Isabell Ides, one of the last living links to old Indian ways on the Northwest Coast, died Wednesday, June 21, 2001 on the Makah reservation. She was 101.
Known by everyone in the small fishing village of Neah Bay simply as Isabell, this eldest of elders had more than 100 direct descendants. In this tribe that is so focused on authentically living their ancient culture, Isabell served as the matriarch of the Makah.
She was one of just a few people left who grew up speaking the Makah language. Isabell did not learn English until her teenage years, when she was sent away to a boarding school in Tacoma. There, like thousands of other native children of the time, she was punished if she was found speaking her native tongue.
But the language and culture have endured and even prospered since then, in part because of Isabell’s lifelong commitment to teach what it means to be Makah, say many at Neah Bay.
“She taught literally hundreds of people language and basketry,” said Janine Bowechop of the Makah Museum and Cultural Center. “Those were the formal things she was known for as far as cultural preservation goes. But she was probably loved by more people than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“She taught me who I was,” said her grandson Gordon Smith. “She emphasized how you should act, how you should be, how to participate in culture.”
When a fierce storm in the 1960s unearthed a centuries-old Makah village at Ozette, Isabell and other tribal elders were called upon to identify perfectly preserved artifacts that were a mystery to archaeologists.
“When they were growing up at the turn of the century, they still had some of the kind of toys that they had, had for centuries,” said Clapanhoo. The toys, he said, were a reflection that the culture was still alive.
Isabell also taught numerous outsiders what it meant to be Makah as a kind of informal ambassador for the tribe.
In the summers, Isabell would move from the village to her home on a dirt road along Tsoo-yes Beach. It is the last house, on the last road in the farthest Northwest tip of the United States. Hikers on the way to the Olympic National Park’s wilderness beaches would park in her yard and put a few dollars in the milk box on her porch. The lucky ones might spend a few minutes with her, or buy one of the baskets for which she was famous.
“She had baskets all over the world that she sold to tourists,” said Smith, who is vice chairman of the tribe.
College students would come with their professors to visit Isabell and spend the day weaving baskets while she told them Makah legends.
Isabell credited her longevity to her strong Christian faith. She was a Sunday school teacher and member of the Assembly of God church. While she sustained her spirit in the church, she sustained her body with a more native diet than most people consume.
“She kept up with eating a more traditional diet for so long,” said Bowechop. “And she taught so many people how to cut and smoke fish.”
Tribal member Bobbi Rose tells the story about the first time she tried her hand in the smokehouse. When she took the fish to Isabell, the old woman ate some and said: “Take me to your smokehouse. Your wood is too dry — it makes the fish bitter.”
Rose said that when they got to the smokehouse, “the alder was bone dry. She knew just by the taste.” – PAUL SHUKOVSKY, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Did the basketry matter as well as her Sunday School teaching to God – how important was her ethnic heritage in the Kingdom’s big picture?