Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Keeping traditions alive: Kelli D. Palmer, Jacy Sohappy, and Michelle Jack share stories of their lives and inspirations at High Desert Museum

The three Indigenous artists say family, tradition, and education are currents running throughout their work.

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Kelli D. Palmer of Warm Springs shows the details in a cornhusk basket she made during a May 15 presentation at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Photo by: Robert Davis, courtesy High Desert Museum
Kelli D. Palmer of Warm Springs shows the details in a cornhusk basket she made. Palmer was one of three participants in a May 15 Indigenous artists panel at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Photo by: Robert Davis, courtesy High Desert Museum

Kelli D. Palmer, a master basket weaver from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, learned her skills from her mother. Jacy Sohappy, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, followed her grandmother around constantly, learning how to sew, do beadwork, and make other vital Indigenous arts and crafts. Michelle Jack, of the syilx/Northern Okanagan/Penticton Indian Band, found inspiration from her paternal grandmother as well as the ancestral lands of her people in the Okanagan Valley.

For these three artists, who spoke last week on a panel at the High Desert Museum in Bend, family, tradition, and education are three currents that run through all of their work.

Sohappy, traditional arts manager with the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in Pendleton, says she grew up in the tribal longhouse and on the powwow trail. Along the way, she learned from her grandmother how to sew, making clothing for longhouse ceremonies as well as everyday wear. Some of those clothing items include antique beads passed down through the family and applied with care, creativity, and intention. It’s how her grandmother would have wanted it, Sohappy said.

“I loved powwowing with her. She’s my muse. She’s who I want to impress still today, even though she’s not here,” Sohappy said. “When I create these dresses, I’m creating them like I’m going to take them to her, and she’s going to flip them inside out to see if I burned the knots and how I tied them.… So that’s how I create my work, thinking that she’s going to go over it.”

Jacy Sohappy embellished this denim jacket for a fashion show, decorating the back with bone carved to look like elk teeth. A hunter, Sohappy said she saves real elk teeth from her hunts to use on ceremonial objects. Photo by: Robert Davis, courtesy High Desert Museum

Palmer said it’s tradition that grandmothers impart their wisdom to their grandchildren, because grandchildren often are left in the care of their elders while their parents work. In her case, though, that almost didn’t happen. Her own grandmother was sent to a boarding school in Oklahoma and was prohibited from learning the traditional ways.

“So, she never got to learn anything back until much later on in life. My mother and her got to go to classes together. So, I’m glad that they were able to. And as I was growing up, my grandmother was learning the same kind of things I was learning,” Palmer said. “So, we were learning how to gather food together, learning how to can together.

“And that was my biggest inspiration — was being able to teach and also to learn. So, to this day, even though I teach a lot of cornhusk baskets, and I’m considered a master weaver of these types of baskets, I always see myself as a student at the same time.”

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Michelle Jack (from left), Kelli D. Palmer, and Jacy Sohappy spoke May 15 at the High Desert Museum in Bend, sharing stories of their work and inspirations. Photo by: Robert Davis, courtesy High Desert Museum

Jack, whose multimedia art practice includes painting, sculpture, and photography, fuses traditional forms with more contemporary styles. Jack, who has a Ph.D. in American Studies, splits her time between Omak, Wash., and Penticton, British Columbia, where she teaches at the En’owkin Centre, an Indigenous cultural, educational, ecological, and creative arts organization.

She also has a deep connection to a grandparent that’s reflected in her art. One painting took her 20 years to complete and features her father’s mother. Over the years, she kept adding layers to the piece; it now hangs in her living room.

“She was a big influence on me,” Jack said. “I always spent a lot of time with her in my early painting and oil painting days.”

Just as all three absorbed the wisdom of their family matriarchs, all three are aware of the need to continue sharing these skills and traditions with the next generation.

“It’s so cool that all of that knowledge was poured from one cup to another cup to another cup until it made it down to me,” Sohappy said. “And I think it’s so cool that these women fought so hard to make sure I knew that this stuff is also important.”

Palmer doesn’t have children of her own to pass her knowledge on to, but she finds joy in teaching others. She also is finding ways to keep those family connections strong.

Her mother, she said, “is suffering with memory issues, but every time I bring out baskets, or every time I tell her about my new class I’ve taught, she lights up, she remembers things, and that’s our connection, and that’s what makes me proud to be her daughter, is to be able to pass on that knowledge to our own people. So that makes me happy and proud to be able to see her being able to remember that part of her life.”

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Carolyn Lamberson

Carolyn Lamberson is a longtime Pacific Northwest newspaper journalist who has worked at daily newspapers in Eugene, Roseburg, Bend, Vancouver, and Spokane. A former features editor for The Spokesman-Review, she covered music, visual arts, literary arts, and theater in the Inland Northwest. While there, she created and curated the newspaper’s annual short fiction series, Summer Stories, which in its 10-year run featured works by authors such as Jess Walter, Jamie Ford, Sharma Shields, Tiffany Midge, and Shawn Vestal. She now lives with her family in Central Oregon, where in her spare time she enjoys sitting along the banks of the Deschutes River and knitting.

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