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Originally published Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Obituary: Hope Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, 85, tribal elder, historian

Hope Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Nisqually tribal elder and historian, is dead at 85.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In longhand and in notebooks at her dining-room table, Hope Cecelia Svinth Carpenter wrote the history of the Indian people of South Puget Sound.

Mrs. Carpenter, a Tacoma resident, was writing at least two more books when she died Friday from renal and heart failure. She was 85.

It was her husband of 60 years, Marvin, who encouraged Mrs. Carpenter to go back to school after their two children were grown and she earned her high-school diploma in night school. She went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees at Pacific Lutheran University, and to teach in the public schools for 16 years in Tacoma at the junior-high and high-school levels.

When she discovered her students' history books offered an inadequate telling of the history of Indian people, Mrs. Carpenter, a Nisqually tribal member, set out to write book after book, setting history straight.

She was a dogged and original researcher, insisting on primary sources and archival documents, traveling to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and all the way to London to locate original materials.

She worked alone, meticulously, with natural grace, remembers Maria Pascualy, curator of the Washington State History Museum, where Mrs. Carpenter acted as chief consultant on Indian history for the permanent exhibit of the Washington State Historical Society and curated the society's Remembering Medicine Creek exhibit.

"She never gave up, and most of the time she was doing everything alone, going to the archives, and arguing with people with Ph.D.s who really didn't have much interest in Indian people," Pascualy said.

The two became friends, and Pascualy would often find Mrs. Carpenter at home with her two dogs, writing at a dining table given over to stacks of files and other research materials. She wrote in longhand on loose-leaf paper, in three-ring binders.

"I never could get her to use a computer," said her son, Dean, of Spanaway, who remembers a mother who was never too busy to dote on her children. With her husband usually working more than one job as a machinist, she was the one, he remembered, who helped him build his first treehouse and tossed a baseball with him in the yard.

Mrs. Carpenter was a treasured elder and was the tribe's historian, said Tribal Chairwoman Cynthia Iyall. "She was this tribe's rock," Iyall said. "She was the one we trusted. Most of us grew up listening to our history from our parents and grandparents; she was that one warrior out there, documenting everything and backing it up with archives and research.

"Every single tribal member is so grateful that today they can pick up one of her books. She gave us an incredible legacy."

The 12th of 13 children raised on the family farm in Roy, Mrs. Carpenter married at age 17. From her father, a Danish-born Lutheran pastor, she learned the value of the written word, her son said. From there, her conviction grew in the importance of writing the history of her people to preserve it, in addition to the traditional oral teachings. "She always said we needed both," Iyall remembered.

Mrs. Carpenter didn't begin her writing career until midlife. She earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Puget Sound and published more than a half-dozen books. She self-published much of her work and formed her own publishing company, Tahoma Research Services, in 1976. She did it all: the research, the writing, even the shipping.

Mrs. Carpenter won many awards over the course of her writing career, including the Washington State Governor's Heritage Award in 1990 and an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History in 2003.

Mrs. Carpenter was preceded in death by eight brothers and four sisters, as well as her husband. In addition to her son, she is survived by her daughter, Susan Gerlach, of Lakewood; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Services will be held Friday at the Nisqually Tribal Center, at 4820 She-Nah-Num Drive S.E., Olympia, with a viewing beginning at 10 a.m. and services at 11 a.m., followed by a reception and a luncheon. The public is welcome.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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