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'Grandma Aggie' leaves a lasting impact

Agnes Baker-Pilgrim’s impact will be remembered for generations across Southern Oregon.

“Grandma Aggie,” 95, died Nov. 27 in Grants Pass. The Siletz Tribe claimed her as their “treasure,” and she was also Takelma tribe’s oldest woman elder. She was the granddaughter of Jack Harney, the first elected Chief of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz.

The Rogue Valley and all of Oregon has been touched by Grandma Aggie’s hard work all her life. The Siletz Tribe had asked their elder to do prayers and action for the areas of her interest, which consisted of a huge array of service. She focused on native youth, water protection, the ending of clear-cutting of Oregon’s forests, honoring native veterans, the resurgence of the condor population in Oregon, to name a few.

Grandma Aggie always attended tribal pow wows, and honored the native veterans, “Don’t forget the biggest contingency of our U.S. forces have been native!”

She was known to tirelessly travel the whole state of Oregon, sometimes speaking in Portland, Eugene and Ashland all in one day, being a “voice for the voiceless.”

But she was also an international traveler, being chairman of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers.

With the council, she met with H.H. the Dalai Lama in Dharmasala, and gifted him a condor feather from Oregon, stating, “praying with a feather from an endangered species that was on its way to recovery would help in his prayers for the Chinese to let the [exiled] Tibetan people come home.”

Later when the Dalai Lama spoke in Portland, he asked her to be onstage with him and speak, then later in San Francisco, again asked her to speak to the Buddhist congregation.

Grandma Aggie was highlighted in the movie, “For the Next 7 Generations.”

Pilgrim authored the book “Grandma Says: Wake Up, World!” published by Ashland’s Blackstone Publishing, under her native name Taowhywee, meaning Morning Star.

In 2008 Ashland’s couple, Sulara and Scott Young, succeeded in petitioning the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to rename Squaw Peak — a 3727-foot peak on their land located above Ashland — to Taowhywee (Morningstar) Point.

This was named after Margaret Hamer, Aggie’s great grandmother, who also shared the name of Taowhywee with her.

In Ashland, Pilgrim’s likeness was carved from a local 53-year-old alder tree by local sculptor, Russell Beebe, into the We Are Here statue, situated at Ashland’s main gateway entrance at the intersection of Lithia Way and North Main. The statue also incorporates native figures representing the Shasta and Takelma Tribes who once resided in the Rogue Valley. The statue was gifted to the city of Ashland in 2006, dedicating it to Native Americans of the region, honoring them in the year of the 150th anniversary of the disgraceful Oregon Trail of Tears, when the government in 1856 forced the relocation of local tribal peoples from the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon to the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations on the northern Oregon coast.

The We are Here statue was dedicated after the 2006 First Nations Day environmental symposium and parade, when Ashland’s streets were closed to honor the local native population. Hundreds of community members joined the traditional drummers and singers to bless the site that day, and many native and interfaith prayer gatherings have been led by Agnes-Baker Pilgrim at the Ashland site over the years.

In 2013, after years of weathering, the statue was moved into the Hannon Library on the Southern Oregon University campus to protect its beauty from deterioration, at which time Ashland’s art philanthropist Lloyd Matthew Haines, who had envisioned the original alder statue, also commissioned a bronze replica to replace it at its original location.

Agnes Baker-Pilgrim’s main passion, however, was to continually highlight the water crisis in the world.

Always addressing, “We are all water babies,” she would teach to “always thank your water for blessing you.”

She stated that one of the highlights of her life was meeting the late

Agnes Baker-Pilgrim also participated in the World Peace & Prayer Day held outside Ashland in 2015. She honored Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s prayer, and conducted a small salmon ceremony there.

She addressed the thousands who gathered, stating, “We all have the honor that our ancestors left us their unfinished work to take care of the planet. ... We have to do better so they can grow up and have white hair like me, and also have a world with clean air and water.”

Pilgrim’s work all around the world emphasized the need to protect the rivers and oceans, Pilgrim’s mission was to also remove as many dams possible from Oregon’s rivers to protect the “sacred salmon” of the Rogue, Applegate, Willamette, Smith, and Columbia rivers.

Her family conducted a salmon bake gathering since 1994, which drew hundreds to the Applegate and the Rogue Rivers to feast on her blessed foods and gather in a traditional spiritual manner to “bless the water and the sacred salmon.” Even gourmet consummate Martha Stewart attended one year, and Grandma Aggie loved to say, “I showed Martha Stewart how to throw away her skillets to cook salmon” detailing the traditional ways of her tribe which utilized tall redwood sticks to weave the salmon, then baking over an open firepit.

On the Rogue River, Pilgrim’s salmon ceremony was always held at Ti’lomikh Falls, near Gold Hill, the original place where the Takelma Indian Salmon Ceremony was held for thousands of years. After many years of Pilgrim’s salmon ceremony, and Pilgrim’s insistence that the Gold Hill dam be removed, local environmental group Water Watch convinced the city to authorize the dam’s removal. The waters of the Rogue River also changed, revealing a large natural stone chair, to the amazement of all. This chair had actually been shown in old 1933 historical pictures [from the Smithsonian] of her father, Siletz elder George Baker, sitting in a “story chair” by the raging river when the first salmon returned, the tribal elder giving the salmon a traditional blessing for longevity. All these years, no one knew where this ceremonial chair was located, but as fate would have it, the river revealed it.

This chair was the centerpiece of the salmon ceremonies going back thousands of years. In 2012, with the help of Steve Kiesling, a Gold Hill Olympic rower, Pilgrim was able to take a raft out to the stone chair to sit in the same ancestral seat for blessing the salmon run that her father had sat in to conduct the ceremony in 1933.

The Siletz Tribe now considers this new discovery a sacred site to be protected.

At the time of her death, Grandma Aggie was planning on building a Dragonfly Bridge on the Rogue River, near her former salmon ceremonies, a bridge that will be connecting the Bear Creek and Rogue River greenways. The dragonfly was Grandma Aggie’s totem, and in her book, she stated she had a dream where the Great Spirit told her why she was building a Dragonfly Bridge. She was to explain to the public, “When the old people left to the Star Nation, they came back as dragonflies.”

This past August, Agnes Baker-Pilgrim was honored with Southern Oregon’s Presidents Medal, the highest tribute for service to the university and community.

After learning of Pilgrim’s death, SOU President Linda Schott stated, “We have lost a treasured alumna. ... Grandma Aggie possessed a larger-than-life personality and wisdom to match. 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.”

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