The ancestral territory of the fourteen tribes and bands of the Yakama Nation extended east into Idaho, west into the Puget Sound area, north into Canada and south into Oregon. The tribes’ ancestors struggled to keep as much of their homeland as they could, in particular their sacred sites. Levina Wilkins will tell you that much of that territory was lost. But the Yakama Nation persist, and tribal members still hunt and gather in their ceded territory. They still sing their songs. They still speak their languages.
Levina’s native name is Kussamwhy. She was born near the Yakama River and was raised by her grandmother in the old ways, following the seasons on the land. Levina was raised in her language, but she had to speak English at school. When she came home, she was told to leave that world at the door and speak her language Ichishkiin at home.
In her twenties, Levina started working at a local school, but continued to help her father with framing, and gathering seasonal foods and medicines. She made the decision to get a Nursing degree to be able to support her family. Then she got a master’s degree in Counseling and Psychology. That brought her back into local schools. Working in the school fit well with Levina because of her love for children. During her tenure at Mount Adams School District, racial tensions were high and turning violent. School staff did not know how to work with the students who were hurting or angry, so they sent them to Levina’s class. With great compassion, she taught them the history of her people. She taught them the nine virtues of her people and she taught them that they were not so different. They gained a stronger sense of their own identity and they found some healing. Levina’s teachings were so powerful, the school adopted the nine virtues and highlight one of them each month.
Levina has loved and cared for children, and she also loves and cares about her language. She began to teach language classes in the evening at the local college. Her ability moved her into the position of program manager for the Yakama Nation Language Program in 2020. Elders taught her that speaking your language is to love yourself, speaking your language is to connect to mother earth and Creator. Levina says speaking your language is the total love of life.