The Gift of Knowledge – By Virginia R. Beavert

Goodreads Synopsis: The Gift of Knowledge / Ttnuwit Atawish Nch’inch’imamí is a treasure trove of material for those interested in Native American culture. Author Virginia Beavert grew up in a traditional, Indian-speaking household. Both her parents and her maternal grandmother were shamans, and her childhood was populated by people who spoke tribal dialects and languages: Nez Perce, Umatilla, Klikatat, and Yakima Ichishkíin. Her work on Native languages began at age twelve, when she met linguist Melville Jacobs while working for his student, Margaret Kendell. When Jacobs realized that Beavert was a fluent speaker of the Klikatat language, he taught her to read and write the orthography he had developed to record Klikatat myths.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, Beavert went on to earn graduate degrees in education and linguistics, and she has contributed to numerous projects for the preservation of Native language and teachings.

Beavert narrates highlights from her own life and presents cultural teachings, oral history, and stories (many in bilingual Ishishkíin-English format) about family life, religion, ceremonies, food gathering, and other aspects of traditional culture.

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In 2017 Linguist, Veteran and Native American writer Virginia Beavert’s book The Gift of Knowledge / Ttnúwit átawish nch’inch’imamí: reflections on Sahaptin Ways was published by the University of Washington Press.  The book is the second on Sahaptin ways and language written by Beavert, but this book delves deep not only into her Native language but also into the Native culture that she grew up with. 

Standing at around 208 pages, The Gift of Knowledge is Virginia Beavert’s gift to the younger generations of her people.  In the first few pages of the book Beavert talks about how it is essential for the younger members – calling them caretakers –  of her tribe (and by extension all Native American tribes) to be educated in the ways of their past. She quotes someone she calls a wise man as saying “Without language there is no culture, without culture there is no language.” 

The Gift of Knowledge is half memoir and half instructional manual. Beavert goes back and forth between writing in English and in Ishishkiin, translating as she goes along. For those like myself who are not familiar with the language I found that slowing down and reading out loud allowed for a truly immersive experience.  From her experience growing up, to family dynamics to aspects of traditional culture, Virginia Beavert takes us through life as a Sahaptin. This book truly is a gift. 

For myself I had mixed feelings about the book. On one hand this book is not for me, I am white and this book is meant to be instructions for people who have not been able to be in touch with their culture. And with that in mind this book is amazing, five full stars. It’s important.  On the other hand there are times when Beavert’s age is very clear, there was something missing from this book. I am a queer woman and I really wanted to know about queer identity within the Sahaptin life. Virginia Beavert (at least in this book) doesn’t seem to even consider this aspect, which is where I believe her age comes in.  I do not believe that she has willing excluded queer identity, but merely that it doesn’t even cross her mind.  And is this a failure? Or is it just an opportunity for more books to come?  I hope that is simply an opportunity. I’m sure there are other aspects of Sahaptin life that she has not talked about yet, and given time she will be able to explore them.   The Gift of Knowledge is perhaps only the first gift of many to be given to the world by Virginia Beavert. 

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