Alumni of Merit Award
The Alumni of Merit Award, the highest honor the Alumni Association bestows on an alumna/us of Whitman College, is given to alumni who have achieved distinction in their chosen field, or rendered outstanding service to their community, or rendered outstanding service to, and demonstrated loyal interest in, Whitman College.
The 2018 Alumni of Merit is Patricia Courtney Gold '61
Pat Courtney Gold, a member of the Wasco Nation of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, has worked for nearly 30 years to preserve her cultural heritage through the art of basket weaving. Her accomplishments in this area have earned her the title of 2018 Alumna of Merit.
After college, she used math skills honed at Whitman to work as a researcher in a hydraulics lab at Washington State University, then taught math at community colleges before returning to research work for state and federal environmental agencies. She also worked for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland on projects, including a study on environmental effects of Columbia River dams.
In 1991, she and a sister decided to learn how to weave, in part to help keep that aspect of the Wasco culture from dying. With the help of the few weavers left, and through research and studying baskets in museums, the sisters learned. This launched Gold on a new career path.
Gold’s persistence resulted in mastery. She has received numerous honors, including the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award, a lifetime honor, for her artwork and for her outreach efforts to teach workshops and to form a new organization of native basketweavers, the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association.
She was featured on National Public Television’s award-winning “Craft in America” program and was a consultant for an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Gold also directed a film about basket weavers, and her work is in public and private collections here and abroad.
Gold sometimes has to travel hundreds of miles to find the plants — tule, cattails, dogbane — she needs for fibers. Native plants have been lost to urban and agricultural development. Some on federal land are sprayed since they’re considered invasive plants.
She does traditional work, but she also experiments with nontraditional materials, such as metal and plastic. She believes her ancestors — who changed with the times and added new materials when available, such as yarn from unraveled Hudson Bay blankets — would have liked that.
She also makes statements with her baskets. Images of deformed sturgeon reflect her concern about polluted groundwater that feeds into the Columbia River and threatens to impact the sturgeon, “old beings” that she said can reach 1,000 pounds and live 100 years.
In keeping with tradition, Gold never weaves when she’s sad. “I believe that my feelings go into the basket,” she said. “I want happiness to go with each basket.”
[excerpts from Whitman Magazine profile, March 2009]