Aaawok Aileen Figueroa, a long-time resident of Westhaven and descendent of the village of Saa-athl, along the Klamath River, passed away April 11, 2008, at the age of 95 from complications of pneumonia. Her family was by her side.
Aileen was one of the last fluent speakers and a master teacher of the Yurok language. She spent over 60 years teaching her culture to all who wanted to learn. She was also a master basket weaver and singer of her native songs.
She was born on the Lower Klamath River in 1912 to Maggie and Henry Pilgrim, where she attended elementary school in Klamath. Later she was forced to attend the boarding school in Hoopa, which forbid students from speaking their native languages. Aileen ran away and made it to Redwood Creek where she was caught by a truant officer. She was allowed to go home to Klamath, which allowed her to preserve her culture. Aileen dedicated her life to preserving and passing on her heritage to future generations.
She spent her years working in various canneries filleting fish, picking crops in the fields, working as an assistant cook at Trinidad Elementary School, and at the smoke house in Trinidad.
Aileen learned basket making from her mother and taught weaving and gathering classes until her hands gave out. However, she was most instrumental in laying the foundation to preserve the Yurok language.
Aileen's life was about teaching and she gave of her time and knowledge throughout her life, right up to the days before her passing. And in her last hours, she was singing brush dance songs.
Aileen was a well-known singer of Yurok songs. In addition, she was an active member in her community. She was one of the founders of the Ladies Club and Westhaven Fire Department.
Aileen participated in state and national educational projects including documentaries for cultural preservation and has received numerous honors for her work in the community. Most recently, she was instrumental in organizing the Yurok Elders Wisdom Preservation Project (www.yewpp.org) and she participated at the American Indian Academy (AIA) at McKinleyville High School, which she was actively involved in until her death.
Aileen is survived by her daughter Kathleen Figueroa-Vigil and husband Rodney and her grandson Dominick Figueroa and his friend, Rae Sean Vigil and child Kayla; Shelly and Jimmy Ammon and their children Jacob and Q'ay liwh; Angel and Shawn Korb and their children Darrel, Crystal, Michael, D.J. and Sarah; Danielle and Frank Masten and their daughter Emily; Rodney Vigil, Jr. and Danelle, and their children Stephen, Rodney III and David.
She was preceded in death by her nine siblings, including brothers Frank, Floyd, and Albert Pilgrim, her sisters Anna Jane Boyd, Lydia Sanderson, Bell Gensaw, as well as siblings who died at infancy; her son Raymond Figueroa II, grandsons Raymond Figueroa III and Floyd Figueroa.
Memorial donations can be sent to the Aileen Figueroa-Jessie Exline Scholarship fund for language preservation, 788 S. Westhaven Drive, Trinidad, CA 95570.
Funeral Services will be held on Saturday, April 19, 2008, at the McKinleyville High School main gym, 1300 Murray Road, McKinleyville, at 11 a.m., followed by a reception at Trinidad Town Hall and Trinidad Elementary, both on Trinity Street.
She will be buried at Trinidad Cemetery immediately after the services.