Being the Grandmother She Longed to Have
December 18, 2020

Being the Grandmother She Longed to Have

Roberta (H’Klumaiyat) Joy Kirk (Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, Dine’) is our final 2020 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award recipient. We have been honoring our four CSA recipients with stories through the end of the year.

When H’Klumaiyat was a young girl, her family suffered a devastating fire. All the regalia her mother’s late grandmother had gifted her became ashes.

H’Klumaiyat’s mother moved them to the suburbs close to Portland, and H’Klumaiyat started working at age six, picking berries in the summertime. At home in the evenings, her two oldest sisters were cooking, beading, or working the loom. She watched them day after day, wishing someone would teach her how to make things. Her mother was always sewing, and H’Klumaiyat learned that skill from her. But no one made H’Klumaiyat traditional regalia so she could dress appropriately for the Longhouse and community ceremonies.

“I always saw the girls my age wearing beautiful dresses that were passed down from their grandparents,”

“I always saw the girls my age wearing beautiful dresses that were passed down from their grandparents,” she says. “My mother was an orphan and raised by her grandmother, who was a medicine woman. Everything that was gifted to my mother was burnt in the home fire. I knew if I wanted anything, then I better learn how to make it myself.”

She did and in the 1980s, as H’Klumaiyat prepared for graduation with her Associates of Fine Arts in Museum Studies from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, she tackled her most significant, complex project to date.

“I taught myself how to make a dentalium breastplate,” she says. “It had 50 shells across and was 20 rows long. It was quite large. I already knew how to make dresses, moccasins, and other pieces, but the breastplate was new for me. I used the jewelry tools at the school. I zipped my shells through on a lapidary machine. That was so fast! It cut those shells down in no time.”

Great joy came into H’Klumaiyat’s life through raising her two granddaughters and making sure they have regalia. One is a jingle dancer, one a traditional dancer.

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“I’m the grandma I wished I had when I was little,”

“I’m the grandma I wished I had when I was little,” H’Klumaiyat says. “My two granddaughters are always dressed properly when we go to the Longhouse for powwows and ceremonies.”

H’Klumaiyat, residing on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, mentors women in how to create regalia. She recently received a grant from the Evergreen State College to teach high top moccasin making.

“I enjoy teaching students,” she says. “I get called on all the time, even through Facebook. Somebody messaged me the other day and said they were going to make a woman’s dentalium cape and asked me how to do it. I feel comforted to know that this art will continue.”

H’Klumaiyat was also presented a 2020 Governor’s Arts Award, which is in partnership with the Oregon Arts Commission. Her local radio station filmed H’Klumaiyat for the virtual ceremony, helping her to overcome technical challenges. At her rural home, she doesn’t have a cell signal nor reliable wifi.

While she was excited to receive the grant and award, the highlight of H’Klumaiyat’s year was the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award (CSA).

“I was honored to receive that award,” she says. “I looked back at some of the past recipients and see that I stand with a lot of people who aren’t living anymore. The contributions they made towards preserving our culture and tradition has impacted so many of us, and now they’re gone. I’m just honored to be one of the recipients of that same award.”

Though her CSA honoring wasn’t held due to COVID-19, word spread through H’Klumaiyat’s community and nationally. The local tribal paper ran an announcement, and an alumni group of IAIA shared the news. When H’Klumaiyat posted about it on her Facebook, she was amazed at the kind comments and congratulations.

“I got a lot of support and recognition,” she says. “It was humbling.”

The funding that came with her CSA award went toward buying needed supplies for the classes and community work H’Klumaiyat continues to do.

“The different grant funds that I get enables me to buy expensive supplies and put together sewing kits for my students,” she says. “Then they have something they made themselves as they learned this art. They can pass it on to their kids. I enjoy being part of that continuation.”

Executive Director of the Oregon Folklife Network Rachelle (Riki) Saltzman had nominated H’Klumaiyat (Roberta) for the CSA.

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“Roberta and I first came to know each other when she was taking part in a Folk Arts in the Park program in 2013,” Riki says. “Besides displaying her handmade regalia, talking about it, and demonstrating her work, Roberta was preparing for her granddaughters’ naming ceremonies in North Dakota. I didn’t know much at the time about this ritual, and she generously explained to me how important it was that she provides traditional regalia and gifts for her family. I believe it is because of her deep cultural knowledge that Roberta is able to imbue her regalia-making with such spirit and devotion.”

At home for most of this year, H’Klumaiyat has kept busy creating projects. Her oldest granddaughter, now 20, helps make regalia on occasion. For years, she has watched H’Klumaiyat sew and teach apprentices. Now she is ready for her turn in making regalia and serving the community.

One of H’Klumaiyat’s parts of being a culture barrier is making ceremonial regalia for someone who has passed whenever a family calls on her. Between herself and her granddaughter, they make everything that a person would wear as an outfit — a buckskin shirt or dress, belt, and moccasins.

“I plan on working with my family and community for as long as I live and am able to still do beadwork and sew,” H’Klumaiyat says.

Her top priority, though, is making sure her granddaughters are properly dressed for events — being the grandmother she wished she’d had.

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