Twenty-five years ago, as part of the movement to revive the culture of the Quinault people, Leilani Jones-Chubby was hired to set up a museum. With dedication, persistence and hard work, she has assembled the substantial, beautiful collection of tribal art, artifacts and history known today as the Quinault Tribal Museum.
Leilani was raised in Tahola, on the Quinault Indian Reservation. In school, her favorite subject was history. She would visit elders of the tribe and wash dishes for them while they told her stories. She began basket weaving in fifth grade. At the age of fifteen, she continued under a weaver affectionately known as Grandma Black in a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) class.
“I was the only teen among old ladies,” she smiles. ”We learned not only how to weave but where to find our materials and how to harvest, clean and preserve them.” The ladies wove baskets from local plant fibers traditionally used by the Quinault people: bear grass, sweet grass and cedar bark. She never anticipated at the time how the knowledge she gathered then would become important much later in her life.
Leilani attended college at Grays Harbor College and in Phoenix, Arizona. Back in Taholah, she worked at a number of office jobs. With the economy failing, it became ever harder for Leilani, a single mother of three, to make a living. “The job as museum curator came as a God-send,” she says.
“In the early 1990s, no one was passing on the culture,” Leilani laments. ”The old things were not being taught.” Then, Guy Capoeman came back from art school and things started changing. A master carver, he carved the first ocean canoe since the 1940s. Leilani began teaching basket weaving classes. Max Hudson, Director of the Youth Opportunity Program, had students make button capes. Reginald Ward Sr. taught traditional dances. The group was invited to a good-will event on Hawaii, where they danced in their traditional regalia.
Just prior to the revival of tribal culture, Leilani had received a calling to become part of it. She had found an ancient cedar speaker staff, carved in the shape of a human figure with an eagle, which had called out to her from the water. After being blessed by Indian Shakers, the mysterious figure had been reverently buried. She had understood its message to her: “It was meant to be found – to let us know if we don’t do something with our culture, we would be lost. After that, the culture took off like wild flowers and is still going strong. Many people have become involved in teaching our children in all areas of our culture.”
Soon after this occurrence, tribal officer Kurt Luger asked Leilani to write goals for a museum along with a budget. She received money to purchase a display case and to buy artifacts. “We had nothing to show who we were or what we did,” she says. “I would go around and ask people if they could make this or that and at the beginning it was hard, but things started happening.”
The museum is well established now. When elders pass on, families donate items of historical interest. Art is being created again and new works join the old exhibits. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires publicly funded museums to return sacred and ceremonial items to their places of origin. Leilani recovers Quinault artifacts from places as far as Chicago. In confirmation of her mystical calling, the very first item she repatriated was a beautifully carved speaker staff from the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Today, the Quinault Tribal Museum’s substantial collection includes baskets, paddles, masks, ceremonial drums, paintings, stone tools and fishnets. Leilani has contributed her own expressive woven dolls and beautiful shell jewelry. There is also a huge collection of family photographs, obituaries and biographies. Leilani compiled the biographies by recording elders telling their stories on video and creating transcriptions.
As curator, Leilani talks to visitors and shows them around. Surprisingly, many come from foreign countries. They feel attracted by the beautiful Quinault culture so different from their own.
Oral culture makes no distinction between history, art and religion. Art in its various forms of storytelling, singing, dancing, painting and carving is the vehicle transmitting the stories of the people in their natural and supernatural world from generation to generation.
The speaker staff called Leilani, an artist and storyteller, to treasure the remnants of Quinault culture along with the work of new emerging artists. At work, she documents tribal heritage with the tools of the information age. At home, she teaches storytelling, basket weaving and jewelry making to her grandchildren, the way it has always been done.
The Quinault Tribal Museum is participating in the Passport to Grays Harbor History program. Come in and get a stamp to complete your passport.
807 5th Avenue, Taholah
Monday to Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
360-276-8215 , extension 245