George and Millie Lagergren
with Brian Bull
For Millie and George Lagergren, the remote, quiet fishing town of Bay Center, Washington, affords them time to practice their Chinook traditions. Basket weaving, canoe building, paddle-making, and telling stories of the “early years” are but a few of the past times the couple enjoys. Brian Bull shares a glimpse of their lives in our latest Elder Wisdom:
The Chinook Nation is recognized only on a state level, a fact many tribal members hope to change some day. But Millie Lagergren figures she and her husband, George, will keep the culture strong by staying active, and setting an example.
We’ve been going to Chinook meetings all our married life. George and I have been married now for, be fifty-nine years. Well, before we were ever married, I went to meetings with my mother, and kind of got initiated into the idea that we needed to hang together with the rest of our people. And our kids always knew “mom and dad gone to an Indian meeting today.” and so eventually they all just kind of fell in line.
George Lagergren says the Chinook people have been longtime caretakers of the Willapa Bay area which feeds into the Pacific Ocean. He’s seen the change that’s happened even in his lifetime.
Before the coming of the white people in this area, the Indian people lived off of the land. Fish, meat, birds. There was plenty of things to eat here. All the ocean beaches and the bays were full of razor clams and what they called mud clams. And you know, they’re, they’re kind of dwindling away. The mud clams used to be on every piece of tideland water. That water come over those mud clams lived in that. And the Indian people used those for their food.
I look back when I was a young kid. People can’t even imagine nowadays how many fish came in this bay and up all the tributaries in this whole bay. Those streams would be just clear full and overrun with those fish trying to find a place to spawn. And there’d be thousands of fish go up one river. And all the rivers and all the small streams, in the fall of the year, they would be clear full of fish trying to find a place to spawn.
All you had to do is stand out in that gravel bar about halfway up to your knees in the water and here there, there’d be about three or four hundred fish would come right and banging into your legs. All you had to do was just kick sideways and about eight or ten of those fish would go and run clear up on the gravel bar. And then all you had to do then was go up there and kick a little bit further up on the bar and they’d just lay there and quiver. So you could gather as many fish as you wanted just in that simple way.
There was waterways that you come in and out of the bay. Up into those waterways to the, to the head of tidewaters in all of these rivers that’s come out of the Willapa Bay. And when I was a young boy here, there was huge big timber—big spruce timber eight, ten, twelve foot through. And big spruce and cedar, they were the low ground trees. Up in the higher ground came the hemlock and they were a smalleer grade of timber. But it was all old growth.
Millie Lagergren’s recollections from childhood often center around her aunt, who impressed her with a Chinook tradition that has served her well to this day.
Bessie Pickernell is well known for her basketry. And I think she’s probably made a big impression on my life because I always admired her baskets when I was young. We’d go to her house and she always had a basket on her lap, working on it, and she did such beautiful work. So when my family all grew up and left home I had nothing to do, so I picked up the hobby of basket-making myself. But I think Bessie’s influence was what brought me to the basket-making hobby that I do. It just started out as a pastime, but eventually it turned into a kind of a big thing of my life. I have a basket over in the Smithsonian Museum in Manhattan, New York, on display over there. I have one on the U.S.S. Chinook. It’s a patrol craft named after our tribe.
This family basket that I made is kind of a part of our family history. It has George and I and all. And we have ten children, only nine survived. But I made that of each one of our family. And on the lid I have, each square on the top of the lid represents a grandchild. And then the beads represent our great grandchildren, so there’s four generations on that basket. And there’s room for the next to be put on as it comes along. Somebody else can keep up the tradition.
I have five daughters and they’re all learning basketry too, so I’m proud of that. You pass a little of it on down to the next generation. We have granddaughters that are learning. And even some of the greats now are showing interest in making them, so I’m happy to pass their tradition down. I’d hate to see it die out.
The Lagergrens have also taken on other traditional practices, which Millie says they’ve been fortunate enough to pass on to their children.
We do the traditional little hobby things. And we have our family gatherings. We cook our salmon over the fire the way the Indians always did. And when our kids got older, they fell right into it and so they’d do the cultural things. They all have drums and they’ve learned to sing and do some of the dances and songs.
Quite a little bit of work yet to do with that one, but it’s shaping up now.
Right now, we’re all making canoes. George has a twenty foot canoe that’s almost done. And well, our kids, we have nine of them, and three of them are in each canoe. So they’re out there working on their canoes and they work as a team of three. And of course their spouses and children are working with them on it.
George’s canoe is right here in the shed, right close here to the house because he worked on it off and on all winter when he had a chance. But the kids now have been, the weather’s nicer and they’re spending their vacation days out at, we have a campground out here. We have a kind of a longhouse built out there ourselves. And so we gather there. We always have our salmon that we cook over the fire and we just gather out there every holiday. The kids come and they pitch their tents or trailer houses or whatever and stay for two or three days. And they all work on their canoes while they’re here.
Millie and George Lagergren love their traditions almost as much as family. They say when the time is right, there’ll be a potlatch feast and giveaway – and naming ceremonies for their newest canoes.
For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Brian Bull.