Pauline Hillaire

Tradition Bearer, Lummi Tribe
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by by Jill Sabella


Artist, teacher, native-arts conservator, author and storyteller, Pauline Hillaire works to carry on the heritage of Washington's Lummi Nation and is one of the most knowledgeable living resources of the Northwest Coast's arts and culture. For her contribution to the perpetuation of cultural heritage, she will receive the Bess Lomax Hawes Fellowship, named after the NEA director of folk and traditional arts who initiated the Heritage Fellowships.

Known as Scälla or "of the Killer Whale," Hillaire is a member of the Lummi tribe of Washington State's northern coast. As a young child, Hillaire was sent to stay with various elders of the Lummi Nation, or Lhaq'temish -- "People of the Sea" -- to learn tribal arts, traditions, stories, songs and dances that reflected her family's and her tribe's value system. For weeks at a time, Hillaire learned whatever tradition that particular elder had to teach her. Her grandfather, Frank Hillaire, was the last chief of the Lummi and a spiritual leader. Her father, Joseph, was a renowned orator as well as a master carver of totem poles. Hillaire learned artistic traditions such as basket-making and Lummi songs from her mother Edna. Throughout her life, Hillaire has worked to preserve these traditions and share them with the next generations.

Hillaire is also well known for her decades of work in carrying on the efforts of her father and grandfather, who founded the song-and-dance group Setting Sun Dancers in order to preserve the art form and to educate both Native and non-Native communities in this tradition. The group has performed for more than a century in Native communities in the northwest United States and nationally at tribal gatherings and public institutions. Hillaire has taught classes on Lummi arts and culture at the Northwest Indian College as well as public schools, museums, and cultural organizations in Washington.

Hillaire has been recorded for audio and DVD productions as a resource on the arts and culture of the Northwest Coast. In 2005, the Seattle Art Museum honored her for her work as a culture-bearer and featured her work in the exhibition Song, Story, Speech: Oral Traditions of Puget Sound First Peoples. She also has two books with media coming out soon: A Totem Pole History and Rights Remembered: A Salish Grandmother Speaks on American Indian History and the Future (both from University of Nebraska Press).  In A Totem Pole History, Hillaire tells the story of her father's life and the traditional and contemporary Lummi narratives that influenced his work. Hillaire is the recipient of three apprenticeship awards from Washington State Arts Commission and in 1996 was presented with the Governor's Heritage Award.

Interview with Ben Covington (Pauline Hillaire's grandson) by Josephine Reed for the NEA

September 25, 2013

Edited by Liz Auclair


NEA: First of all, congratulations for the honor given your grandmother. So that means you can trace your family back a dozen generations. And that’s, in fact, part of the work that your your grandmother has really devoted herself to.

Ben Covington: Her entire life she devoted herself to genealogy—to the Lummi way of life, sche'lang'en. And in doing so she really encouraged everybody to join and have fun and preserve our sche'lang'en, our way of life.

NEA: Can you talk for a moment, just in a broader context, about why preserving that way of life was so significant first to the country, then to the area, and then to your family in particular?

Covington: Well, [for] Frank Hillaire, Joseph Hillaire, my grandmother, it was very important to them to ensure that their kids and their grandkids knew who they were and where they come from. The main teaching for all native peoples is to remember who you are and where you come from: the fishing, the legends, the dances, the hunting, the traveling from longhouse to longhouse or from state to state nowadays—to always remember who you are and to make sure that when you travel and when you’re doing fishing and hunting that you remember that, and you bring that with you. You talk to the waters. Let the waters know who you are. I am here to provide for my family. I’m here to gather on behalf of my family. I’m here to represent my family. And that’s the way all native peoples are and that’s what my great-grandfather Frank Hillaire instilled in my grandmother and that’s what my grandmother instilled in me.

NEA: Not to overgeneralize, but when you think of Western culture, I think of human beings being in kind of an adversarial relationship with nature; that we see ourselves as somehow apart from it. Whereas in native culture there is a great understanding that you’re part of nature.

Covington: We are. We’re on Mother Earth as the same. Some of us have feathers or four legs. Some of us swim. But we all rely on each other for our survival and we respect that as native people. We respect each and every living thing on this earth and we never disrespect what is providing for us.

NEA: In the United States we’re learning that it’s important to preserve one’s traditions, but I think for native peoples that is even more magnified because your culture was under distress for so long, under colonialization.

