This series focuses on different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary Tribal culture and explores how traditional ways of life have continued forward throughout colonization and settlement of Oregon. This collection of writings and interviews showcases the history and resiliency of Oregon’s First Peoples.
In the last installment of the series, I focused on Greg Archuleta and the Lifeways class. In this installment, I want to focus on how traditional carver Qahir Beejee Jamil Peco-Llaneza connected with her own family and Indigenous traditions through the Lifeways class. I also think it’s important to show how reclaiming Indigenous heritage can be complex and requires one to navigate many layers of intergenerational trauma.
Grand Ronde Tribal member Qahir Beejee Jamil Peco-Llaneza, or Beejee for short, is a Rogue River Umpqua Indian; that tribe’s ancestral territory is located in southern Oregon. Beejee is happily retired now after serving many years as an educator in traditional school settings and institutions like Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. She was also the Division Director for Children and Family Services at Volunteers of America: “As Division Director, I oversaw a childcare program, a wellness program for African-American families and Latina/Latino-American families, the state parenting program, a domestic violence program (shelter and transitional programs), and CourtCare, which is a childcare program in the Multnomah Courthouse while parents are in court proceedings.” Currently, she is the treasurer for the Threads of Justice Collective, a nonprofit group that trains people working toward the elimination of oppression and social justice. Beejee has dedicated her life to helping others, and it’s clear from her professional history that she possesses immense compassion for all people, not just her own community.
INDIGENOUS RESILIENCE IN OREGON: An ArtsWatch Series
Part of what makes Beejee’s carving work so special is the stories behind them. Sometimes they are referring to ancestral knowledge, sometimes she’s using traditional techniques to talk about contemporary issues. The image below features one of her many hand-carved cedar boxes, depicting salmon that look “deformed,” as she describes them, subtly hinting at the grave environmental challenges that West Coast salmon face. Her carvings feel modern, with clean geometry lines and symmetry, but they also are informed by generations of tradition and reflect the unique cultural background that she possesses.
Beejee’s father immigrated from the Philippines, and she is also the great granddaughter of Mary Peco-Peters. Known to Oregon’s first European settlers as “Indian Mary,” Peters was an Indigenous woman who operated a ferry on the Rogue River in the late 1800s that transported miners and their supplies across the water. There is confusion as to whether Mary is Rogue (Takelma) or Umpqua, or both. Mary’s father was known to Oregon settlers as “Umpqua Joe,” a member of the Grave Creek Band of the Umpqua People. In 1985, some of Mary’s original allotment near the Rogue River was converted into a public park and named for her; the area is fifteen miles northwest of what is now called Grants Pass.
Beejee was born in San Francisco, but doesn’t remember it. She spent much of her youth in Portland. As she grew up she learned that her mother was forced to attend the Chemawa Indian boarding school in Salem as a young girl. Oregonians are just now discovering the state’s hidden history of Indian boarding schools and the programs of assimilation that were deployed mercilessly upon Oregon’s first people.
As Beejee recalls, her mom “very seldom ever spoke of it … only if we drove down the highway would she look over and say how horrible that place was. … Mom had a lot of wounds and hurt and from that came a lot of anger and despair from having been in government school. So, I grew up with a lot of anger and hatred towards everything.”
Sadly, her mom’s experience was very common for Indigenous children of a certain era in American history. The policy of government-run Indian boarding schools was also implemented throughout Canada. Each country is now forever saddled with a brutal and well-documented legacy of violent assimilation and state-sanctioned child abuse.
As tribal historian and Grand Ronde member Dr. David Lewis explains in his essay on the history of Native education in the US:
Education and assimilation policies are written into tribal treaties and take three tracts. The first is a conversion of Native adults to farmers, to assimilate them to a more productive lifeway (To European Protestants) by making all native people farmers. In treaties, this conversion to farming is specified. Then through religious conversion. Many treaties specify “to encourage missionaries to come among them” which means religious conversion or saving them from the evils of being non-believers. Third, through education in schools. Native children were to be taught in schools American culture. Schools in the 1850s and into the 20th century were built on a religious base of knowledge, most were taught by teachers or scholars who had come directly from church scholarship, and so in nearly all schools, colleges, and universities students were taught western cultural traditions, as well as taught Christianity from the Bible. History education was very religious and replete with social-darwinistic concepts.
