FILE—Johnson Meninick, director of the Yakama Cultural Resource program, speaks about his great uncle Gorge Meninock at the Yakama Museum in Toppenish, Wash. Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.

When Johnson Meninick walked the traditional lands of the Yakama, he could read them in ways others could not. He recognized the sacred sites and historically significant areas, the traditional hunting and food gathering grounds and graves.

“It’s very difficult for us to accept any damage to any site because it’s our responsibility to protect them. We have been charged by our elders to protect these sites,” Meninick, the longtime manager of the Yakama Nation Cultural Resources Program, told Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Phil Ferolito in a 2009 article.

Meninick, 86, died Sunday in Toppenish. He was buried at the Meninick Cemetery, south of Granger in the Satus area of the Lower Valley, where he lived and grew up.

Because of his family tree — his ancestors came from four different areas in the territory — Meninick was fluent in multiple dialects of Ichiskiin, also known as Sahaptin, the language spoken by the Yakama people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He also had a deep memory of traditional songs, said Jon Shellenberger, archaeologist for the Cultural Resources Program.

“He knew songs from tribes outside our area, really old songs from different tribes,” everything from powwow to ceremonial and religious songs, he added. “And he knew all the traditions behind them.”

In his role as manager of the Cultural Resources Program, Meninick was involved with hundreds of archaeological projects every year. A highly respected Yakama Nation citizen and elder, Meninick was a ceremonial leader who enjoyed singing with family at powwows throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Meninick served as Yakama Tribal Council chairman and vice chair, and was a tribal associate judge and tribal police officer, among other positions he held in the Yakama Nation. He came from a family of leaders; Meninick was the great-grandson of Chief Meninick, one of the 14 signers of the June 9, 1855, treaty that created the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

“He gave different pieces of himself to different people. In the powwow world, he was known through the United States and Canada as a hoop dancer, a fancy dancer, a singer. Probably a lot of old-timers he danced with are gone now. He raised his kids that way,” Shellenberger said.

“He had a rodeo face, a powwow face, a political face, a cultural face. He could switch in between any one of them for any time. He did that for decades.”

Teacher and advocate

Meninick’s deep connection to the land and his limitless knowledge of its history and its people led him to speak about Yakama culture and traditions in all kinds of settings. He testified in a landmark federal court case, known as the Boldt decision, which reaffirmed tribal fishing rights. He was a source in numerous publications and news stories and shared his wisdom with federal agencies, tribal governments, state land officials, archaeologists and historic preservation advocates.

“I am saddened by the loss of Johnson Meninick. He was a tremendous leader and fierce defender of the Yakama culture,” state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said in a news release. “We were proud to work alongside him, and thankful for the lessons he offered and the understanding he built of the culture and importance of the Yakama Nation to Washington state.”

In April 2014, Meninick received a career achievement award from the state historic preservation officer. He also accepted a national award for his participation in an anti-vandalism public service announcement centered on She Who Watches (Tsagaglalal), a petroglyph/pictograph that gazes out from Columbia Hills Historical State Park over the Columbia River.

State archaeology and historic preservation officials recognized Meninick’s passing “with profound sadness” in a Facebook post Tuesday praising his devotion to protecting archaeological sites, Native American burials, religious freedom, as well as environmental and endangered species protections.

“Johnson’s life and career exemplified his commitment to the Yakama Nation’s cultural heritage, and he was a strong voice for the protection of our state’s archaeological and cultural heritage, as well as Native American rights,” the post said.

Beyond the state and federal officials Meninick worked with and educated, many knew him as a living cultural resource and historical encyclopedia who was always willing to share his knowledge with those who wanted to listen and learn. They included students in Jim Huckabay’s intercultural communication classes at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Meninick always made himself available to speak with them, said Huckabay, a longtime outdoors columnist for the Daily Record who has since retired from Central.

“Over several years, I would take 15 to 25 students to the Yakama Nation Cultural Center in Toppenish for an afternoon. He would speak off-hand for an hour or more, on the topic of ‘The History of America through the Eyes of the Yakama People,’” Huckabay said in an email.

He said it was a view of the past that most students hadn’t experienced or learned previously.

“Those trips — and other visits — to see Mr. Meninick continue to be among the high points of my life,” he added. “He was a fine man who brought his ways to many.”

‘Everything on this land is important’

In an April 2010 article in the Yakima Herald-Republic marking the 30th anniversary of the federal court case that became known as the Quackenbush decision, Meninick talked about the ruling. It assured water would keep flowing in the Yakima River basin during winter months and is credited with the comeback of the region’s once-decimated spring salmon and steelhead.

It’s all part of an effort to correct environmental damages and put the land back in its proper order, Meninick told the newspaper.

“Everything on this land is important,” Meninick said. “There is nothing that is unimportant.”

Raised by his grandparents, Meninick grew up in the deep history and traditions of the Yakamas and other Plateau tribes, including the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Nez Perce and Wanapum, Shellenberger said. Though he worked directly for Meninick only two years, Shellenberger interned with him as a graduate student in 2005 and worked with him as an archaeologist in the Yakama Nation Wildlife Program from April 2007 until moving to Cultural Resources.

“He was one of the last few of a generation. He came from a different place,” Shellenberger said. “Being raised by your grandparents at that time, they were quite older, born in the 1800s and one step away from the treaty signers.

“Even from a young age, he was extremely knowledgeable in history. (He was) raised by a different generation of folks, people still living a subsistence lifestyle, totally reliant on the land to provide them food. You could still live that way.”

Meninick’s role heading the Cultural Resources Program began in the late 1980s, Shellenberger said, and work was his life. It kept him ticking, and his knowledge was vast.

“He was always there and he was always willing to talk to us. ... We asked about different places in our oral history and about protecting those significant places. To us, those were former villages. ... He knew the people who lived there; he could tell you their entire family tree and what their names were,” he said.

“We have ghost villages that existed thousands of years prior to” ghost towns, Shellenberger added. “He could tell you what families come from those places. (It was) all in his head.”

In managing cultural resources, leaders teach certain ways of protecting archaeology and cultural sites. Meninick had a completely different take on how to protect resources, he said.

“It’s an aboriginal take on how Native Americans actually protected archaeological resources and the foods and the medicines. ... He brought that. He had an indigenous aspect to cultural resources,” Shellenberger said. “It was so unique and so rare. You have to wonder as a tribal member, how did we protect these things 200 years ago?

“He knew that and it didn’t take going to school to learn that. It took learning from his elders. That’s the part I’m going to miss.”

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.