Covington: For many years, and it’s very beautiful to see nowadays. My grandma’s generation and generations before that they weren’t allowed to speak their language or show where they come from and nowadays we have many, many people that are proud of who we are and are able to carry on the language and songs and our way of life.

NEA: When you were a kid growing up did you grow up speaking both Lummi and English?

Covington: Yes, not only from my grandmother but from the school systems. At Lummi [schools] they do teach Lummi in the classes.

NEA: And that’s because of battles that were hard fought. And your grandmother was one of the people fighting those battles, I’m assuming.

Covington: Correct. Her entire life she was trying to bring back our ways, and as a daughter of Joseph she was rich in culture and heritage. She answered that call from my truly sit down and learn how to make a cedar basket, how to carve a totem pole or your own utensils and bowls, or travel with the Setting Sun [Dancers] and share with the people the songs and legends—to show the people that we invite everybody to know and to participate in our way of life and preservation.

NEA: Your grandmother was interested in making sure that native peoples understood and embraced their tradition, but she also wanted non-native peoples to understand the tradition.

Covington: Most certainly. She invited everybody to learn who we are and how rich and powerful, how beautiful it is to know who you are and where you come from. But also for non-Lummi to be able to understand who we are so that when they travel or when they see us they’ll be able to connect that much more easier—also to influence them to learn their background as well.

NEA: The Setting Sun Dancers was begun by your great-great grandfather.

Covington: Frank Hillaire.

NEA: Tell us what the Setting Sun Dancers are and your grandmother’s role in preserving them.

Covington: Frank Hillaire composed and sang for the people to show the people who we are, because for a long time it was a secret—you know, we didn’t want to show the people who we are. We wanted to protect it and hide it. That goes against a lot of what we do, our way of life, our sche'lang'en; we never want to be dishonest or hide who we are. And so Frank Hillaire started the Children of the Setting Sun to show the people that this is what we’re doing behind those closed doors.

NEA: It was started in 1890, correct?

Covington: Yes. So the people were afraid of what he was doing, that he was publicizing it. And he wasn’t doing it in a way where he’s putting himself out there for himself, it was for his people—to show the people that this is who we are. We’re proud of who we are and we want to share that with you, because we have to live in this world with you. And the Children of the Setting Sun, they wore the traditional gear of our people—back then it was kind of controversial. That was his vision, how everything that he did came to him, he prayed and it came to him; that’s what he was supposed to do. And as native people, when those types of visions come out, everything has meaning. That vision was started back then and this is where we are today, the Children of the Setting Sun, and it traveled from Frank Hillaire to Joseph Hillaire, from Joseph Hillaire to Pauline Hillaire, and now to our generation.

NEA: And in the 1890s it was dangerous for him to do that.

Covington: Correct, it was. Like I said, he was very controversial. A lot of people were afraid to be around him or to know him because of the traditional gear that he wore and the way that he sang the songs and he danced the songs, and to this day there’s still some talk about it. But like I said, there are many, many, many more people now today that are following suit, that are singing their family songs, their people songs—creating and composing their own songs and publicly singing those songs. So it’s influencing people to be who they are and share that with the people.

NEA: Can you remember, Ben, being a kid and visiting your grandmother? Did you live close to her?

Covington: I lived with her, yes. I used to be very cautious of speaking in front of people, but growing up with my grandmother, whenever she traveled to various gatherings and our ceremonies she would always speak on behalf of her family. And every time that she got up and spoke that the entire building knew what she was talking about and connected heart-to-heart what she was talking about.

NEA: Explain the history of totem poles as your grandmother taught it to you.

Covington: The totem poles are a way of our genealogy, a way of our travels, a way of sharing our visions. On a totem pole, the first figure closest to the ground will be the start of the story or the vision and as you go higher that’s how, in order, it goes. [For] Uncle Gary Hillaire, Joe Hillaire, Frank Hillaire, and my grandmother, their poles came to them as visions, as dreams to share with the people. So as you go into a longhouse or you travel to various places, libraries, colleges, you’ll see their totem poles.

NEA: Can you describe what a longhouse is?

Covington: A longhouse, back in my great-great grandfather’s day, was a community home. So, as you approach the longhouse, the family totem pole [is there] to signify who we are and where we come from, the lineage. It would be out front or in a position where you would be able to see it. The longhouse was a community home, maybe a Hillaire home, and as you entered the longhouse it was all dirt floor, cedar shank, cedar benches that as you entered would have two fires and the roof would be open above those two fires to keep the people warm. And every family had their own position, their own spot in that longhouse—gatherers, hunters, warriors, chiefs. And adjacent to the entrance would be the kitchen where the females would prepare the food, would prepare the medicines, and what-not.

