Before walking across the stage at Beasley Coliseum, Ila Pinkham could hardly believe he was graduating.
For years, Pinkham looked up to his mother, father, and uncle, all of whom earned master’s degrees. He said college felt like just a step he should complete in his journey to something more important – “almost like washing the dishes.” However, Pinkham found a deeper appreciation of preserving his history from his time at WSU.
Pinkham, who graduated from WSU on May 6 with a degree in strategic communications, spent nine months working for Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections on the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal. The website creates an online space where Native artifacts and stories are shared with their cultural context from tribal members themselves.
“It’s important to me because it’s who I am,” he said. “It’s a big part of my identity, being Nimíipuu [Nez Perce]. It’s important to perpetuate that history because it’s our responsibility. No one else is going to do it for me or for us.”
The collaboration between tribes and archivists is especially important in a time when tribes are not speaking their Native languages as commonly, and cultural practices are inaccessible for people like college students, he said.
Raised in Spokane, Wash., a predominantly white community, Pinkham learned it was easy to not think about his Native teachings. He had to hold onto them more so than others who grew up on reservations.
“Growing up Native in a white town, you do feel different,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to know that where you come from is important. Who you are is important.”
Although Pinkham grew up with knowledge of his own history, he said he found a greater appreciation for it through his work at the WSU Libraries.
Nimíipuu experts from a cultural resource program, whom Pinkham considers his uncles, spoke with him and other students, recording themselves interpreting artifacts or stories. Pinkham and his coworkers then added captions to the video, listened for Nimíipuu words or place names, and translated them into English.
When his uncles are speaking, Pinkham listens closely and really tries to comprehend their message. Within some tribes, writing stories down is taboo, meaning students may only hear them one time and need to remember them. This tradition is something Pinkham is still trying to navigate.
“When they tell you, it’s going to be up to you to eventually tell someone else, you know?” he said.
Not only does he collaborate with his family at the libraries, but Pinkham works alongside his roommates as well. He and his three “bros” are, as far as he knows, the only Nimíipuu students on campus.
Payton Sobotta – his friend, roommate, and cousin – believes Pinkham is extremely put together and holds himself to a different standard than most college students his age. Whether it’s driving friends on the weekends, reading over Sobotta’s essays, or assisting Sobotta with his broadcast production projects, Pinkham is always looking out for people other than himself, Sobotta said.
“If I didn’t have him, I probably wouldn’t have finished this semester, and I’d probably say the same for him,” he said. “We kind of relied on each other.”
During the spring semester, Sobotta was visiting his hometown and left his laptop in Pullman – the only device with a saved copy of his media law take-home exam, which was due at 11:59 p.m. on a Sunday. Sobotta could not make it back to Pullman in time, so Pinkham logged into his computer and submitted his test for him.
“He really saved my behind on that one,” Sobotta said.
As elders are passing away, Sobotta said it’s important to retain their knowledge within the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal and place it on the internet for others to see, especially those in the Nimíipuu community, given WSU resides on the lands of the Nez Perce Tribe.
“Ila’s work is really important for not only now, but also for future generations,” Sobotta said.
When he is not editing videos, Pinkham said he is often found in the libraries’ archives, “poking around” for drawings, quotes, and other pieces of his history.
In particular, Pinkham remembers a drawing from a Nimíipuu warrior, who depicted his tribe stealing a cannon from the U.S. military in 1877. Pinkham said it was powerful to see history from the lens of Native people rather than a Western perspective, and he always admired such warriors of the past.
“Those are the people that fought for us,” he said. “I grew up looking up to those warriors … They [were] willing to fight and die for something more important.”
Pinkham plans to get “a big boy job” in the advertising field. His dream is to work for Nike or N7, a Native offshoot of the brand. Pinkham said he is also considering working in internal communications for a company and telling Indigenous stories.
“I feel like it’s not very high profile,” he said. “A lot of people don’t even know sometimes the Native land they’re on – the people that occupied the land before them. That’s kind of unfortunate because there’s usually a rich history there.”
Growing up and not seeing many Native people outside visiting family, Pinkham was drawn to work that creates visibility for people like himself.
“This sounds cliché, but representation does matter,” he said. “Seeing somebody that looks like you and that has grown up in a similar way is important.”