Written by Kate Gray; Photographed by Joe Cantrell

With eyes sparkling like sun on water, Lillian Pitt will tell you, “It was love at first touch.” That’s how she describes the moment she first put her hands in clay, “touching it, feeling it, smelling it, in all its stages, from moisture to dryness to fire.” She had never felt any connection as powerful, and hasn’t since.

Because of her bad back, Lillian couldn’t throw pots on a wheel, and she giggles when she says she couldn’t make mug handles. But much like a river, she carved a way around this obstacle. She hand-built her clay pieces, and started with masks: a Coastal, a Southwest, and an Alaskan mask. Quickly, Lillian realized she didn’t want to appropriate another culture’s images—but she didn’t know her own. Both her parents survived boarding schools designed to eradicate indigenous culture; their experiences may explain why they didn’t talk much about their ancestors. She’d moved to Portland the day after high school graduation, but she was born and raised on the Warm Springs Reservation. Lillian thought her family had always lived there.

At age thirty-six, Lillian returned to Warm Springs to consult her elders, “Who am I? Who are my people, and where are we from?” They told her she was from the mid-Columbia Gorge, her parents’ families from villages near Celilo Falls, the traditional center for fishing and trading in the Pacific Northwest. Her people had been there for thousands of years—until 1855, when the government forced them onto reservations in Yakima and Warm Springs.

At the same time, Lillian had been seeing an image of a woman with huge lidless eyes; her elders told her to go see Tsagaglalal, or She Who Watches, the petroglyph/pictograph in Columbia Hills State Park. Tsagaglalal had been her people’s leader, a chief who was turned into a rock by Coyote so she could watch over her people and the river forever. Two elders guided Lillian along the rocky ¾-mile trail. When she saw Tsagaglalal, she felt, “I had been found, I found myself.” Lillian describes herself as “wimpy,” but says the experience gave her “the power to stand on my own two feet and not take grief from anyone.”

Lillian realized that She Who Watches watches over her great-grandmother, whose village was submerged when the Dalles dam closed in 1957 and the river rose. It’s not surprising that Lillian connected to Mother Earth and her people through clay, because the soil along the Columbia River is dense with it. There, her hands touched her history. 

From that day forward, Lillian knew her purpose: to honor her ancestors with her art, to serve her community.

You can recognize Lillian’s work when you see it. Characteristically, the faces of her masks have large almond-eyes, elegant and long noses, and a small mouth, the lips of which are shaped in an O. The story behind the faces is one Lillian heard as a child. “[The Steahah or Stick Indians] lived in the high hills or mountains. We were told that if we misbehaved or left our hair uncombed, the Steahah would steal us from beneath our covers at night, and we would never be seen again. I tried to be a good kid, especially when we traveled to the huckleberry patches in the hills. Steahah would whistle to guide a good person to safety if lost in the woods, and would lead a bad person deeper into the forest.” Most of her masks have the mouth of the whistler.

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