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Central Washington University

Virginia Beavert Keeps Legends and Language Alive

Nothing defines a people as much as their language, and nothing signals the end of a civilization more than the demise of its native tongue. Yakama Nation elder Virginia Beavert feels this deeply in her mission to teach the language and literature of her people to younger generations.

Beavert, who is something of a legend herself, remembers riding with her grandmother on horseback over the plains of Zillah early in the twentieth century, hunting for herbs and roots. She learned the traditions of the Waashat religion from her great-grandmother and her mother, who she describes as a phenomenal woman who lived to be 103 years old. She learned the medicinal properties of herbs from her great-great-grandmother, who also imparted tribal legends along with herbal lore. Her great-great- grandmother lived to be 120 years old.

Beavert didn’t find her academic calling immediately. During the 1940s, she served in the war effort for four years with the US Army Air Forces. After the war, she attended four years of college, worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, and later became a medical transcriptionist, working in hospitals throughout central Washington for many years.

In the 1970s, her stepfather, Alexander Saluskin, or Chief Wi-ya-wikt, citing his poor health, prevailed upon her to return to school to help him complete his life’s work, The Sahaptin Practical Dictionary for Yakama. She entered Central when she was in her forties, in an era when college life wasn’t geared to non-traditional students.

“It was hard,” she remembers. “There was no counseling [for students like me].”

Dr. James Brooks, then Central’s president, became a source of encouragement, providing resources to help her complete her degree. She received a Bachelor of Science in anthropology in 1986 and went on to earn her master’s degree from the University of Arizona. She not only completed her stepfather’s dictionary, but also published two more, as well as a book of Yakama legends.

As a member of the Yakama Nation, Beavert has served on the General Tribal Council, and received numerous fellowships, among them from the Smithsonian Institute, The Newberry Library, Dartmouth College, and the University of New Mexico. She has also been honored with many awards, including the Washington Governor’s Heritage Award. Beavert continues to teach at Heritage University in Toppenish and at the Native Indian Language Institute, which is held every summer at the University of Oregon. Beavert received CWU's Distinguished Alumna--College of Sciences Award in 2007. In 2009, she received an honorary Doctor in Humane Letters degree from the University of Washington.

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