Underscore News

Editor’s note: this story is the first in an ongoing Underscore series profiling tribal elders.

When Warm Springs/Yakima Elder Linda Meanus serves as a head woman dancer at powwows, she participates in as many dances as her energy allows.

Linda is 72, so her stamina isn’t what it used to be. You wouldn’t know it, though, from her high steps and pounds of regalia. Linda holds her back straight and her chin high as she dances, because, she says, every step is a prayer.

“I dance and pray for the people,” she says, “Especially for the children, for healing.”

As she speaks, Linda’s eyes sparkle, as if she’s on the verge of giggling. Her long, dark hair is entwined with streaks of silver and grey, falling in braids on either side of her face. Her braids are wrapped in otter skins, tied at the ends with thin leather straps and pink shells.

Although petite, Linda radiates a magnificent aura that seems to draw people to her at the 44th annual ​​Klatowa Ina Powwow in Corvallis in May. People approached to greet her and shake her hand, and she took the time to say hello to and smile at each of them, speaking their names and asking after their family members.

Linda Meanus, Warm Springs and Yakima, served as the head woman dancer for the Oregon State University Powwow in Corvallis, Oregon on May 20, 2023. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

Linda has been powwow dancing since she could walk. Her uncle, Nathan Jim Sr.—nicknamed “8 Ball,” due to his rotundness—was a well-known emcee, so she grew up on the powwow trail, when she wasn’t living in Celilo with her family.

Linda was born March 17, 1951, when her mother was just 16. Her parents—Levi George of Rock Creek and Josepha Meanus of Celilo Village (known as Oregon’s oldest town) met in their teens at Chemawa Indian School—a boarding school in the Willamette Valley. Levi and Josepha regularly snuck away to fish, speak their language and gather roots and berries, until Josepha was expelled from school due to her pregnancy with Linda. Josepha’s mother adopted Linda and raised her in Celilo Village, teaching her to bead and singing to her in their language, Ichishkiin Sahaptin (“ee-sha-SHKEEN sa-HAP-tin”).

In total, Linda had 13 siblings—one sister, and the rest all boys. Her grandmother’s house was very small, heated via a fireplace and without hot water. Her father worked as a fisherman.

“When my grandfather was alive, we fished every day,” Linda said.

Linda’s grandfather, Tommy Thompson, was born in the mid-1800s and served as headman and Salmon Chief of the Celilo Wyam people. In his role as Salmon Chief, he was an activist for Native fishing rights and the way of life of the Celilo Wyam people.

“On the Columbia River, there were so many laws and regulations around fishing that were a challenge for us – even though it’s our own river,” Linda said.

Thompson was primarily known for his advocacy for Celilo Falls, the epicenter of salmon fishing for the Celilo people. He fought the construction of the Dalles Dam, completed in 1957, which flooded Celilo Falls and destroyed the Wyam people’s way of life. Due to the dam, Celilo Village had to be relocated six times, which took a significant toll on the community.

Like her grandfather, Linda has held the torch for teaching and advocating for Native people and tribal ways of life. Linda was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. In public school, Linda experienced bullying. Her grandmother struggled to care for her and her grandfather, who was ailing in his Elder years, and Linda was sent away to boarding school at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma.

“The government had started purposely putting people in boarding schools far away so they couldn’t just go home,” Linda said.

The government students from the Northwest to Oklahoma boarding schools, and students from the Southwest were sent to Oregon. When she was at Riverside, she was able to get into the bars once she turned 18. That’s where she met a man named Buddy who was a pool hustler.

Linda did well during her very first match, so she started learning how to hustle from Buddy and the other pool players. She realized she could make good money hustling, but being in bars put her in a negative environment. Linda became addicted to alcohol and drugs. When she got clean and sober, her sister taught her that she could also make money beading, which kept her out of the bars but still allowed her to make a living.

All the women in her family were beadworkers.

“Beading takes a lot of time, a lot of work, focus, and concentration,” Linda said.

