BLYN — Elaine Grinnell’s talent for sharing the stories of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has not gone unnoticed.
She was one of four people across the nation to earn the First Peoples Fund’s Community Spirit Award for 2018, because of her dedication to passing down the tribe’s traditions through storytelling, drum making, basketry and cooking.
“Elaine is one of those unique personalities who is highly regarded not just in our community, but throughout Indian Country and — frankly — internationally,” said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council. “She was given an award that really recognizes her unique stature and standing in Indian Country.”
She was honored in Blyn on Saturday, where more than 100 friends and family from tribes across North America attended to celebrate Grinnell. She received several gifts, including a blanket honoring her achievements.
The stories she tells have been passed down through generations and not only share the tribe’s history and values, but also bring smiles to people’s faces.
Grinnell, who is also Lummi, tells stories weekly at NatureBridge at Lake Crescent, where she sees young people from across the country and sometimes from around the world.
She said she loves to see the smiles on kids faces when she tells stories, one of the top reasons she has told stories at NatureBridge for nearly three decades.
“I retired three times from storytelling and then decided I couldn’t live without it,” Grinnell said.
“I just keep jumping back in every year. I just love the smiles on those faces, that brightness, the expectations and the fear when I tell stories.”
Grinnell, 81, said she can’t make art like she used to. Sewing has become difficult and, because of her eyesight, she relies on others to drive her to where she can tell stories.
She said she won’t give up storytelling.
“It’s so important to me culturally that I’d hate to give it up because there isn’t anyone right now who is interested enough and in a place in their lives where they can go freely in the evening and tell these stories,” she said.
Grinnell was nominated by her granddaughter, Khia Grinnell. She has shared stories with her for her whole life. Elaine Grinnell said her granddaughter first started telling stories when she was 6 and recalled when they went to their first festival together.
Khia Grinnell volunteered to tell the first story. When she started speaking, Elaine Grinnell realized her granddaughter was telling her favorite story.
“It took all the wind out of my sails and I just loved it,” Elaine Grinnell said.
Khia Grinnell, now 32, said she first heard of the award when representatives of the First Peoples Fund told about the Community Spirit Award at a meeting she attended.
She felt it was perfect for her grandmother.
“I thought it really embodied my grandmother in the way she has carried on the language, the stories and the basketry,” she said.
“She has spent decades trying to make sure our culture survives, that we became educated and that we were able to walk in two worlds — because you have to be able to walk in your own tribal community and in the non-native world.”
Elaine Grinnell is a champion for education, say members of her tribe. She was the first state-certified teacher of the S’Klallam language. She worked as a counselor to Native American students at the Port Angeles School District as well and has always encouraged youth to become educated.
Elaine Grinnell said she takes pride in the fact that the University of Washington accepts the S’Klallam language, even as a “foreign language.”
“We kind of laugh about ‘foreign language,’ ” she said, adding she doesn’t care what it’s called as long as it is accepted.
Allen said if students missed school, they would often get a lecture from “grandma Elaine.”
“Some called her grandma, some called her aunty,” he said.
She is proud of the success she has seen from tribal youth on the North Olympic Peninsula, Elaine Grinnell said.
“A lot of our students from our sister tribes and ours are going to college,” she said. “We have lawyers, accountants, firemen and vocational people in the fields too.”
Khia Grinnell said she is thankful her grandmother was honored while she still has her health. She said a cousin who attended the event in Blyn said it best:
“Most people don’t get honored until they die, but we were able to come together and have this honoring for my grandma and to hear some of the stories,” Khia Grinnel said, paraphrasing her cousin.
“She knows how loved and respected she is and how much she has done.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].