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They Tried To Strip Her Culture. Weaving Was Her Defense

Artist Lois Thadei in woven hat, photographed at Ginger Street in Olympia during Art Walk.
Courtesy of Kay Shultz
Artist Lois Thadei in woven hat, photographed at Ginger Street in Olympia during Art Walk.

Lois Thadei’s full name is Lois Chichnikoff Thadei.

But everyone calls her Louie. She says white people have a hard time pronouncing her name.

Thadei’s mom left the family in Alaska when Thadei was just a toddler; her dad wasn’t around much either.

“I was around grannies with babushkas, who spoke the old languages,” she recalls.

The little girl learned to speak like those old Aleut women; she also imitated the crafts they practiced. She learned how to smoke salmon, gather edible berries and how to weave grass baskets. These traditions defined her early years.

But that life ended in 1949, when Louie Thadei was 7 years old. A U.S. law mandated that native children be sent to special boarding to schools to learn white culture. Thadei was loaded onto a train and shipped out of Alaska to Minnesota.

“They stick a little piece of paper on you that’s got your name and where you’re going,” she remembers.

Unfortunately, there was no corresponding piece of paper with her return address. Once she got to the boarding school, young Louie lost touch with her family and her culture.

“We couldn’t speak our language, and we couldn’t do cultural things, because we got punished. Anything we remembered about our homes is what we whispered under the covers at night,” she says quietly.

The children tried to hold onto the traditions that were important to them; for Thadei, it was weaving. She’d hoard bits of string, weave them together, then take the weaving apart so the nuns who ran the school didn’t catch her.

The boarding school didn't offer much to stimulate young Thadei.

“We weren’t being trained for much,” she sighs. By age 15, Thadei’s schooling was over. She was on the street without a nickel to her name and no appreciable job skills.

She slept outdoors until the police picked her up for vagrancy. Thadei had heard of Boys Town, and asked to be sent there, but she was a girl. Boys Town had no place for her.

Thadei liked to make things with her hands; she wound up in a succession of jobs: ironing cloths, making plastic signs, you name it.

Then in 1971,  in an attempt to give tribes restitution for homelands taken by white settlers, President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act. Thadei read about it in a newspaper and called the phone number in an ad. That's when she discovered her Aleut grannies had been looking for her. They had already signed her up to receive government compensation.

So more than 20 years after she’d been taken from Alaska, Thadei headed home. She spent her money on a cabin in the bush. And that’s where Thadei reconnected with crafts and traditions she had learned at her grannies’ knees. She collected grasses and what she calls “skinny things.” And bit by bit, she re-learned to weave.

She mastered the craft and brought it with her from Alaska to Washington state. This time, the move was strictly voluntary.

Thadei has become a well-known basket maker and teacher in the Olympia area. Her work is shown in art galleries, but Thadei doesn’t necessarily call herself an artist. In fact, that concept doesn’t really exist in her Aleut culture.

“The word 'art' wasn’t in our language,” she says. “And it wasn’t something we did on the side. It was part of everyday life.”

She wanted other people to have the opportunity to  incorporate into their daily lives. Thadei passes on her skills through classes and other mentoring.  She welcomes fellow Aleuts, but her classes are open to everyone who wants to learn.

“I need to teach it. I need to give it away,” she says.

Through her weaving and through her conversations, Thadei wants to make sure that the lore and traditions of her people will live on.