The Preserver of Traditions

Send by email
Mariah Stoll-Smith Reese '93 has kept alive her family legacy of performing Northwest Coast dances and stories

From the Winter 2010-11 Caller

As a baby, Mariah Stoll-Smith Reese ’93 was carried around the fire in the ceremonial longhouse of her famed Lelooska family in the foothills of Mt. St. Helens. She grew up dancing and watching her relatives perform living history in fantastically carved masks, seeing people she knew in everyday life transformed into characters such as Raven and Grandmother Loon as they shared and celebrated the cultural legacy of the Northwest Coast Kwakwaka’wakw Nation.

 
Mariah grew up surrounded by art. Her mother was a contemporary visual artist, and her father carved the traditional masks used in the family’s living history programs; she remembers cedar chips flying into her playpen in her father’s workshop. Her grandmother was famous for her carved wooden dolls depicting Native Americans, and she taught the art to Mariah. Art was in the air she breathed, and the family’s love of their traditions—and their commitment to educate others about those traditions—permeated everything.
 
She came to Catlin Gabel for high school, a long commute made easier by the many nights Mariah spent with her Portland grandparents. Their priority was working to make the world a better place. Their model, combined with her father’s family legacy of making, sharing, and educating, helped create the woman she is today—competent, intelligent, strong, and compassionate.
 
At Catlin Gabel Mariah became involved in multicultural issues and helped found SPEED (Students Promoting Ethnic Equality & Diversity). In her classes she learned to read deeply and have something to say—and be able to back it up. As a junior she first experienced the thrill and satisfaction of doing solid, complicated research. Mariah brought those skills to Fairhaven College at Western Washington University, where she designed her own major in Native American cultural preservation.
 
Her research training came into play when the family patriarch and storyteller, her uncle Chief Lelooska, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Mariah began a tireless campaign of recording everything she could to preserve the legacy he carried with him, combining this urgent work with her independent studies for college. Mariah was chosen as executive director of the Lelooska Foundation, buttressed by her family and her talents in communication and organization. When Chief Lelooska died, the family regrouped and carried on the foundation’s living history programs.
 
Her legacy of community service has played out in many ways, with Mariah leading fights to save her children’s school (she has a girl and a boy, aged 8 and 6, and a wonderfully supportive husband), and to maintain free access for locals to rivers and lakes when that was threatened. “All the skills I learned at Catlin Gabel came into play,” she says of these struggles, where she had to make her case to the public and the press. She has also pitched in to her tight-knit community by leading Girl Scouts and starting, with her husband, a children’s soccer program.
 
Mariah’s advice to current CGS students: “Don’t take it for granted! When I look back at my life, I see how many things I was able to do because of what I learned at Catlin Gabel,” she says. “And having an opportunity to learn skills means having an opportunity to give back and make life better for people around you.”
 
 
Performance photo courtesy of the Lelooska Foundation