Enjoy reading about the wonderful community that has developed around this annual event.

February 25, 2013

Speaker Announcement: Lillian Pitt and Toma Villa, Celebrating Heritage Through Art
Category: 2013 Event, News, Speaker Announcements

Lillian Pitt and Toma Villa

For thousands of years, Lillian Pitt’s ancestors lived harmoniously in the Columbia River Gorge, a backbone of one of the largest trade networks in all Native America. But as dams were constructed and Native Americans were moved to reservations, some of her ancestors’ precious stories and traditions were lost.

Lillian PittLillian was in her 30s when she learned her ancestors had lived in the Columbia River Gorge for more than 10,000 years, and discovering this fact made her all the more inspired to preserve her heritage.

“After 32 years of being a hardworking artist, I have slowed down and had time to think of what more I can do to help the younger Native Americans,” Lillian, a Portland sculptor and mixed media artist, says.

Lillian learned that if she was quiet enough to listen, an answer would come. Just as she was seeking ways to reach young Native Americans, she received an opportunity to teach schools along the Columbia River Gorge about the salmon fishing her ancestors had done for thousands of years at Celilo Falls.

Once a trading hub, the falls were damed and flooded in 1957. Many young people had no idea that when the Falls flooded, pictographs, petroglyphs and entire villages were washed away.

Along with teaching, Lillian became a mentor to Toma Villa, a young muralist and iron caster from the Yakama Nation. As she introduced him to people who could help him in his artistic career and invited him to join her for special events, a partnership developed.

Toma VillaToma previously worked as a tile setter. But watching how hard older generations of men worked right up to retirement made him realize he wanted to pursue a different path—art.

“I think that as we get older we become serious people and forget how to play,” Toma says. “I take in as much as I can from hanging out with the kids I work with as well as my own kids. Play and enjoy life as it is instead of being stuck behind a computer, cell phone or TV and remember the joys of life.”

Together, Lillian and Toma have helped to revive some of the traditions of their ancestors through art. With the Confluence Project, part of seven collaborative art sites on the Columbia River Gorge designed by internationally renowned architect Maya Lin, the two interpret Native American art history and ecology. And their work on Fisher’s Memorial, a public art project, will be featured the Columbia Hill State Park for the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission.

Today, Lillian says she’s proud of who she is as a Pacific Northwest Native American, and proud of her people, who call themselves “River People.” She’s also proud to be working with a young Native American man who has embraced his heritage.

Toma is hoping to be accepted as a large-scale sculpture artist at the next international iron casting conference in Latvia for the summer of 2014 and plans to go to the next Gathering of Native Artists in New Zealand.

“Everything I do, regardless of the medium, is directly related to honoring my ancestors and giving voice to the people, the environment and the animals,” Lillian says. “It’s all about maintaining a link with tradition, and about honoring the many contributions my ancestors have made to this world.”

“If we know our basic values of respect for all living things, doing the right thing is a lot easier,” Lillian says.

Lisa Anderson

Lisa Anderson is a Hawthorne-based storyteller, adventure lover and a dress-up queen. She’s one of several storytellers who will be sharing write-ups, interviews, and perspectives on the many extraordinary people from our surrounding community.