Having returned to the Puyallup Reservation three-and-a-half years ago, Shirley Chrisman is glad to be back among her fellow tribal members even though her heart has always been with her people. In 1999, she and husband Gary Chrisman moved to New Mexico and stayed there until Shirley came back in 2014.
“We got tired of the rat race,” she said of life in the Tacoma/Seattle area. “He loves the Southwest and he had been stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, he’d been a Vista volunteer, and he wanted to move back so he dragged me down to Albuquerque. I stepped off the plane and I smelled that Albuquerque high desert air and I loved it.”
The couple found a tidy adobe house in a little town north of Socorro, New Mexico and settled in a quaint Spanish village. Shirley said that while she enjoyed living there, after nearly 15 years she grew to miss her family and her Tribe so she moved back up to Washington – but without her husband.
“He won’t budge,” Shirley laughed, but they make it work by visiting each other regularly. “I needed to be back up here and with the family – the Wrolson clan. And now that I’m back home, I try to attend as many (tribal events) as I can.”
Shirley’s roots in the Puyallup Tribe run deep. Her grandfather Frank Wrolson was chairman of the Puyallup Tribe for 26 consecutive years… It wasn’t until later in her life, though, that her eyes were opened to her own Puyallup ancestry. Born Oct. 6, 1947, Shirley came into the world at time when, for good reason, Native Americans didn’t always feel safe showing their “true colors.” Not to mention that her father, Frank W. Wrolson, and mother, Estella M. “Bunny” Stewart, certainly came from an era when persecution of Indian people was rampant so they went about their business and blended in with the rest of society.
“When I was growing up, I knew my grandpa was Indian but somehow it just never filtered down that it made me part Indian as well,” she said. “I just never took the opportunity to get to know my grandfather well enough, but I knew that I loved him more than anything.”
She remembers fondly his love of gardening and flowers, something she herself enjoys thoroughly. “That’s the side of him that I take after,” she said. “My grandfather could take you out into his beautiful yard, which was on the Tacoma Garden Tour, and he could tell you the Latin name of every flower and bush in his yard. And he had a gorgeous home. He raised prize-winning chrysanthemums, all different flowers… I remember he and his second wife used to go to Hawaii for a month or two every year and he would show us slides of all the flowers in Hawaii. I sat there and ate it up.”
It wasn’t until the Fishing Wars of the late 60s/early 70s that Shirley’s Native American heritage came to full fruition in her heart and soul. She was working in dentistry at the time and working for her first dentist. “He was a big-time steelhead fisherman,” she recalled, and he was not too thrilled with having to share the fish with Indian folks. Shirley said that when the Boldt Decision was passed, he put a bumper sticker on his truck with the message in symbols – a photo of a bolt and a photo of nuts to mean “Boldt is nuts.”
“That’s when I first started to feel that I was a different part of all this and proud to be. So I put a bumper sticker on my car that said, ‘Custer wore Arrow shirts.’ It ticked him off so bad,” she said, giggling over the memory.
Shirley had similar experiences when the Puyallup Tribe’s Land Claims Settlement was reached and she was hired at the Port of Tacoma to work in the accounting department. She faced discrimination there, she said – not the out-in-the-open kind of discrimination, but the more insidious and underhanded variety used to make sure the Indian woman kept in her place by receiving no chance for promotions.
“I was a longshoreman and got paid a decent wage,” as Shirley told it. “The work was good and I gave them everything I had but I can’t say the Port of Tacoma was probably the best place. I did well but they made sure I never rose from the lowest category. This is the kind of undercurrent of what went on in my nine-plus years of working for the Port of Tacoma. Yes, you can be our token but we’re not going to let you get anywhere. I have issues with the Port of Tacoma.”
Even when she went back to school to earn a degree in business from Pacific Lutheran University, Shirley said Port personnel allowed her to interview for higher positions but never granted her one. None of this deterred Shirley from being a proud Native – in fact, it shored up her belief in herself and her beloved Tribe.
“I am so proud of this Tribe,” she said. “Since the Land Claims Settlement Agreement, look at what has been achieved. It just blows my mind.”
Today, Shirley is just glad to be home among her 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and the rest of her big family, many who work for the Puyallup Tribe.
“I’m really proud of my family and that’s why I needed to be back up here. Not only did my grandfather contribute so much of his life to this Tribe, my family now contributes.”
Her oldest son Todd Wescott has been a Puyallup tribal policeman for 20 years is now a detective lieutenant. Her other son Brian Wescott works as a project coordinator for Marine View Ventures. Nephew Alec Wrolson is also employed with the Puyallup Tribal Police Department and her sister Wendy Lind just retired from the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority where her daughter Amy Lind also works. Brother Ron Wrolson is senior project manager for the Tribe. Cousin Jason Wrolson is a detective for the Puyallup Tribal Police and cousin Jeff Wrolson works in tribal gaming.
With Christmas coming, Shirley looks forward to gathering with the Wrolson clan, their annual tradition. “We have what we call ‘The Wrolson Family Christmas’ and when we have that at a Chinese restaurant in Tacoma we have upwards of at least 50 people attend and that’s not even the entire family.”