Joan Tuttle Wekell at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse. Image courtesy of Jane Wekell-Pullam.

Joan Tuttle Wekell Interview

Joan Wekell was born in 1940 in San Pedro, California, but she calls Washington home. She traces her Native American lineage, on her mother’s side, back to Chinook headman Concomly’s daughter Temish and a Chinook man known as Readhead, an ancestor who accounts for the red hair that appears every generation or so in Joan’s family. Temish’s daughter Tonwah (also known as Emmeline) was raised at Fort Astoria and married an English settler, John Pickernell. They made their home in Ilwaco, Washington, near the Columbia River. Their daughter Julia, Joan’s great-great-grandmother was remembered by Joan’s mother as a craftswoman in basketry and beadwork and, in her later life, a stubborn speaker of Chinook Jargon. Joan still keeps beadwork and baskets made by Julia and other relatives.

Like red hair, certain recurrences appear in Joan’s extended family. Joan’s mother Helen (a redhead) was one of a family of eight children, and Joan’s grandfather Layton Williams was also from a family of eight. Williams, Julia’s grandson, served in the Coast Guard during Prohibition, a storied career that kept him and his family moving frequently in California and Washington during Helen’s Childhood. Joan’s father also served in the Army through both [world wars], requiring her family to relocate several time between the two states. Joan’s parents divorced soon after her father returned from duty after WWII, and she had very little contact with him thereafter. Joan was in elementary school when she returned to Washington for good with her mother and two siblings. They made their home in Orting, and her mother took up several different types of work before opening a restaurant in Westport.

Joan and her husband, Tom Wekell, first met when they were elementary school children in Orting. They became a well-liked couple at Orting High School and were married before either of them had finished college, in September 1961. Joan attended the University of Washington with the intention of becoming an elementary school teacher, but left college after her own children were born. Tom attended Stanford University and the University of Puget Sound, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1965.

Many of the numerous aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles on Joan’s mother’s side also lived in western Washington, particularly in Ilwaco, her grandfather’s birthplace, and in Tahola, where her grandfather, mother, and other relatives received land allotments. Joan remembers many of these relatives from her childhood, particularly her mother’s sister Florence, with whom she lived during her early teens, as well as other aunts, uncles, and cousins she visited as a girl. Her memories of outdoor adventures are especially vivid, as is her recollection of her first taste of traditional;y-prepared smoked salmon.

Joan’s mother participated in the Chinook tribal community and is remembered by her granddaughter and her grandmother, Jane, as a storyteller. Owing to her mother and to her network of nearby relatives, Joan was always aware of her Chinook background and identity even before she knew her specific lineage. Her mother enrolled as a member of the Chinook Nation when Joan was a young woman, and shared stories of their family’s ancestry. Joan’s involvement with the tribe began when she inherited her mother’s allotment; she became a member, and later the secretary, of the Allottees’ Association, and organization made up of Chinookans of the Quinault Reservation. She is now a member of the culture committee, and her daughter Jane and her son Jeremy are a tribal council members. Like her mother, Joan is concerned with the preservation and continuation of Chinook art forms and stories, and is engaged in writing the stories she has inherited from her mother and her family to share with children today.