What started as a little side gig has now grown into a full beading business. Linda went through the microenterprise program at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, in order to make it successful.

“Sometimes people say the prices are too high, but they don’t understand. It takes a lot of work—a lot of love. You have to bead with good feelings.”

Linda’s specialty is beaded moccasins, including the pair she wore to the Corvallis powwow. Her regalia includes items that have been handed down through generations. At the powwow, she wore two different dresses—her wing dress, which is made of a lighter fabric for warmer weather during grand entry (when all the dancers, including the flag bearers and royalty, enter the circle together to kick off the powwow), and later, a heavier shell dress that her niece gave her.

Currently, there are three people in her family who dance.

Linda Meanus examines the scoring sheet of her clipboard as she prepares to judge the next dancing category at the Oregon State University Powwow on May 20, 2023. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

One of the biggest reasons Linda dances is because many people in her circle have passed away due to illness and disease. Both cancer and diabetes run in her family. Her father was a diabetic who stepped on a nail and died of blood poisoning. Her mother and sister died the same year due to cancer. Linda herself had to take a few years off of the powwow circuit for cancer treatment after she got clean and sober. She had stage three colon cancer.

Before her mother and sister died in 2000, Linda promised them that she would go back to school and be a role model for her remaining siblings. After battling addiction and alcoholism, their deaths were a turning point for her.

“Our struggles make us who we are, and even though we struggle, we always survive,” Linda says. “I want to help change our struggles to resilience.”

She started by living a healthier lifestyle, and then she decided to go back to school. She graduated in 2016 from Portland State University with her bachelor’s in liberal studies, plus a minor in Native American studies. But she wasn’t happy about the way her history and anthropology teachers spoke about Indigenous people.

“I started thinking…how come we don’t have stories of our own people, our own history?”

When Linda was a young girl, a friend of her grandmother’s—a teacher, Martha McKeown—wrote a book about her called “Linda’s Indian Home.” The book, published in 1956, was intended to bring awareness and attention to the culture of the Wyam people, from their language to their First Foods, celebrations, ceremonies, approach to child rearing and more.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is its selection of photographs. The photographs, displayed on the right page of each spread in the book, were taken by Martha’s husband, Archie W. McKeown, who gave a copy of each photo to the subject.

In those days, photographs took a lot of time to take and process, so it was a novelty to have your photo taken and a copy to keep. Together, the McKeowns had developed such a good relationship with the Wyam people, they were trusted to tell the stories of Chief Tommy Thompson and his family, including Linda, the primary subject of the book.

Linda Meanus has been powwow dancing since she could walk. On May 20, 2023 the 72-year-old Warm Springs and Yakima elder served as the head woman dancer at the Oregon State University Powwow. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

Just this spring, Linda published her own book, My Name is Lamoosh. The general intention remains the same as “Linda’s Indian Home”—to bring awareness and understanding of the Wyam people and their culture through Linda’s story. But this time, the story is told in Linda’s own words.

Linda’s book also includes historical photos of her family, community and the land, in addition to highlighted sections with definitions of words and additional context for historical and cultural terms.

Following in the footsteps of her grandparents, Linda also shares her story and her culture through speaking engagements, workshops and mentoring with young people. She works closely with the Confluence Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes the stories of Native communities located along the Columbia River system. Currently, Linda lives in senior housing in Simnasho on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where she continues to bead and serve her community as an Elder and storyteller.

“Kids are hungry to learn,” Linda said. “They want to know. I hope the next generations will learn our stories to help them create a better future.”

Lead photo: Linda Meanus, Warm Springs and Yakima, was an avid billiard player when she was younger. She used to hustle pool games at local bars, but these days, she runs a thriving beading business. She poses for a photo with a pool stick she beaded at the Oregon State University Powwow on May 20, 2023. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

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Leah Altman, Oglala Lakota, is a Native American adoptee and was raised in the Portland area. She has written for local and national publications, including Portland Monthly, Oregon Humanities, Portland...