Aggie" is in her element: a meadow along the Applegate River
where her ancestors once lived, presiding over a rite once
common among Western Oregon Indian tribes.
Agnes Pilgrim still leads the annual sacred salmon ceremony she
helped revive a decade ago. An honored elder with the
Confederated Tribes of Siletz, she normally uses a motorized
wheelchair because of a herniated disc and an atrophied foot.
But she is so energized by this event and this place that she
gets around here with only a cane.
dawn, she hollers a wake-up call to summon sleepy campers to a
sunrise prayer circle. Pointing with her crooked cane, she
directs details of a 200-person feast, down to making sure there
are clean white tablecloths and vases of flowers. Raising her
hand and chanting a prayer, she waves a smoldering braid of
sweet-grass over ceremonial utensils.
granddaughter Tonya Nevarez Rilatos watches closely, Pilgrim
blesses the freshly spaded fire pit, the obsidian blade to cut
the fish, the sharpened redwood stakes used to bake it.
the first cooked salmon comes off the fire, Pilgrim slices a
bite for each of the participants, who return the bone and skin
to her. Drums thump as four young men emerge from a sweat lodge,
skin flushed by the heat of the purification rite. Each holds
cedar boughs to wrap up the bone and skin offering. As they run
to the frigid river to dive in and leave their bundles on the
bottom, the women dance in a circle.
the female salmon," Pilgrim prays, "for her long, dangerous
journey up the river to spawn, still nurturing as she dies."
has a passion for this ceremony once conducted here by her
forebears. She sees its values as crucial for today's tribal
descendants - and all whose future depends on respect for the
interdependence of species.
beautiful ground," she says. "This spot was occupied by the
First Nation People of the Takelma for over 20,000 years. Our
people have a legend that salmon were people like us, who lived
in beautiful cities below the ocean floor and chose to come back
every year in the form of salmon to feed us."
ceremony acknowledges that sacrifice - and humans' duty to
ensure the survival of salmon in return.
reciprocity," Pilgrim says. "Our people used to do things in
moderation. They loved the salmon, so didn't fish them out.
We've gotten away from that. We've made garbage dumps of our
rivers and streams."
were important to the survival of dozens of Northwest tribes,
including the Kalapuya who lived in the Eugene-Springfield area.
More than two dozen bands formed the Confederated Tribes of
Siletz, and many of their descendants conduct salmon ceremonies,
says Selene Rilatos, the tribes' cultural activities
salmon is held very sacred to the native people," she says.
knows of no other ceremony that is open to the public. Pilgrim,
in fact, has been criticized for including non-Indians, as she
did at last weekend's 11th annual ceremony just below Applegate
Dam, south of Grants Pass.
said to me, `If this is a sacred ceremony, why are all these
people here?' " she recounts. "I said, `Because everyone eats
salmon nowadays, so we need to teach everyone to give back.' "
is affectionately known as "Grandma Aggie" - not only to her 18
grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren - but to dozens of
regulars who make up her salmon celebration "family."
as matriarch is evident around the campfire the night before the
ceremony. Her sharp eyes notice a new arrival, a mother with a
young child, behind the fire-lit circle.
a chair with that baby, Shay," Pilgrim directs her grandson.
"Move it up to the fire - she looks cold."
clearly in charge of the ceremony, Pilgrim makes a point of
involving others to ensure it will survive her.
Taylor, a Eureka, Calif., attorney, assists his mother in
slicing the $1,060 worth of salmon donated for the ceremony by
the Siletz tribes' Chinook Winds Casino.
young people thread each 3-inch filet onto a redwood stake,
Pilgrim reminds them how to do so - "belly meat up, so the oil
runs down," and shows them how to slip the sharpened stake just
between skin and meat.
"What if I
died tomorrow?" she asks her apprentices at one point. "Could
you guys go ahead and do this without me? Sure you could!"
37, says her grandmother has long trained family members to
become leaders one day.
was little, she'd have us walk across the room with Webster's
dictionary on our heads," Rilatos recalls. "She said,
`Oppression is still alive and well, and you will face
prejudice, but stand up strong and tall, and never be ashamed of
who you are.' "
was a time, however, when this ceremony would have felt as
foreign to Pilgrim as it still does to most Oregonians today.
great-grandfather was chief when the Army marched his Takelma
tribe 150 miles north to the Siletz reservation.
grandfather, Jack Harney, was the first elected chief of the
Confederated Tribes of Siletz.
1924, when she was born on the Lincoln County reservation, her
family no longer celebrated a formal salmon ceremony. The ranks,
languages and practices of individual tribes had been decimated
by disease, intermarriage and schools bent on assimilating
Indian students into white culture.
after graduating from Taft High School, Pilgrim embraced a more
urban life. She worked as a nurse in Portland and Vancouver. She
married and raised six children.
something about Southern Oregon felt like home. At 52, she moved
to Grants Pass and enrolled at Ashland's Southern Oregon
University. Studying local tribal culture while earning a degree
in psychology and American Indian history, she learned something
"A lot of
people around here thought all the Takelma people were gone,"
late husband, Grant Pilgrim, a member of Northern California's
Yurok tribe, she set out to resurrect her heritage. She has
since traveled all over the world as an expert on traditional
culture and environmentalism. In 2002, she was Southern Oregon's
alumna of the year for her work reviving traditional ways. With
Northern California resident Dennis Martinez, an O'odham tribal
member, the Pilgrims created the Takelma Intertribal Project.
The goal was to teach native ways of managing forests and
streams. They set out to find a natural setting where they could
the three found this meadow on public land just below Applegate
Dam, Aggie Pilgrim immediately recognized its suitability. She
tells and retells a story that seems to confirm the power of the
first revived salmon ceremony here in 1994.
from Fish & Wildlife came to me the next spring and said, `We
don't know what you've done, Aggie, but keep it up - there's
more fish in that river than ever before!' " she remembers with
Fustish, the current state salmon enhancement biologist for the
area, has no idea who might have made the remark. But department
fish counts back it up, he says.
spring chinook numbers at nearby Gold Ray Dam set a record that
still stands: 81,845 salmon passed through the Applegate that
year, up from 14,000 in 1994. Fish runs fluctuate because of
factors ranging from water volume and temperature to previous
years' commercial fishing limits.
Grant Pilgrim died in 1996, Aggie Pilgrim assumed sole
leadership of the salmon festival.
years, she even paid for it herself," says Patricia Ciminelo, a
Grants Pass neighbor who volunteers on the salmon committee. "A
few years ago, we started seeking donations, and next year we
hope to get a grant-writing committee going."
feast winds down, Pilgrim moves among the tables in her tribal
regalia, greeting old friends and meeting newcomers.
her grandparents and great-grandparents have thought of such a
they could have seen it," she says, surveying the crowd. "They
would have been so proud. But they know. They know