Since the 1960s, The Lelooska family has been working to educate and bring awareness to the history and cultural heritage of the Native People of North America. The chief was given his name at age 12 when he was adopted by the Nez Perce. Lelooska means “He Who Cuts Against Wood with a Knife” and has become a treasured family name symbolic of their work.
Every spring, the Lelooska Foundation, which was established in 1977, welcomes visitors to their Cultural Center in Ariel. This year’s celebrations will be held on Sat., May 18 and Sat., June 8, for evening living history performances. Set in the fire-lit replica of a Kwa’kwaka’wakw ceremonial house, the living history program consists of dramatic narration and dance presentation of traditional Northwest Coast ceremonial masks.
Chief Tsungani, Lelooska’s younger brother, and the Lelooska Family dancers bring each mask to life with song, dance, story and costume that illustrate the particular cultural aspect of each mask.
“Initially, Lelooska and his family put them on with the help of OMSI, but once the foundation was established, he was able to start working with local schools and bringing our culture to them and our neighbors,” said Lelooska’s niece and Tsungani’s daughter, Mariah Reese. “It was always important to him to work with children because Lelooska understood that educating them at an early age would help them appreciate our history as they grew up.”
The son of Shona-Hah, who was born in a black walnut cabin in Oklahoma’s old Cherokee Nation, Lelooska lived with his mother, two brothers and sister in Hubbard, OR before relocating to Kalama in 1957. They lived there for two years but Lelooska left his mark on the town by carving its iconic totem poles entirely himself, a skill he honed as a boy working with his grandfather, He-Killer.
“Our grandfather advised us to take the best of both worlds, the Indian’s and non-Indian’s, and combine them so that they would complement and enrich each other,” Lelooska said. “This we have done, but always, our Indianness is the focus of our lives.”
“There are other examples of his work in Longview, at the Oregon Zoo and OMSI and elsewhere in the Portland and southern Washington areas,” said Reese. “He really was a very skilled woodcarver and made some beautiful totem poles.”
Lelooska’s work is often prized by collectors of Native American artifacts. Along with totem poles, he crafted opening masks, carved panels, feast bowls, rattles, and animal sculptures, many of which can be seen at the Cultural Center along with baskets, tomahawks, moccassins, dolls, pipes and pipe bags and a 15-foot birch bark canoe.
“We have a treasure trove of things that can educate and provide insight on native culture, which is what my uncle always wanted, the sharing of knowledge,” said Reese.
Despite his Cherokee descent, Lelooska transcended the normal confines of any single tribe, devoting himself to learning multiple native languages. Along with Chinook Jargon, the trade language of the coast, he was a student of the Kwakiutl and was conversant in half a dozen other dialects. As part of his pursuit of knowledge and culture, the Kwakiutl named Lelooska with the old title of Gixken, or “Chief of Chiefs.”
When he passed away in 1996, Lelooska’s titles passed to Tsungani, who works with his sister, Patty Fawn, and his children to continue to bring awareness to the Northwest Native culture and heritage.
Recent years have seen consistent numbers of people come to Ariel to visit the Cultural Center, but Reese hopes even more come out this season to become acquainted with the ancient roots of the Pacific Northwest.
“We always love having visitors because we have an opportunity to show them things they may have never seen before,” said Reese.
The Lelooska Cultural Center and Museum is located at 165 Merwin Village Rd. in Ariel. The Living History performances start at 7 p.m. in the Lelooska Family ceremonial house and lasts approximately two hours. The grounds, including the Lelooska Museum, open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for children 12-and-under and seating is limited so advanced reservations are necessary.
To reserve tickets, call (360) 225-9522. More information about Chief Lelooska and the Lelooska Foundation can be found at their website, www.lelooska.org. The website is in the process of being updated over the next few weeks.