An elder passes

In my understanding of how things work in Indian country, names of elders who have recently passed are often not said aloud for some time–or only carefully. But I think in this case it is important to use a name, because Mary Schlick was known to many in Northwest Indian country for decades, but she has been largely silent for some time, and  her recent death, at 94, at the end of a long and important life, should be noted. Her name will bring a smile to many Indian face, and to soyapu faces as well.

Mary and her Iowa childhood sweetheart, Bud, left their home state and moved to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington in 1949. Bud was a BIA Forester, and for the next 28 years they lived on the Colville, the Yakima, and the Warm Springs reservations, with brief interim periods at Washington D.C. BIA headquarters. Bud passed young in 1992; Mary stayed in the territory, living off-reservation in the Columbia Gorge, but maintaining connections to the people and the arts she’d woven into her own life from those reservation days. She was an acknowledged basketry elder, a museum curator and consultant: she published her award-winning book on Columbia River Basketry: Gifts of the Ancestors, Gifts of the Earth, in 1995.

Mary slipped quietly away at age 94 this week—I’d not seen her in some time, and only had a few exchanges with daughter Katherine Schlick Noe in the last years. We once had some of Mary’s own baskets here at the Josephy Center for an exhibit, but that too is some years ago, and Mary was not well enough to attend. I think Katherine brought them here, and remember having her book—Something to Hold—as well as her mother’s books here to show and sell. Maybe son Joe came up with his guitar—I have good memories of Joe singing and playing, but can no longer peg the dates.

I first met Mary in the late 1980s when she came to Fishtrap with her writing projects. Over the years we traded stories and wove our web of friendships wider. I was in Portland when her 1995 basketry book won praise and an Oregon Book Award. And I remember hearing bits and pieces of Coming to Stay: A Columbia River Journey, as she was writing it, and reading it when the Oregon Historical Society published it in 2006.

The three Schlick children were born in that first sojourn on the Colville Reservation, and, if memory serves, the oldest died in an accident when they were on the Colville again, when he was a teenager. The Indian women were Mary’s comforters.

After their working career on the reservations and Bud’s death, Indians and their arts remained at the center of Mary’s life. According to children Joe and Kathleen, “Among her proudest accomplishments was a grant from the Oregon Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in 1990 to help weavers Pat Courtney Gold, Bernyce Courtney and Arlene Boileau revive their traditional Wasco twining techniques.” It was, as I recall, a tricky business, because Mary learned ancient Native techniques by her own meticulous research, and then, with great respect, returned them to tribal weavers.

Once, in a phone call, I asked Umatilla master basket-maker Joey Lavadour when the Plateau tribes had switched to using cornhusks in their baskets and basket hats. His answer, as s I recall, was “about 1800.” But, I contended, that was before settlers and supposed gardening/farming in the region. Joey said that he and others had visited museums and examined old baskets with Mary—and there were in fact cornhusk baskets that early. Those Delawares in the fur trade must have brought husks, I thought; Joey obviously trusted Mary and their experience together studying baskets.

Mary was tall and Iowa white and, I would imagine, beautiful in the 1950s, when she first lived in Indian Country. There is the book cover photo image of her standing up and out—and then I imagine a video of her settling down among her Indian friends, all with their babies close by, weaving and knitting and otherwise working their hands, trading stories about children, Iowa, and the old ways in Indian Country. Her hands were never idle in all the years I knew her, and am proud to have one of her baskets.

I mentioned Katherine’s book, Something to Hold, earlier. It’s a fictionalized account of her going to school and growing up on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. It’s written for children, probably middle and high school, although adults will learn plenty. Katherine spent her working life teaching children and then teachers of children.

Her book is also a great testament to her parents’ lives. In the 1950s and 60s, when few white American parents would have dared move to Indian Country, and stay to raise their children there, Bud and Mary Schlick did. What rich and enriching lives they lived.

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  1. Mary will be missed greatly by many of us who knew her through her baskets, her book & her presentation at the Portland Art Museum Native American Art Council. Mary was a shining star whose light will shine far and wide.

  2. Thanks Mary. And so good to hear from you, Hope you are safe and well!

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