Honoring Our Tribal Elders: Shoalwater Bay Tribal Elder Leatta Shipman, 1946.

Leatta “Lee” Shipman
Birthday: 1/12/1946
Favorite Color: Reddish Maroon.
Pets: One cat named Target.
Wisdom for the Children: “The best thing is to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Try things. And have faith. That’s my biggest thing: I believe in God and I trust him and listen to him.”

Georgia Fryback said it best when she wrote a poem entitled Elders. It reads as follows, “Elders: strong, silent, listening. They see; as we struggle to grow, seek wisdom, become them. We honor and cherish the old ones as they show us the way.” These words ring true when one speaks of honored Tribal Elder Leatta “Lee” Shipman. Wherever Lee goes on the reservation, she is a presence that is welcomed and honored. Indeed, she was born on our sacred Tribal land, in her mother Rachel’s home. The Kopa Tilicum team is grateful that Lee chose to share her story with us, as one of the Shipman children who was adopted out at a young age. Thank you, Auntie Lee, for your candidness.

“I was the last child born there,” Lee remembered, as we sat together on her back porch on a beautiful sunny day. “After that the boys, Frank and George and Ike were born in the hospital. I lived there till I was about nine, and then I was adopted out. They took me to a foster home, and I was adopted by other people.” Lee explained that her birth mother, Rachel, had at that time left the home, and her father, Vernon, planned for the children to be adopted. “The welfare lady came, and it was obviously planned because my dad had us all ready to go. There were six of us that were taken away.”

Lee remembers a feeling of fear, as though things were not quite right. “My father had sent my older sister Joann away, so she wouldn’t be there. They weren’t going to take her; she was too old. He got us all into the car. We all knew that something was up. Frank was the youngest at the time, he was probably five. It was Frank, George, me, Pete, Libby, and Verna who were taken away.”

Auntie Lee paused to take a sip of her iced tea with lemon, the weight of the story still heavy upon her, though years had transpired since the event. I, too, felt the power of the story. She continued, “Joann came walking down the street and she saw all of us in the car, and she knew. She started screaming for us to get out of the car, get out of the car. That made me realize there was danger. I was sitting in the back seat on someone’s lap, and I leaned over the seat and started hitting the driver, the welfare lady. My dad pulled me off, and she drove away real quick with us kids. Joann was still running down the street trying to catch us. She was crying, screaming.”

Though initially the experience of being forcefully removed from her family was traumatic, Lee describes her adoptive parents with honor and respect. She and Frank were adopted by Irene and Jay Hanson. Lee said she is happy with the parents who adopted her, and she knew that she was meant to be with them, but pointed out the error of adoptive practices in those days, because Indian children weren’t sent to Indian homes. However, the people who adopted her were good people, she explained, working people who always had food on the table and took Lee and her brother to church.

For a year, Lee and Frank lived in Kennewick. From there, they moved the family to Indiana, where Lee stayed for forty-five years. Lee explained that while her parents were unable to have children, they always treated Lee and Frank like their own. In Indiana, Jay Hanson worked at the steel mills before getting a job as a mechanic.

Lee, for her part, was a bright student. She was offered a four-year scholarship to a language college, which she turned down. Forgoing this, Lee chose to marry, and at the tender age of eighteen, became a wife. “It was common back then,” Lee explained, “for better or for worse.” Lee had three children, Anita, Tony, and Janna, and while she was content with where she was in life, a stirring began to grow inside of her—a hunger for home, and homeland.

“When I was around thirty, I just decided it was time to find our family. I knew our names, I knew I was Shipman. I remembered everybody’s name. I went to the biggest library in the area where I lived. I sat there all day and went through Washington State phonebooks until I found Gordon Shipman. I called several times, but he never answered his phone, and I never left a message. Too scared. Finally, Frank and I got someone to write to Gordon, and we little-by-little reunited. I think first Libby, Anita, and my dad came out to Indiana to visit us. And then Rachel, my mom, and Gordon, and Herb, and Sabina came.”

“What was it like,” I asked, “seeing your family like that after all those years?”
“I was really anxious to see my brothers and sisters,” Lee recalled.

After seeing them, Lee began to come back to the reservation more often to visit and get to know people. At one point, Lee came to live on the reservation for a year. She came following the passing of her son, Tony, who was twenty-two. When Lee told this part of her story, I began to feel the threads of culture, history, and homeland weaving together in a beautiful narrative. “Coming home really helped me heal,” Lee said. “The people here helped me heal. They really did. I used to carry little Joel around; he was about this big,” she motioned with her hands the size of an infant.