NEA: And how are longhouses used now?

Covington: Back then it was their home and so much like today, we go and visit our friends and family. We wouldn’t travel just as an individual; we’d travel as a family. And when we traveled through either the forest or by canoe, we always let our surroundings know who we are and where we come from. So we would sing in the canoe “the paddle song” or “the canoe song.” We would sing in the forest to let our surroundings know who we are. And when we got to our destination, it would also allow the people that we’re visiting know who we are before we got there. We would ask their permission as we’d come on canoe or come on land to visit them. We wouldn’t just come right in. So we’d wait there however long it took for them to answer us. We would wait there and then they [say], “Yes, come ashore.” And we would come in and we would visit for weeks, months, maybe days but most of the time it was more. When we were traveling it was more for a longer period of a visit. And during that visit we would share songs and we would gather with the ones that we’re visiting. We’d eat together. We’d sing together, laugh, pray, cry, help each other out however we could. And then as we left, our warriors, our hunters, they would replenish what we ate and what we were using during our visit and then we would go back to our respective homes and let the people know this is who we visited and this is what they had to say, carrying their message onto the people as well.

NEA: Can you tell me more about the paddle song?

Covington: The paddle song was composed to keep rhythm. No matter where we go in this life we’re always taught to never allow it to be silent; never allow yourself to be silent; always be doing something with your hands, always be speaking on behalf of your family, or singing when you’re carving, or singing while you draw your art, your homework, wherever you’re at.

NEA: So singing is just always a constant.

Covington: Always. It’s either sing or talk. Talk about what you’re doing and how you’re going to use it, or how your heart feels right then and there, so that your heart goes into whatever you’re creating at that moment: food, breakfast, the family canoe.

[The paddle song is] a slower rhythm because these canoes that they traveled in were family canoes so they were very long and very wide. So, the paddler would sit right next to the rim of the canoe and their belongings would be in between them—their food, everything that they were traveling with. These were seagoing canoes. We’ve traveled as the Children of the Setting Sun from La Push or Quinault, Washington, which is the peninsula, the very tip of the peninsula all the way up to Bella Bella, way into the coast of Alaska. And that was a journey we traveled as a family. As we traveled, other tribes and families joined along with us to go to the Bella Bella. And once we got there, the entire shoreline was full of canoes, full of people all asking and waiting for the Bella Bella people to grant them permission to come ashore to celebrate and to have a good time together. And they do that today, they just got done with their canoe journey and it is very beautiful to see so many people be active in that tradition. There’s young ones, just like myself when I went with my grandmother. And also newer tribes and visitors that want to participate in this as well. So it’s very, very beautiful to see how it’s growing.

NEA: It's my impression as an outsider that it just exponentially is growing.

Covington: Yes. My grandmother, all her work was always counseled by Bill James, who is the honorary chief right now of the Lummi people. When getting ready for this trip [to the 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellowship events in Washington, DC], I go to my elders and I let my elders know: I’m traveling with this many people and this is who they are, where they come from, and this is why we’re traveling. We’re traveling as the Children of the Setting Sun, another generation of the Children of the Setting Sun. Grandma can’t be here so we go to you, our elders, to ask them counsel. Is there anything that I should change or should add? And speaking with Bill James, he really sends his love and his prayers and he’s happy this is happening on behalf of grandmother and his words also were that there used to be just two people that knew our language of the Lummi people. Just two. And now, today, there are more than a dozen people. So when you say that it’s increasingly growing, it is very true and our hearts and our prayers are very grateful that our language, our songs, our legends are coming back to life.

NEA: And your grandmother's name is Scälla. What does that mean?

Covington: Of the Killer Whale.

NEA: And how did she get that name?

Covington: It’s a family name; it is passed down. All the names that we receive are from our lineage, they’re from our family. They rarely travel outside the family. The Scälla is of the Killer Whale but in the ocean the Killer Whale is a protector; he’s one of the bigger ones out there and he can be really assertive when he wants to be but can also be very gentle and understanding to their surroundings. So Scälla is of the Killer Whale but the Killer Whale is a protector, a pillar of the sea.