Oral history and blog post by Jordan Woolston
“I think because I became an artist and a writer and kind of leader, that was in me, it’s always been there…You don’t become a poet because somebody says, ‘Oh you ought to be a poet.’ You become a poet because it’s there.” — Philip H. Red Eagle
Philip H. Red Eagle was born in 1945 in Tacoma, Washington. His mother, Marian Steilacoom, of Salish decent, was born near Port Angeles, Washington. Philip’s father, Philip Red Eagle, a member of the Dakota Tribe, was born near the Missouri River on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Phillip spent the first fourteen years of his life in Tacoma, attending Stanley and McCarver schools before moving to Sitka, Alaska with his family in 1959.
Philip joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school, serving in Vietnam for five years from 1969-1973. After Vietnam, Philip returned to Washington and began undergraduate studies at the University of Washington where he earned two bachelor’s degrees.
The return to civilian life after the war affected Philip and he struggled with PTSD and related issues like depression and insomnia. At the time of Philip’s discharge PTSD did not even have a name but emerging studies would prove Philip was not alone. The late and delayed effects of combat exposure in the form of PTSD were a significant source of suffering and disability among veterans in the United States. An estimated 700, 000 Vietnam veterans—almost a quarter of all soldiers sent to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973—required some form of psychological help.
Philip found that art, writing, and taking part in the revival of his culture helped him confront his PTSD. Nearly from the beginning, Philip played an important role in the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys, atradition started in 1989 by Emmett Oliver of the Quinault Nation. A member of the committee planning the State of Washington’s centennial celebration, Oliver organized the Paddle to Seattle to ensure the state’s First Peoples were represented. Philip was asked to take part in the Paddle to Seattle but was unable to attend. Within the next few years, Philip found himself intimately involved in a cultural renaissance that involved multiple generations of a still-growing number of indigenous nations.
As an artist, Philip brings an influential presence to the Canoe Journeys. With help, he has made over 6,500 copper rings that have been used in The Copper Ring Ceremony since 1995. The ceremony calls for no alcohol, no drugs, no violence, and total commitment to the 10 Rules of the Canoe while on journey. Philip is also the Director of the Carver’s Camp which was formed in 2004 to teach carving to the people of the Canoe Nations. Started with only three carvers, the camp is currently manned by twelve persons, native and non-native, male and female. The Camp is directly descended from The Cedar Tree Institute, which was dedicated to the resurgence, maintenance and support, of Northwest Native culture. Philip’s presence extends far beyond those involved with the Canoe Journey’s. A publisher and a writer, Philip’s contributions to the Puget Sound’s art community are vast. Philip organized The Raven Chronicles, a Seattle-based nonprofit literary arts magazine, in the early 90s. The organization’s mission is to publish and promote artistic work that embodies the cultural diversity and multitude of viewpoints of writers and artists living in the Pacific Northwest and other regions. Philip’s writings have since been published by various journals, magazines, and newspapers and his book, Red Earth: A Vietnam Warriors Journey, is in its second printing Tom Heidlebaugh, who Philip met in 1992 and was a pivotal actor in the Canoe Journeys program, penned a poetic forward to Philip’s book writing;
When you put this book down, you are able to stand up, to stand for your people, to stand up for that high, sharp-drawn chant coming off the red dawn of the endless plains, coming off the red leaves of late summer, coming off the red earth from which our songs and our healing have always come and to which we are taken back when we have been accepted, by ourselves and our people, back to the circle.
Against the struggles of PTSD, Philip made his life work about bringing people back to the circle. Through his poetry, writings, art, community engagement, and myriad other ways, Philip promotes the revival of and respect of Indigenous cultures. In guiding others, Philip found his own way back.