Violet “Vi” Fernando, an integral part of the community fabric of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, died Saturday.
At 97, she was the oldest living elder of the tribe, with five generations of descendants and many others in the tribal community who called her “Gramma.”
Fernando lived an adventurous and storied life that began in Marblemount, took her to farm worker camps as far as California, and ended back in the Skagit Valley.
As a child she helped her family ferry passengers across the Skagit River at Rockport. In her youth she endured being punished at a government school for speaking her native Lushootseed language. And in early adulthood she worked at many farms before buying her own with her late husband Faustino “Fred” Fernando in the Kent area.
Andy Fernando, one of Vi Fernando’s 13 children, said it was after the 1974 Boldt decision in U.S. District Court that restored the rights of the Upper Skagit and other tribes to fish in Washington that Fernando and her husband returned to her homeland.
Fishing by then was different than when Vi Fernando was a child in the 1920s, when she and her mother would net salmon from a wooden canoe. But Andy Fernando said his mother was eager to re-learn fishing from motorized boats, and she and her husband also took on the role of maintaining a fire on the shore while fishing was underway to offer warmth to children at play and those returning from the water.
Also after returning to the area, Vi Fernando took part in local politics, joining the Upper Skagit Tribal Council in the late 1970s and being re-elected for several terms.
“It was a time of great change for the tribe, and she loved being in the thick of it,” Andy Fernando said.
During the same decade, Vi Fernando began re-learning the Lushootseed language she had thought she’d lost forever.
Andy Fernando said his mother also shared with many her love of the Skagit Valley region’s mountains, rivers and beaches where she enjoyed hiking, hunting and clamming, as well as her appreciation for modern amenities such as microwave ovens and entertainment such as casino gaming slots.
Fernando is survived by 170 grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, and great-great-great grandchildren.
The family, and others touched by Fernando during her long life, will sing “You Are My Sunshine” in tribute to her during services set for Thursday and Friday.