SILVER LAKE, Wash. — At a dead end road near the gateway to Mount St. Helens sits a 2,700 square-foot home crafted almost entirely of logs from the Colville Indian Reservation; its tables, cabinets and dressers hand-crafted from dozens of types of wood from three continents. On most surfaces, including the dining table, and nearly every wall, including the doghouse, hang quilts with intricate and calculated patterns, some which symbolize American Indian tradition and creativity.
The blanket used most frequently has light bulb-patterned fabric, in reference to watts. But what powers this family—one that laughed and partied in their yard while the volcano blew its top off in 1980—are the fun and passionate Ken and Wilda (Seyler) Watts, the latter of which, one of the oldest members of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
“You pull the quilt all the way up to your neck,” the southern-accented Ken—an 84-year-old white man raised by an African-American woman in Mississippi—illustrates with two hands on the corners of a red and black masterpiece with white light bulbs in abundance.
Though dresser drawers close by themselves with slight nudges and each piece of his woodwork seems to include a hidden gadget, Ken, who spent his life working for a wood corporation, suggests “the house reflects a little bit more on her background."
Wilda, who turned 90 in August, roams comfortably in her home away from home that feels like home. Life’s getting harder now that she willingly accepts the piercing of four needles, two in each eye, every couple of months to keep her eyesight from deteriorating due to macular degeneration and glaucoma. She’s also survived cancer. Arthritis has limited her crafting abilities. But she’s still a woman that—even in her age and state—will begin cleanup, folding or other moderate chores without asking for help. Even the suction of a tough refrigerator door doesn’t faze her. The tribal elder from Inchelium has been this way since her story began in 1925.
SEYLER VALLEY, INCHELIUM, Aug. 8, 1925 —
Wilda Watts is born to Charles and Alice (Stansger) Seyler, who made a living hauling alfalfa in the vast fields of the region named after the family. Her grandfather was from Germany and settled in Meteor, where her father was born. Her grandmother was part of the Wynne and Sherwood families now prevalent on the Spokane Reservation. Wilda was the third of five, including Reginald, Glen, Charles and Cecil.
The family farm was a place many in the town helped work. Some would sleep in the hay just to enjoy one of the best breakfasts during what Watts called, “trying times.”
The Seylers raised beef cattle, turkeys and pigs, and planted a vast garden for canning.
Wilda’s first two years of school were spent in a grange hall a mile away from their home.
“Reg and Glen and I, the three of us rode horseback, because I was in the first and second grade then,” she recalled. “I was too young to walk that.”
That didn’t stop mischievous brothers from teasing her each day.
“Oh they were ornery, they squeezed me and pushed me off and the whole bit,” she said.
Watts said most of her school day consisted of learning in the kitchen and eating snacks.
“I don’t know how much I learned but I spent the day there,” she said. “First and second graders were in the kitchen.”
She would also spend time with her grandmother, who would tie her to a horse to keep her from falling off as they traversed steep hills in search of huckleberries. She also recalled picking wild carrots with a special tool her family designed. Her father was an experienced blacksmith who worked in the Northport area.
The Seylers didn’t have a vehicle that would go very far, until her father bought a school bus while she was in the third grade. It was one of the first vehicles the Inchelium school used to haul students.
“After a few years, the district decided they were gonna buy the buses (and bought ours),” she said. “(The school) probably had three buses (one up Hall Creek and one in Kewa). But anyhow, we thought that was really neat to go to school in the school bus.”
Wilda would come home from school to a crowded place. Many visited and lived with the Seylers, who were a welcoming bunch.
She was instrumental in helping her mother cook and clean for the household of many men, using techniques you don’t see much now, she said, including:
—Placing freshly picked watermelon in wheat in the fall, which would keep out the oxygen causing them to last for months at a time.
—When it was time to get a fool hen for dinner, Wilda would use a long pole with a string on the end of it with a slipknot on one end. The hens would put their head in the loop and she would jerk and the family would have their chicken for dinner.
One particularly fun activity was making and playing with stilts, where they would compete for who could run the fastest or longest.
“We used to make those and run races with them,” she said. “That was our way of a game to play.”
During hay season, they would use a Jackson fork to swing on, she said.
“We would get ahold of that and go up with the hay and drop wherever,” Watts recalled. “It’s a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves, but we had fun.”
In the winters, many nights were spent playing card games. She recalled those chilling times: “It was cold in the valley. That wind,” she said. “We hauled our own water. (The family) had to leave the house to go to the outhouse.”
Her mother would stay up late to keep the fire going and her father would relieve her in the mornings while he cooked breakfast.
The family would travel to go ice fishing at Owhi Lake near Nespelem to gather fish for canning.
In the spring, she helped plant a sizable garden of hundreds of items that had to be canned by the gallon.
At age 15, she experienced Spokane for the first time, where she went to take her driver’s test.
“You just kind of stand back and look,” she said. “You don’t quite know what to say really, because you’d never experienced seeing tall buildings like that. The streets and the cars, the going and the coming.”
Not exempt from the haying operation, she tied bails that fell behind the bailer using wires “you could only do for so long and your hands got so tender you’d have to trade off.” The subject sparked a memory of a 4th of July with her brother Reggie.
“Driving the tractor, we were bailing hay and the tire—one of the big tires right next to me—blew out and blew a hole in the tire,” she said. “I thought I was shot for sure. Anyhow, I stopped right there. I told Reg, ‘This is it.’ I’m not doing another thing today and we quit.”
