Like a blanket in a woven Indian basket, 4-year-old Wak’amu would fold herself inside the gnarled roots of an ancient juniper tree and gaze across the Oregon high desert.
What she saw would later inspire her as Lillian Pitt, one of the world’s most distinguished Native American artists. Her Indian name, Wak’amu, means camas root. “A stubborn plant that won’t let go of the earth,” explains Pitt. “I would spend hours up in those hills—listening to the meadowlark’s song, watching the grass grow, and the little water skippers on the creek. My art was always inside me.”
Today, Pitt’s contemporary sculptures, prints and wearable art are in private collections, museums, galleries and public spaces worldwide. Each piece celebrates the landscape, animals, legends and traditions of her ancestors, the River People. For 12,000 years they ruled a vast trade network in the Columbia Gorge—an ancient Wall Street of the West, or as Lewis and Clark put it, the “Great Mart.” From the Great Plains to Alaska, British Columbia to California, Indians gathered to trade, socialize and worship. They fished at the epicenter of their salmon-based economy, Celilo Falls, then the largest waterfall in North America. Pitt says you could feel the ground shake before hearing the thunderous rush of water. Celilo fell silent in 1957, with the construction of The Dalles Dam.
At her home in Southeast Portland, the artist points to a ceramic mask that evokes her story of survival and redemption. “This is Eagle Spirit,” she says. “It symbolizes an unwillingness to give up through strife. We do have a choice, and we don’t have to let all the bad things stay with us forever. I survived my youth, prejudice, a whole lot of tragedy, and I’m still here, still creating.”
Pitt was born on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in 1943, more than 100 years after the government relocated her ancestors to inland reservations such as Warm Springs. “We lived in a two-room cedar and shake house in ‘Hollywood,’” she laughs. “The neighborhood name, a spoof because we were so poor.” Her father—from whom she inherits her humor and artistry—worked odd jobs as a police dispatcher, garbage truck driver, and in the mill. She felt “blessed and precious” as a child, but “torn.” Her mother, an epileptic, tried to pass down traditions like beadwork, Indian fry bread, root and huckleberry feasts, and Washat religious ceremonies in the longhouse. Her father, though, thought it was dangerous to be “too Indian.”
“I wasn’t able to learn my Indian languages because my father, who knew five, had them beaten out of him, physically and emotionally, at a school for Indians,” Pitt says.
When Pitt was in sixth grade, her father moved the family to Madras, hoping to distance his children from the cigarettes and drinking on the reservation. In town, however, Pitt felt the sting of racism. She recalls that one of her high school teachers repeatedly told racist jokes aboout Indians in class. “I was trying to balance the truth my parents spoke into my soul— ‘you’re smart, so work hard, don’t let your people down’—with the expectation from others that because you’re Indian, you must be lazy and a drunk,” she says. “So, I hated school, drank and smoked. I played hooky, swimming in the farmers’ irrigation canals, dreaming of being an Olympic swimmer, like Esther Williams.”
Skimming by with just enough credits to graduate, Pitt high-tailed it to Portland. For the next twenty years she worked as a hair stylist.
It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that Pitt would make a series of decisions that would define her life as an artist. She enrolled at Mt. Hood Community College, majoring in mental health and human services and graduating with a 3.8 GPA. “I finally discovered I actually had a brain,” she laughs. Secondly, she signed up for a ceramics class. It became an instant obsession. “I would literally run from mental health class to ceramics,” Pitt says jubilantly. “It was love at first touch. I loved the way the clay felt and smelled. I studied it, even dreamt about it.”
Perhaps the most defining moment came one year later in 1982, when she attended a book-signing by Navajo Indian artist R. C. Gorman. She still can’t believe she walked up to the man The New York Times called “the Picasso of American Indian Art,” told him that she was an artist, then handed him Polaroid pictures of her first ceramic masks.
He asked her the price of her five masks. Pitt told him they were $100 each. “But this one,” she said, “is $110.”
“Why $110?” asked Gorman.
“Because … I like it,” she recalls, with laughter. “That was the extent of my marketing. He bought two, and now I was a professional artist.” Today her ceramic masks fetch up to $4,000.
Gorman eventually became a mentor for Pitt, recommending her work to prestigious galleries in Santa Fe, L.A. and San Francisco. One day, while visiting his Taos estate, she was stunned to see her masks hanging not far from his collections of Picasso, Monet, Chagall, Renoir and a Warhol painting of Gorman himself.
Inspired, Pitt returned to her elders at Warm Springs, soaking up the traditions and legends she missed as a child. She Who Watches, a symbol of female wisdom and prosperity and a petroglyph still standing sentinel in the Columbia Gorge, was transformational for Pitt. “It was like finding myself,” she recalls. “She Who Watches has been there for a thousand years. She gave me a sense of power that no one can ever take away.”
Now Pitt passes down those stories, through her art. Little Wak’amu has become a legend among her people, but her work is no longer just about the art. Increasingly, you can find Pitt visiting students at the tiny Celilo Village. Like her elders, she passes down stories and traditions of a rich heritage. “We have a wonderful history of survival,” she says. “We’re a tough bunch. We aren’t going away, and we can express that through art.”