There are unforgettable characters, and then there are UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTERS. Way back— way, WAY back in the early 1980s, I had an opportunity to meet Don Smith, a.k.a. Chief Lelooska, and that, as Dr. Phil would say, was undoubtedly a defining moment in my life.

I was teaching third grade at the time. Third graders learn a lot about Native Americans. We spent months building longhouses out of shoe boxes, listening to stories of the clever coyote and the trickster raven, and coloring pictures of stylized thunderbirds and wolves. To culminate the social studies unit, we took a field trip to Ariel, Washington, to visit the Lelooska Foundation. (

Huddled in a chilly, darkened longhouse, we watched as the dancers moved around the fire, stepping rhythmically to the songs and drumbeats, manipulating transition masks, and honoring their sacred right to tell these stories.

I was entranced. So entranced that I took an 8-hour class at the foundation each Saturday for eight weeks the next fall. Eight hours sitting on short plank benches, my knees nearly poking up my nose, wrapped in blankets and sitting on cushions, taking copious notes and absorbing everything I could.

And it still wasn’t enough. The next spring I took a second class, driving two and a half hours each way just to listen in awe to the oral histories and infinite knowledge being shared by Don and his family. That summer, I began a personal pilgrimage to museums featuring native north coast culture from Portland, Oregon to Sitka, Alaska. I began collecting miniature totem poles, crafted from many different materials, many of which would certainly send the Chief spinning in his grave.

For alas, Don is no longer with us, but the foundation continues on, supported by his extended family and numerous friends. I consider myself one of his friends, although I am quite sure he never knew my name. And as such, I went back to the foundation last weekend for their annual silent auction fundraiser and a short sampling of the show that is still performed for schoolchildren many times throughout the year.

Being there again took me back—way back, and once again I was spellbound by the experience of sitting in the longhouse listening to the beat of the drum and watching the movements of the dancers around the fire.

My home, and my home office, are filled with numerous north coast native books and art reproductions. (High on my “winning the lottery wish list” is to have an actual Lelooska original.) My life has been immeasurably enriched by many of the unforgettable characters I’ve met, and Chief Lelooska was certainly a pivotal person in my journey.

Who are the pivotal people in YOUR journey?