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'Grandma Aggie' dies at 95

Takelma tribe elder Agnes Baker-Pilgrim is being remembered as a caring force for nature and inspiration for sacred ceremonies in Southern Oregon over many decades. Much loved and known as “Grandma Aggie,” she died Wednesday in Grants Pass, at age 95.

She was the most senior member of the Takelma tribe, which for millennia was centered around the Rogue River until being displaced to reservations in upstate Oregon by Euro-American settlers in the mid-1850s.

Following work in her younger years as a singer, nightclub bouncer, jail barber and logger, “in the 1970s, she embarked on a more spiritual journey,” according to a Southern Oregon University statement, working as a manager and social worker with the United Indian Lodge in Crescent City, California, before joining the Cultural Heritage and Sacred Lands Committee of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz.

In 1985, Baker-Pilgrim, at age 61, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from then-Southern Oregon State College, with a minor in Native American studies. She was widely known for supporting salmon by working to remove dams on the Klamath and Rogue Rivers and recreating ancient native rituals honoring their seasonal return.

Baker-Pilgrim co-founded the University’s Konoway Nika Tillicum Native American Youth Academy, an eight-day residential program for Native middle school and high school students. She received the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2002.

In 2004, Baker-Pilgrim co-founded the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, an alliance of female elders who promote protection of the Earth and awareness of Native culture. She has been recognized as a “living treasure” by the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz.

In August, the university presented her with the SOU President’s Award — the highest honor it offers to a distinguished member of the community. At the award ceremony, Baker-Pilgrim said, “Love is all there is. Do you agree with me? I’m not talking about some egotistical love, I’m just talking about being able to take in one more breath. The love of L-I-F-E — of life.”

Her colleague David West,director emeritus of American Studies at SOU, noted, “She has crossed to be with her ancestors, walking on the Milky Way. Great gratitude from all the family for the thoughts and prayers of all of us who love her.

“Grandma Aggie possessed a larger-than-life personality and wisdom to match,” noted SOU President Linda Schott. “She took it upon herself to preserve and protect Native American culture in our region and has left the rest of us a foundation of success on which to continue her work. Her compassion, integrity and courage will continue to affect us and to serve as yardsticks that we can measure ourselves against.”

She was a “nontraditional” student before that was common, returning to school in mid-life before continuing her life’s work, notes Schott. “She prided herself on being a voice for the voiceless, including plants, animals and those without access to power, and she provided inspiration to many.”

Local musician Alice DiMicele posted, “Our beloved Grandma Aggie has gone on to join her ancestors and the creator. Bless her journey with prayers from your own tradition. We were all so blessed to know her. May our love make her journey smooth. Much love to her children, grandchildren and many relatives and to all who have loved her.”

Ashland music teacher Tish McFadden posted, “I am teaching music lessons today, and when I wasn’t sure how I’d manage it, my friend Louise said, ‘Tish, go make music, Aggie loved music! Go teach the kids, Aggie loved kids!’ So, I’m teaching music and loving kids to make my way up this river with gratitude, alongside all of you who’ve known and loved Agnes Baker-Pilgrim for so long I’m grateful for her wisdom, heart, humor and every moment she shared with us.”

McFadden and storyteller Tom Doty have been working with Baker-Pilgrim in recent years on “Upriver to Morning, A Journey to Wisdom,” which weaves intergenerational themes within the context of salmon’s year-long journey, from the Pacific Ocean to the upper Rogue River.

West said arrangements will be announced by the family soon.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Grandma Aggie spoke at the Indigenous Peoples Day at Southern Oregon University in October. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]