was to save this language.

“They said our language is dying. Young people need their language to remember their culture and who they are.”

Beavert is co-author with Sharon Hargus, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington, of the Ichishkíin Sínwit Yakama / Yakima Sahaptin Dictionary, which is the first modern published dictionary of any Sahaptin dialect.

Born on Nov. 30, 1921, Beavert grew up in a traditional Indigenous home, learning and speaking tribal dialects and languages, including Ichishkíin, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Klikatat, according to her book, “The Gift of Knowledge/Ttnúwit Átawish Nch’inch’imamí: Reflections on Sahaptin Ways.”

Before signing books Tuesday, Beavert talked about the importance of teaching traditions. As a girl Beavert lived with her great-grandmother in a cabin near Zillah with no electricity, water or furniture. Beavert’s mother, Ellen Hoptenix Sawyalilx Saluskin, was very traditional, instructing other children in the culture along with her own.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You learn it when you’re a child, and when you grow up, you teach your own children,” Beavert said. “That way … they will know who they are.”

When she was 12, Beavert started working with linguist Melville Jacobs. And in the 1970s her stepfather, Alexander Saluskin or Chief Wi-ya-wikt, encouraged her to return to school to help him complete his life’s work, “The Sahaptin Practical Dictionary for Yakama.”

She recalled again on Tuesday how her family wanted her to go back to school to get the background for doing that.

“I didn’t want to. I was working, doing something that I enjoyed at that time,” said Beavert, who got a job welding in a Portland shipyard after high school and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. After her military service, Beavert worked a variety of jobs.

But those who supported her language work persisted. “I thought about it after one of them left and I thought about his words, how he kept telling me, you have to do this,” she added.

The original edition of “Anakú Iwachá” featured stories that Yakama tribal elders recorded in several dialects of the Ichishkíin language that Beavert collected and translated into English. Through storytelling elders share lessons, values and customs with younger generations.

The new edition adds a preface from the Yakama Nation and essays on the history of the project and on Ichishkíin-language education, as a book description notes. It also includes four additional legends in Ichishkíin and English, annotations, an updated glossary and more artwork by tribal artists.

“This new edition of ‘Anakú Iwachá’ makes this collection of precious stories available for the current and future generations,” the forward says.

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