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102-year-old tribal elder shares wisdom

Has been a mentor to many

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - Nettie Showaway, at High Lookee Lodge,  chuckles over a stuffed toy gift someone gave her.


   At 102 years, Nettie Showaway is cherished not only as the longest-living member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, but also for the gifts she has shared with others.
   "She is my teacher and mentor and taught me everything, from language and culture, to tradition and history," said her niece Neda Wesley.
   Showaway (also spelled Shawaway), whose birthday is Nov. 3, was honored at a birthday party at Agency Longhouse last November, sponsored by the Tribes. A Seven Drum Washut service was held to give thanks for the elder's longevity, then all the assembled relatives and friends got to shake her hand and wish her a happy birthday.
   A resident of High Lookee Lodge, Nettie enjoys getting weekly visits from Wesley, who speaks her native Sahaptin language and is Nettie's official translator.
   Speaking half in Sahaptin and half in English, and with the help of Wesley, Nettie answered questions and shared some of her history last week. Though her hearing and eyesight have diminished, Nettie has kept her good humor and made jokes during the conversation, which got Wesley to laughing.
   Nettie's parents were farmers and had a homestead in Happy Valley near Simnasho. Her parents were on a trip to get supplies in Warm Springs when her mother went into labor, so they stopped at a home in Tenino where Nettie was born.
   Her mother was Millie (Swan) Queahpama and her father was Frank Queahpama. "He was a strong, healthy person. An uncle Patana-shut was an original Warm Springs Chief. When he passed away my father inherited that chieftainship. As the chief's wife, my mother had the obligation of feeding and caring for people," Nettie said.
   She has outlived all her brothers and sisters, which included Matilda Mitchell, May John, Sylvia Wallulatum, Oscar, and Clayton Queahpama.
   "The sisters were a real three-some and always used to say, `What are we going to do without each other? If one dies, they'll have to shoot the others,'" Wesley said, noting they joked about it, but learned to cope when the time came. Longevity ran in their family, with their mother living to be over 100 years old, Matilda living into her 90s and Sylvia into her 80s.
   She has fond childhood memories of the Indian dolls her mother used to make for her and her sisters, and the times they got to climb in back of their grandmothers' saddles and go for horseback rides.
   There were also annual food-gathering excursions.
   "Four or five families would caravan in wagons to fish. Their goal was to preserve at least 200 salmon for winter use. Mother dried the fish. Later they learned how to can from the preacher's wife. They did the same when the huckleberries were ripe. They would caravan to the mountains and go to a different site each year, so the berries would have a chance to grow back," Nettie said.
   Later they picked cherries for money in The Dalles and her mother would also can lots of cherries for the winter.
   The Queahpama children attended day school in Simnasho up to the sixth grade, and had to walk two miles to get there, she noted, adding children from Schoolie Flats had to walk six miles.
   Wesley chuckled over Nettie's response the time she was complaining because today's Simnasho students have to get up at 6 a.m. to catch the school bus.
   "I don't think that's bad. I was 6 years old and I had to walk that distance. At least they can sleep all the way to school on the bus," Nettie told her.
   After sixth grade, she was sent to boarding school in Warm Springs, and said it was a rude awakening. "The life style was different and they treated us like soldiers from morning to night," she said of the regimented boarding school system.
   "We were practically ordered to go to Presbyterian Church. The churches were built to help our people be `tamed,' but we were never hostile, so why did we need to be tamed?" she asked. "But the churches did help us to learn to read, and understand English faster," she said. She had difficulty learning English in her early education, since Sahaptin was the only language spoken in their home.
   Students had to follow strict rules at boarding school and were punished when they didn't. "When I was 12, I was waving at the boys and got whipped for it, and still have scars on my back from it. I was going to go on a home visit, but they told my parents I was in trouble and couldn't go because they were trying to conceal my wounds from them. So I had to stay at school," Nettie said.
   In their own tribal Seven Drum Washut religion people were taught to be reverent, respectful and courteous. Men and women had traditional roles and followed them.
   "We never had to be whipped to learn because of the respect we had for each other. We knew our roles and just a glance of an eye told us what to do," Nettie said.
   A good student, she went on to attend high school at Chemawa Indian School in Salem. After school she lived in Pendleton for a few years, then returned to Warm Springs, and in 1939 married William McCorkle. Though she had held jobs and performed well doing cleaning and washing for others, Nettie said, "My mother-in-law used to hit me with a broom because I wasn't fast enough with the housework."
   She had two children, Gloria and Warren, who both died in infancy. "Because she lost her own children, it made her love other people's children more. She was a well-known babysitter," Wesley observed.
   Active in the community, Nettie helped found the Warm Springs Ladies Auxiliary, which just observed its 50th anniversary, and she and her sisters helped start the Lincoln's Day Powwow, which continues today.
   "The idea for the powwow was to keep the young people interested in their culture. In those days there was no tribal contribution (for dance contest prizes) and it was all done through fund-raising. Nettie remembers once a quart of her canned huckleberries sold for $38 at a fund-raiser," Wesley said.
   At the 16-bed Indian Health Service hospital in Warm Springs she worked as a nurse's aide and later a cook until she and her second husband Alba "Apples" Showaway, the ceremonial chief of the Yakamas, were married.
   "I loved my job as a cook, but when we married we moved to his Yakama reservation. My two co-workers Matilda Stacona, the head cook, and Sophie Brunoe cried when I left," Nettie recalled. She lived in Yakama until her husband passed away, then moved back to Warm Springs in 1968.
   When asked her secret for reaching 102 years, Nettie credits her food and her faith for keeping her going.
   "I ate only traditional foods, no sweeteners. Food taken right out of the ground and picked out of the forests, along with the fish and deer," she noted.
   "My father was like a minister leader in the Seven Drum Washut religion in the longhouse. I would wake up very early and take a cold bath and groom myself to meet the Sabbath day. I still pray every day now," she said.
   She advises others to follow those two practices and also feels that mothers should stay at home with their children, but realizes that may not be economically possible these days.
   Today, from her room at High Lookee Lodge, Nettie still likes to keep up on reservation gossip.
   "I try not to bring her bad news, but she finds out things. One day she asked me `Who got stabbed?' and I hadn't even heard about it yet. She learns the news before I do," Wesley laughed.
   She relishes the Indian foods Wesley brings her and has a small refrigerator in her room to keep them in. She greatly enjoys visits from her companion dog "Gush Gush" (means "one dog" in Sahaptin), which her nephew brings to see her twice a week.
   With all the illness going around this winter Wesley was concerned about Nettie's health. Especially since at her 102nd birthday party the elder had predicted she wouldn't live to see Ground Hog's Day in February.
   Last week, when Wesley mentioned the prediction, the two women laughed about it.
   "She changed her mind. She said she's going to live to torture us some more years," Wesley said of her auntie who still loves to tease and joke.