Honoring Our Tribal Elders: Shoalwater Bay Tribal Elder Anita Couture, 1933–2013

Anita Couture, formerly Anita Shipman, is one of the eldest members of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. She lives in a nursing home now, in a decorated room near Raymond, where photographs of her family line all of the walls, and her colorful and emphatic artwork decorates most surfaces. Anita’s artwork is very prized on the Bay, having won a blue ribbon in jewelry at a recent fair. During our interview, I looked at multiple bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, marveling at Anita’s creativity and skill. “Kind of comes naturally,” Anita said of her artwork.

Anita now enjoys a season of rest in which to create her artwork and care for her family, but her days were not always restful. “I’ve been a mother since I was eleven years old,” she told Keven and I. “That’s what I remember about my childhood in a way. Getting the kids ready for school, getting them home from school. What would you do if you had six little brothers and five little sisters?”

Anita says, her mother was quite the force to be reckoned with as well. “I remember she was a very hard-working lady. When she was born she was born with one leg about that much shorter than the other. That’s kind of hereditary to our family. It may have had to do with the way Indian women gave birth to babies in those days. They used to stand on the bed and jump to give birth, and the babies might break their hip. Mom would never wear a belted shoe or a brace. She walked on her tippy tippy toes and nobody on earth knew that she was crippled. She carried fourteen children. She was tiny, she was not five feet tall. She looked out for all of us–and threatened to knock our heads in. She tried to keep everyone straightened, but I was the boss.”

“Ohh, you took charge,” Keven said.

“Yup,” Anita responded in the affirmative. “I worked since I was thirteen. At Nelson’s Crab Cannery.  And I made good money. We shook crabs at nine cents a pound back then. They hired anyone that they could because those crabs had to bet shook or they’d get spoiled. We could work as many hours as we wanted because in those days they didn’t have the proper equipment [to keep the crabs]. And I used to make a dollar a day. And way back then that was better money than my dad made. Although,” she reminisced, “My dad made good money when he brought it back, because he had a boat and he’d go fishing.”

Though her father didn’t always bring the money home, he was a hard worker. “My dad was known as the best Indian guide in Tahola. And as you know, he wasn’t Indian. People came up and asked for the best guy on the Quinault river, John Doe. Indian guide. Oh yeah, my dad was very well-known. He was a good hunter. We probably would’ve starved to death if he couldn’t have hunted.

I went to jail with him when I was three years old. He went to jail for killing a deer off-rez. He could hunt on rez but not off rez because it wasn’t season. I was with him. I went everywhere with him. They were gonna drop me off at home, my dad said this is where we live. “I’m not going anywhere! I’m going with my daddy!” so they took me over to the courthouse and they took him to jail and I screamed hollared jumped up and down all night long. And then they were trying to give me a bath in a bathtub, I didn’t want none of that.”

Fascinated by Anita’s stories of her childhood, we asked her to tell us more about her education. Anita explained that she never went to school from the age of thirteen, but that didn’t make her any less of a force to contend with. “We Shipman’s were all very tough people, and all very smart people. Whether we went to school or not, we were very very very smart. We picked up on everything. All I had to do was sit and watch somebody do it to do it. I watched someone drive a car when I was four or five years old and I could do it.”

This reminded her of a funny story.  “I stole my dad’s Model T,” she intimated, smiling. “Me and my brother Gordon. We pushed it out from the blue house out to the road—of course there was no road going to Raymond—so we pushed it toward Aberdeen. My dad was watching us from the window,” she laughed.

This segued Keven into his next question. “What was the tribe like back then? Did they consider it a regular tribe?”

“We were not a tribe. We were not recognized Indian. We knew that we were Indian and we knew we lived in Georgetown. Well, it was called Beartown, Georgetown. It didn’t get recognized until the 1970s, I think. Earl Davis, Larry Davis, and Leah Thomas made a couple trips over [to Washinton D.C.].” These trips helped rally support on Washington D.C., and helped our tribe gain Federal Recognition. Anita believes that the people who went to D.C. should be honored for their actions. Now that the tribe is officially recognized, Anita has some ideas for how to improve it.

As an Elder, her ideas are very important to our well-being and need to be heard. “I would not like to see booze sold down there,” she suggests. She also believes that young people should be supported in their decisions as Tribal leaders. In her day, she explained, people actually believed non-Natives were smarter than Indians. “That’s always been the way people thought. When I was a kid, I was called a dirty dumb Indian, or a dumb dirty Indian, or whatever, you know? Well, I got in a lot of fights. Because I wasn’t dirty, and I wasn’t dumb, but I sure was tough!” Anita wants young tribal members to know that they are smart, and can make self-assured decisions with confidence. She wants to see
more Native youth in leadership positions.

“Do you think that a lot of people back there [on the rez], if they are called dumb, they still take it to heart?” Keven asked.

“Yeah. Even I do. If I hear it, or I think I hear it, I take offense. But I’ve learned in life to listen again. Because of this [being called dumb], people may not trust their own judgment.”

Though Anita left the reservation for some of her adult life, she always stayed tied to the culture and the land. “We always came back to family. Mom would come down so we could keep the house, because we didn’t want it to ever be declared. We’d keep the lights on and the telephone on. Then we got a letter saying that if we didn’t come back to Georgetown, the government was going to claim our land, and we weren’t going to have any Indian land anymore. We were trying to be recognized as a tribe, but didn’t have enough people here. They needed more to declare a tribe. We needed to show that we were making it a point to live here.”

At the end of the interview, Anita gave Keven and I a gift. We told her that the best gift she could give us is the gift of her stories, but nonetheless, she insisted on giving me a pair of beautifully beaded Native earrings, showing me a selection to choose from.

“How could I pick?” I asked, in love with them all.

“Pick the ones you like best,” she replied matter-of-factly with a laugh.

Keven and I returned to Anita’s nursing home to pay her a second visit and give her the gift of an Eagle feather to thank her for sharing her story. On that occasion, she gifted Keven with a set of hand-crafted Spirit Beads, which she explained are like the Coastal version of a dreamcatcher. We were inspired by her sincere generosity and kindness. It seemed clear that Anita loves all tribal members, and welcomes them to visit her at any time. Thank you, Anita, for sharing your stories with us. Hiyu Masi.

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