When she got older, Wilda and Reggie would haul loads of wheat across the Inchelium Ferry, which operated by cable in those days, she said.
“It was slow—very slow,” Watts said.
They’d pull up with 200 bushels of wheat and it would make the ferry drop “way down,” Wilda said. “To get off, it was quite a chore.”
They would take off for a grain elevator near Davenport.
At Inchelium High School, she made her mother upset by wearing pants to school at a time where girls wore skirts. The pants she owned were white, used for band purposes.
“She just thought that was so horrible,” she recalled. “You’re not going to school in that.”
Watts, a violinist, told her mother, “Well, I am because the band had to play.” The band was leaving for Spokane to play over the radio—an event “that scared me so bad I haven’t played since,” she said.
When the town of Inchelium had to be moved inland because of the building of the Grand Coulee Dam in the early 40s, which flooded the original town site. Watts recalled students being forced into tight space just to learn.
“This building, wherever there was space there was a class,” she said. “It was an interesting time. And when I left Inchelium, there were three of us in our junior class, Earl McClung and Tommy Noyes and me.”
LEAVING FOR OPPORTUNITY
Watts left her senior year because the school lost its accreditation for not having a certain number of books after a building burned down.
She said Russell Johnson, a coach at Inchelium where Wilda played basketball, helped get her into North Central High School in Spokane, where she would experience racism first-hand upon leaving the Colville Reservation.
“I was going to Spokane my senior year and had to work for my board and room,” she said. “So the school found me this family in the second week I was there. We were eating dinner one evening and they brought up the subject of nationalities and when I said I was Native American, they said, ‘We will give you until the weekend to find another place and leave.’”
Having developed a strong personality as the lone female sibling of the Seyler family, she stood her ground and fired back.
“I said, ‘You won’t have to wait ‘til the weekend,’” she recalled, noting she had an aunt who lived 32 blocks for North Central High School. “She came and got me. And she decided that even though their house was small, that she would let me stay with her and her husband. And I walked those 32 blocks every day, unless the weather was bad.”
She excelled in her studies, earning a $2,000 scholarship to attend Eastern Washington State College.
BECOMING A TEACHER
While at Eastern Washington State College earning her teaching certificate, Watts received one of the highest honors—to dress as Sacajawea and serve as the middle-woman who would pass the arrow to the outgoing school president to the incoming.
She taught 10 years in Colville, where her starting salary was $3,200.
“It was my first contract,” Watts said. “That was a lot. I even bought a car.”
She enjoyed her experience teaching first grade, so much so she fell in love with a class and followed them to the second grade.
“That was not a good idea,” she said. “I think you get to love them all.”
While teaching in Colville in 1956, Watts met her future husband, Ken, on a blind date.
“We met on a blind date,” Ken said, smiling. “We’ve been blind ever since.”
Ken was part of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Colville, where he helped open a radar site after serving in the military during the Korean conflict. After seeing Wilda at a country club banquet, they wound up on an organized date.
“Evidently, it was pretty good, because we met in April and got married the 20th of September,” he said, laughing. The Watts are going on 58 years of marriage.
Ken recalled learning of Wilda’s Native American heritage.
“I thought it was neat,” he said. “In fact, I knew all her uncles and family and friends. They were a partying group. They liked to visit the NCO club at the base.
“We had a baseball team and we played Inchelium and her brother Charles was a pitcher.”
In 1959, the family experienced a holiday to remember—not for positive reasons. The patriarch of the Seyler family, Charles, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving.
“They had gone hunting that day,” Wilda recalled, noting her brother Cecil was in the Army and had been home visiting and on the hunt. “They were gonna make this a special hunting trip, which they did (they brought home a deer). And they got back home, my father was in the bathroom for an extended time.”
Her mother found him long dead, Watts recalled.
“It was pretty rough,” she said. “Believe it or not, we were all together that time. Three years prior, he had a heart attack and spent 60 days in the hospital.”
One fond memory she shared of her father was going to Chewelah for toothpicks.
“When he wanted a bottle of booze, he’d say, ‘We’ll I’m gonna go get some toothpicks,’” she recalled. “He would go to Chewelah because he was not known there. If he went to Colville, they’d say, ‘Well you’re Indian and we can’t sell liquor to you.’ That was always his story.”
In the 60s, the Watts bought property in Ken’s home state of Mississippi.
“We bought some of it as a way to have money for our kids to go to college later on,” Ken said. “We took out savings bonds when I was in the service for a rainy day and I used those savings bonds to purchase the land.”
The business would operate on a rotation basis, he said.
“We try to rate the trees every 30 years and then replant,” he said. “Of course, it’s a process of thinning. … We try to harvest every other year to get some income.
The Watts have four children: Diane, Yvonne, Linda and Charles.
RETIREMENT AND LATER LIFE
Wilda taught almost 27 years until they built their home in Silver Lake in 1979. She spent most of her career teaching in Tacoma, but did teach a year-in-a-half in Spokane.
She continues to quilt, though her hands don’t allow her to do the tactical work she once could.
Along with her brother Cecil, of Warm Springs, Oregon, they are the last two of their family who grew up in the valley.
Ken, a cancer survivor, proudly continues his woodwork with a saw room and garage full of tools. He acquires wood from all over the world.
He and Wilda spend four to five months a year in Mississippi.
The Watts continue to travel. Wilda said they’ve been to every state but Florida, Alaska and Hawaii.