Oregon was home to one of the first Indian boarding schools in the country. In fact, McMenamin’s Grand Lodge in Forest Grove was the original site for the United States Indian Industrial and Training School before it was moved to Salem and renamed the Chemawa Indian School. These schools were the brainchild of Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who infamously said, “Kill the Indian, and save the man,” and they were singularly focused on the forced assimilation of Indigenous children into white society. The schools, originally authorized by the U.S. government and run by members of the U.S. Army, established a system in which native children were taken from their parents’ care and sent far away to Salem. Many of the children died in the Indian boarding school system, while many more were physically abused or traumatized by their colonial caretakers. The violent legacy of the Indian residential schools continues to impact the descendants of those children, and Beejee is one of them.
Inherited intergenerational trauma is a reality for many members of Indigenous communities. Often we are tasked with navigating multiple generations of oppression, along with unraveling our own. One of the ways Native people find the path toward healing is through the reclamation of culture and tradition. The Lifeways class framework that Greg Archuleta created goes beyond the confines of a “class” and creates a tangible and lasting impact in the lives of Oregon’s Indigenous people.
Beejee saw how her mom’s experiences at Chemawa shaped the way she saw the world, and knew “I didn’t want to live like that and I also wanted a connection to my tribe … through therapy I healed a lot of my own wounds and came to terms with my life, and wanted to give back something different to my family. … In 2012 my son was getting a divorce and my granddaughter was going to live with her mother and I didn’t want to lose touch with her. She was about 16 at the time and she was a budding artist.”
Beejee knew Greg Archuleta from previous tribal events, and heard about the art classes offered at the new Grand Ronde Portland office. So, she decided it was “time to piss or get off the pot,” called her granddaughter, and they made a plan to attend Lifeways art classes together once a week.
She explained that the Lifeways class “was a really healthy way to pass on the culture and not pass on wounds. To pass the connection to the land, to the water, to the earth, the stories of our people, and our connection with each other.”
Initially, Beejee and her granddaughter decided to try everything. Beejee recalled that beading and weaving were some of their first creative explorations: “I’m not that great of a weaver because I think it takes too long to do it.” Eventually, she was led to the craft she masterfully practices now: traditional wood carving, which also takes a lot of time. Over the last decade, Beejee has become a talented carver, making objects that range from beautifully adorned red cedar boxes to rattles, vessels, spoons, and relief print blocks.
One of my favorite kinds of objects that she makes are cedar boxes carved entirely from one solid piece of wood. And while her style is absolutely rooted in traditional forms, it often feels quite contemporary, with a clean geometric dimensionality that grabs your eye.
The Lifeways classes offered Beejee a path to reconnect with her culture and reclaim the practices and languages that were almost lost through colonization. “I began to fulfill that yearning I always had to be more connected to the earth,” she says. Beejee has continued to encourage her grandkids to attend Lifeways. “I was able to encourage and support my oldest grandson in learning Chinuk Wawa (the common language of the Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes) in high school, and encourage him to grasp the beauty of our culture and the richness of who we are. My youngest grandson also learned Chinuk in the tribe’s language immersion program. He loves to drum and I was able to make him a drum. He has learned many of the tribal songs, which gives him a heart connection to his culture.” Beejee’s youngest granddaughter is learning traditional carving now, and she is also the first traditional dancer in the family in at least three generations. It’s evident that the Lifeways class has positively impacted multiple generations of just this one family alone.
Today, Beejee enjoys creating pieces that incorporate traditional stories. “I like having my art tell a story. Maybe one of our stories or maybe a story about today. I have one rattle that I made with a school of salmon swimming in this beautiful frame zigzag (Chinuk style art) on one side and on the other side is a school of fish but they look all beat up or deformed, and the frame around them is broken, with part floating away. I also carved a rattle during the COVID year which is about brokenness and hard times.” Beejee’s covid rattle is carved from cedar and shows the traditional patterns of the Chinook tribe as being broken into pieces, reflecting the widespread loss of elders and relatives that Indigenous people have experienced during the pandemic.
When she’s not carving, Beejee is a teacher at the Ruhaniat Sufi Institute, which is a spiritual tradition based in Love and Harmony. She has been a member since 2003 and a teacher since 2013. She is also a dancer, dance leader, and instructor for the Dances of Universal Peace (previously known as Sufi dancing) since 2001. Before she became a dance leader Beejee was also a musician, playing drum and guitar for many years. Her kindness and commitment to building and serving the community extends from her identity as an Indigenous person and filters through all of her interactions with other people, friends and strangers alike.