“I lived in Sabina’s house, and Hollie lived over where Jim Anderson lives. Joel was just a baby; Crystal was small too. Gordon and I went to football games. We spent a lot of time together. We were Christians. We would walk around, we would walk the beaches. We went to different churches, and he helped me find a church I would like. My brother Gordon was really proud of his kids. We would go to the ball games to see Mike playing football all of Mike’s senior year. Not long after I left, Gordon passed away.”

“I was just a little baby at the time,” I said.
“Yeah, I think you were here because your mom lived across the street. I do remember Lory having two little kids, ‘cause they lived across the street in T’s house.”

Lee eventually came back to the reservation, and six years ago she began to run one of the most successful Emergency Management programs in the State. I recall a few years ago, when an Emergency Management trainer came to the reservation for a conference, and he praised Lee’s efforts, saying, “Lee is setting the standard for Emergency Management in the country right now.” Uncle Keven and I brought this up. “Built the program mighty fine, if I do say so,” Uncle Keven said, smiling.

All of the people living on the reservation have cause to be thankful for Lee’s efforts. The program brings emergency preparedness to reservation folks in the event of a tsunami, or any natural disaster. It trains people and gives them resources, promoting education and hands-on training, conferences, and building team leadership. For living in an area of Washington which can seem threatening with the proximity to the ocean being so close, reservation dwellers feel significantly safer due to Lee’s dedication and drive.

“Well, since we’re there,” Lee said, smiling proudly, “Just last week I was named the only Tribal Rep of the United States to be at a F.E.M.A. meeting. The committee has been in existence for two years. There are supposed to be twelve people on it, and they realized, hmm, we didn’t put a Tribal person on there.” Lee came highly recommended to the board.

Besides her work in Emergency Management, Lee participates in many cultural activities. “I love to make vests for Elders and honored people. I made one for Mike. He came over and asked me to make one, and he was Vice Chair. He said he would trade me one of his carved paddles for a vest. I would LOVE to have a paddle, and I really really want one, but I felt honored that he asked me to make that vest, and I told him I would make him the vest and I would be honored to do it. He didn’t have to exchange the paddle. But I want a paddle from him.”

“We’ll give a subtle hint,” Keven said, and all of us shared a laugh.

It is understandable why anyone would like one of Lee’s vests. They are red and black, and adorned with beautiful abalone patterns. They are also reversible, and can be worn with either the black or red featured. Lee enumerated, “I love to sew. I like to bead, but I can’t do it because of my arthritis. I like to do the drumming. I LOVE Powwows and all the dancing.”

“I love powwows,” I said.
“I know you do,” Lee said, smiling.

She went on to talk about other Tribal members who were great artists, such as her brother, my grandpa. “Gordon carved some leather, beautiful leather. I actually gave it to Lory. I kept it for her all those years, and after I moved back here and got to know Lory, God told me to give it to Lory. It was something she needed to have. Her dad carved it. It was gorgeous. God told me after I got to know Lory a little bit. She wasn’t living here yet; she was over visiting. I think I gave it to Todd to give to her.”

Lee went on to say that it is her people, her family, and these kinds of connections that made her life so rich and full. “I love to be here,” she said. “I love my people—love all my people.”

I asked Lee what words of wisdom she might like to share with the children and her people. “The best thing is to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Who would ever think that I would be able to accomplish the things I’ve done in Emergency Management? I know it’s not me. I know it’s God who does it, but I’ve talked to generals and governors, and admirals, and people in Washington D.C. without any kind of formal training, other than the training that I’ve gotten in the last six years. Don’t be afraid to try things. And have faith. That’s my biggest thing. I believe in God and I listen to him. Mostly.”

The three of us shared a laugh. “Mostly,” I said. “I like that little post-script.”
“Well, everybody fails sometimes,”Lee acknowledged with a smile.
“I agree,” Keven said.
“Thanks for all your honesty,” I said.

It is a beautiful thing when an Elder chooses to share his or her story. But these stories are not just limited to official interviews. Anyone who wishes to glean such wisdom needs only to knock on the door of one of their Tribal Elders, and those Elders will welcome them into their homes with open arms. There is nothing like visiting an Elder and being filled with her warm presence and love.