In Memory of Grandma Agnes Baker Pilgrim

In Memory of Grandma Agnes Baker Pilgrim

Grandma Aggie on the Story Chair at Ti'lomikh Falls during the Takelma Salmon Ceremony in 2012. This was the first time an elder of the Takelma sat of the ancestral Chair since the Rogue Indian Wars of the 1850s. Photo Rory Finney

“Grandma spoke of the Creator and traveled the world blessing water, but she didn’t try to convert anyone to any religion. Rather, she reminded us of obvious truths: We are all water babies. We are all connected.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 26, I received a text from the family: “Prayers plz! Needs 2nd surgery, not stable, aorta aneurism broke.” The next morning came a text from Native American storyteller Thomas Doty: “Aggie passed at 8:49 am.” Since then I’ve been meaning to write something about the passing of Grandma Agnes Baker Pilgrim, the oldest living Takelma Indian. But it’s been hard to find words. There was no need to help spread the news: Grandma was famous, and word traveled by text, email, and Facebook—and obituaries were published in our local papers, the Oregonian, the New York Times, and nationwide by the Associated Press. The simple reason is that Grandma was loved by so many people. “If you can adopt a highway, you can adopt a Grandma,” is something she said a lot. If she wasn’t traveling in some remote part of the world blessing water with her Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmas, she always had time for a chat.

The last time I saw Grandma was on Sept. 11 at her 95th birthday party, here on the Rogue River at Ti’lomikh Falls. A couple hundred people showed up to hear her stories, and she was in good form. She talked about protecting the water; how we are all “water babies”; and she talked about salmon and the Takelma Salmon Ceremony, which is why her party was at Ti’lomikh. Her history here goes back thousands of years.

We know that about 1850, her great aunt Frances Johnson attended the Salmon Ceremony at Ti’lomikh. Soon after, Great Aunt Frances fought in the Rogue Indian Wars, and in 1856 she survived the brutal march north to the Siletz Reservation. In 1933, at the age of 98, Frances traveled back to Ti’lomikh with John Harrington from the Smithsonian Institution. That journey—along with the hard work of Grandma—is why the Salmon Ceremony was restored to its original site in 2007.

What’s remarkable is that Grandma didn’t restore the ceremony as a symbol of defiance against obvious injustice. Her ceremony wasn’t about tribal unity or even Native American solidarity. Grandma knew extreme injustice firsthand. Yet her ceremony wasn’t against anything or for any particular group. Her ceremony was an act of sharing and reciprocity for all people—the way it was intended. The way it had been for thousands of years.

Grandma worked passionately for decades to remove the dams that blocked the salmon on her beloved Rogue River—and she succeeded. What’s ironic is the salmon run today at Ti’lomikh Falls still couldn’t come close to feeding the 1,000 people who showed up unexpectedly at Grandma’s last Salmon Ceremony. The sheer number of people seemed overwhelming, and yet she and her family worked tirelessly to make sure that everyone feasted for free—with salmon left over. This was a loaves-and-fishes miracle. In my Catholic tradition, that makes her a saint.

Grandma spoke of the Creator and traveled the world blessing water, but she didn’t try to convert anyone to any religion. Rather, she reminded us of obvious truths: We are all water babies. We are all connected. Whether or not you believe with Grandma that blessing your water before you drink it will change the water doesn’t really matter. What matters is that blessing your water will change you. It’s a baby step toward becoming a Universal Grandma like Aggie.

Being a Universal Grandma is not easy, but I visited her enough times in hospitals to think that nothing would stop her. No matter how dire her situation, she always had too much to do. I vividly recall the time when she was flat on her back, hooked up to all manner of tubes having barely escaped pneumonia, and she asked me to take her to the Story Chair at the base of Ti’lomikh Falls—a class IV waterfall. Grandma was 87 years old, just back from the edge of death, but she had to continue the story carried so bravely by her Great Aunt Frances. Having made the decision, Grandma would not back down.

Before she set out on her spiritual path, Grandma had a wild and full life as a logger, a musician, and a race car driver as well as a mother and grandmother. One story she told a lot about setting out on her spiritual path involved putting her old self—the parts she didn’t like—into a coffin and burying it. I don’t know if she actually got a coffin or even a box and buried it. And I don’t know what she chose to put in the box. But I believe she kept that practice going—burying parts of her she no longer needed, so that when her body finally did let go, there was nothing left but a blessing.

A public memorial will take place for Grandma Agnes Baker Pilgrim on Saturday, January 11, at 1:00 pm at the Josephine County Fairgrounds in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Read more from Stephen Kiesling.

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