Yellowbird has flown away.
Chief Carl Sampson of the Walla Walla Tribe died Wednesday at age 84. His native name, Peo Peo Mox Mox, means yellow bird.
On Thursday, near the family home on South Market Road in Pendleton, Sampson’s family and friends started an extended goodbye to the revered hereditary chief.
Behind the house, male family members burned some of Sampson’s possessions as is custom. As they placed the chief’s bed, a chair, two couches and other items in the fire, black smoke rose into a blue sky. Inside the home, Sampson’s widow, Arleta, and female members of the family scrubbed the home with rose water, another tradition. Just down the road at son Don Sampson’s home, men set up a longhouse comprised of four teepees for the first of three services in honor of Sampson that night. The chief’s grandson, Preston Eagleheart, paused from helping for a moment. He said his grandfather’s death will leave a void.
“He was the rock of our family,” Eagleheart said.
Sampson was also a rock for the tribe. He served on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Board of Trustees, as chairman of the General Council and on a multitude of committees and councils such as the Hanford Advisory Board and the National Congress of American Indians. He was an activist who called for protection of natural resources and cultural traditions. A few years ago, he protested in frigid winter weather against transportation of megaloads of oil refinery equipment to extract oil in Canada. The megaloads weighed more than 900,000 pounds and spanned 400 feet long and 22 feet wide. Their passage, he said, was an affront to his people’s “traditional values and ecological integrity.”
On this day, Sampson was on the minds of the men as they prepared to honor him. Sampson’s son Don pulled into the drive and talked about his father.
“He was a very humble, but very strong advocate for the tribe,” Don said. “Our treaty rights, our traditional foods, our culture.”
“He fought for our way of life,” said Eagleheart, leaning against a pickup truck. “He stood up.”
They said Sampson’s deeply embedded values came partially from growing up in his rich native culture — riding horses, fishing the rivers and hunting in the forest.
“He fished Celilo as a young man,” Don said. “He rode horses and had 20 of his own. All summer long, he’d ride into the mountains with his cousins and they’d round up horses. They’d bring back hundreds.”
Don’s smartphone vibrated and he glanced at the screen. It was a text from Robert Kennedy Jr.
“I just heard the sad news about Chief Carl,” Kennedy had texted. “You and your family are in my prayers. Let me know if I can be helpful. Love to you all.”
The message joined others from luminaries such as former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Portland business magnate Jordan Schnitzer.
Later, by phone to the EO, Jordan Schnitzer praised Sampson and said he planned to travel Friday to attend the Washaat service at the Mission Longhouse.
“Chief Carl Sampson was a remarkable man,” Schnitzer said. “Not only was he the chief of a proud tribe, he was a proud Oregonian and a bridge between cultures.”
Don put his phone back in his pocket and resumed his remembrances.
In his youth, Don said his father boxed in the reservation version of Golden Gloves. He also played football and basketball during years at Pendleton High School and the Chemawa Indian School in Salem. In his later years, he enjoyed sports by watching from the grandstands.
Sampson’s health had weakened of late, but he hadn’t stopped living life. The night before his death, he cheered his grandson, Dylan Abrahamsen, who played with his Sunridge Middle School basketball team. On Thursday Dylan was scheduled to play again but he assumed he would skip the trip in honor of his grandfather. Sampson’s wife, Arleta, told Dylan to go.
“I told him to go and play hard for his grandpa,” said Arleta, who had finished cleaning her house with rose water and stepped out to the porch.
She smiled when she thought of the man who once hitchhiked all the way from Texas — where he was stationed in the Air Force — to ask her hand in marriage. They enjoyed 65 years together.
She said people listened to Carl when he spoke.
“When he said something, you listened because you knew it was important,” Arleta said.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or call 541-966-0810.