Kirk wins Governor's Arts Award
When H'Klumaiyat Roberta Joy Kirk was a little girl, her family went camping and berry picking.
"While we were gone, our house burnt down," she said.
Her mother was an orphan, and she had inherited all of the family's treasures, including ceremonial dresses and huckleberry baskets.
"So she didn't have anything to pass on to us," Kirk said. "I grew up not even having a simple dress to wear to the longhouse."
That loss led Kirk to learn to make dresses and do beadwork.
She's received several honors for her art. Most recently, Gov. Kate Brown awarded her Oregon's highest honor for exemplary service to the arts, the 2020 Governor's Arts Award. She was one of five recipients, and the only one outside Portland and Eugene.
Kirk is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. She is Tenino, Wasco on her mother's side and Dine, or Navajo, on her father's side.
Today she is known for her traditional and award-winning beadwork.
But when she was little, her mother didn't have time to bead and sew for all of her nine children.
"I learned quite young that if I wanted anything, I had to learn how to make it," she said. She didn't have grandmas or aunties to pass things down the way other girls did.
"It made me pretty independent that way," she said.
While her mother didn't make regalia for all her children, she did have a sewing machine, and she always had fabric around.
"I'd fool around with her fabric and her sewing machine," Kirk said. "We grew up really poor, and I couldn't just go buy a purse or a bag."
So she figured out how to make a purse.
One of her sisters was always doing beadwork, so Kirk watched her. She started making collars for her sister's kittens on a loom.
"I started beading this and that," she said. "Now, I can just about bead anything and make anything."
She took home economics in high school — she went to Chemawa Indian School in Salem and to Phonex Indian School in Arizona — and learned how to follow a pattern.
Boarding school also broadened her horizons.
"My circle was really small," she said. "And I moved away to other places, and I started meeting other tribal people. And learning about their culture and heritage that the things that they went through ... it made me open-minded. ... And so I started traveling and meeting other people, too."
One of her sisters attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She wanted to study art, so she decided to go there, too.
One of her uncles told her that the school had a museum program and should get training because Warm Springs was going to open its own museum.
"So I listened to him," Kirk said.
In 1985, she earned a degree in museology and three-dimensional arts.
She worked at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and saw collections from all over the country.
"Everything was intricate and beautiful to be in a museum," she said. "That's what kind of inspired me to do work that's quality and not just throw something together really fast, but to take my time and make some that my family, my grandkids, can pass on to their kids, something that would be museum-worthy."
Among the classes she took was one on traditional techniques. She learned how other tribes did beadwork and made outfits.
When she graduated, she made her own outfit, which included her first dentalium shell breastplate, along with her own high-top moccasins.
"We were able to dress in our regalia, in our traditional clothes," she said. "That was pretty neat."
Back in Warm Springs, she learned to make ribbon shirts and other parts of men's outfits because her son's father asked her to.
"I didn't know how to make those, but I jumped right in and figured it out," she said.
When she was in her 30s, she decided to do a fully beaded outfit with matching accessories.
"I went and started going to dances here and there and wearing it, and I got a lot of compliments on it," Kirk said. Now the dress is put away at home, and her granddaughters, who are 19 and 12, love it, partly for its eye-catching red color.
"I make a lot of clothing — outfits — put together a lot of clothing for my family, beadwork, mostly ceremonial clothing for when we got to the longhouse or different events like that," Kirk said. "I like to make women's dresses, beaded and shell dresses. Most of all, I like to see them worn."
She does a lot of sewing for her granddaughters.
"It's wonderful to see them dressed up in the things that I make for them and for them to participate in the longhouse."
Kirk is one of several women in Warm Springs who make buckskin outfits when someone dies.
"When someone passes away here ... the family will need the buckskin outfit the next day," Kirk said.
Helpers make moccasins and then assist her in finishing a dress or outfit.
"And then that person wears it into their spirit world to continue their journey," she said.
While making an outfit can be done in a day, beading an outfit takes about a year, and that's when she's not working.
From 2002 to 2019, Kirk served as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Ace for the Tribes' Cultural Resources Department.
"I brought back ancestral remains from museums or federal agencies," she said.
Columbia River Native Americans didn't bury their dead. Instead, they wrapped the bodies and placed them in certain areas, including islands such as Memaloose Island in the Columbia River.
"They'd been doing that for centuries and centuries before anybody came here," Kirk said.
When explorers came, they started taking the remains.
"Because that island was at that time, it was pretty visible where you could see the bones and everything, and it was in the middle of the river," Kirk said. "People would just take them and take them to the universities and the museums. ... The universities would hire people to collect for them, and actually, a lot of it was grave robbing."
The Wasco people had a caste system, and more prominent members flattened their children's heads from childbirth.
Those skulls became collectors' items, Kirk said.
So she researched where the bones were and filed claims to bring the remains home.
She coordinated with museums, as well as the local chiefs and spiritual leaders.
The tribes would have a small ceremony and bury the remains.
The farthest away were in New Zealand. The Peabody Museum at Yale University had traded Native American remains for Maori remains.
"That's how our ancestors ended up over there," Kirk said. "The Maori people led the charge" to have the remains returned.
Though Kirk has worked to bring remains of deceased people home and makes outfits for those who have died, she is not allowed to touch them because she is a traditional food gatherer.
That is another way she is keeping the traditions of her people alive.
"I think it's important because we don't want to lose any more than we've already lost," she said.
Her mother grew up in boarding school.
"She knew a little bit of her language, but most of it she forgot because she was trying to fit into a new world," Kirk said. "She taught us a little bit, but not as much as we would have liked.
"We already lost so much, not only in my family, but a lot of families are like that."
Her grandchildren are being raised differently. They went to the Tribes' immersion school, and now they practice their language skills at the Language Bowl. They go to traditional dances, not just powwows, but also social dances.
"And of course, going to the longhouse and knowing how to dig roots and pick berries and sing and pray," Kirk said. "I think it's really important to send our voices to Creator in our traditional way. I think it's really important for us not to lose our culture."
Kirk is also passing down her knowledge of traditional arts. She has participated three times in the Oregon Folklife Network's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program as a master artist.
Her current apprentice is her sister, Maria Godines. She taught her to make an outfit with wool leggings and applique beadwork, as well as a full men's outfit to wear in the longhouse.
She sees the younger generation carrying on parts of the traditions.
"I don't know who all does beadwork and who sews, but it's never too late to learn," Kirk said. "I wasn't that young when I started working on projects and things."
In January, the First People's Fund recognized Kirk with a Community Spirit Award. And the apprenticeship program at the Oregon Folklife Network nominated her for the Governor's Arts Award.
"I was very happy," she said. "I'm still processing it. The ceremony is going to be virtual, so I'm wondering how they're going to do that."
The Community Spirit Award was supposed to be presented to Kirk during PiUmeSha Treaty Days but was canceled due to COVID-19.
She was a little disappointed that she won't be able to meet the other artists who won the governor's award.
"It's nice. I'm not going to complain about it," she said. "What can you do? It's a pandemic."
Kirk was one of 48 nominees for the Governor's Award. The other recipients were Darrell Grant, a jazz musician from Portland; John Laursen, a writer, designer, editor and typographer from Portland; Toni Pimble, the founding artistic director of the Eugene Ballet; and the Portland Gay Men's Chorus.
2020 Governor's Arts Awards
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12
ONLINE: Oregon Arts Commission Facebook page
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