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Bernie Whitebear

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Bernie Whitebear

Bernie Whitebear
Whitebear in 1971
Born (1937-09-27)September 27, 1937
Died July 16, 2000(2000-07-16) (aged 62)
Other names Bernard Reyes
Known for American Indian activism

Bernie Whitebear (September 27, 1937 – July 16, 2000[1]), birth name Bernard Reyes,[2] was an American Indian activist, a co-founder of the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, and the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.[3]


Whitebear's mother, born Mary Christian, was Sin Aikst (now known as Lakes tribe, one of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation); his father, Julian Reyes, was Filipino, but had largely assimilated to an Indian way of life. Born in the Colville Indian Hospital in Nespelem, Washington, he was named "Bernard" after his great uncle (brother of his maternal grandmother), Chief James Bernard, a Sin Aikst leader in the early 20th century.[4][5] Around 1970, as he became an activist, he changed his name to honor his mother's father, Alex Christian, known as Pic Ah Kelowna, "White Grizzly Bear".[6]

His early childhood was a spent largely on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. His parents separated in 1939 and subsequently divorced;[7] his mother would later re-marry to Harry Wong, with whom she and Julian Reyes had, in 1935–1937, run a Chinese restaurant during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.[8] While his older brother Lawney Reyes and sister Luana Reyes attended the Chemawa Indian School in 1940–1942, he was too young to do so, and lived with foster grandparents, the Halls.[9]

The rest of his childhood and youth was spent living with his father, variously on the Colville Reservation and in Okanogan, Washington,[10] where he graduated from high school in 1955.[11] Being from a musically inclined family,[12] he took up the trumpet, eventually becoming the lead trumpet of the Okanogan High School band.[13] He was popular in his otherwise all-white high school, although some of his classmates' parents didn't approve of them socializing with (or, especially, dating) an Indian.[14]

After attending one year of school at the University of Washington, he spent a bit over a year living with his mother in Tacoma, Washington. There he first met, and fished with, Bob Satiacum. Drift netting for salmon in Tacoma's Commencement Bay and the rivers that fed into it, they were repeatedly harassed by white sport fishermen and by the Coast Guard. In September 1957 he enlisted in the United States Army, where he served first in the 101st Airborne Division as a Green Beret paratrooper.[11][15]

Forging a contemporary Indian identity

After leaving the army in 1959 and returning to the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington State, he took a job at Boeing and remained in the Army Reserve.[16] He soon changed his name to "Bernie Whitebear" and renewed his friendship with Satiacum and others who were fighting for native fishing rights on the Puyallup River and elsewhere in Western Washington, a fight that they would eventually win when the 1974 Boldt Decision made the Washington's tribes co-managers of the state's fisheries.[17]

The fishing rights struggle gave Whitebear a much stronger sense of conflicts between Indians and the white population than he had had growing up around Okanogan.[18] During this period, the struggle over the rights to fish for salmon occasionally reached the level of physical violence.[18] Satiacum was prominent among those who continually upped the ante, deliberately netting fish in places where he knew it would provoke anger from sports fishermen.[19] According to his brother and biographer Lawney Reyes, Whitebear, Satiacum, and a few other of their friends "spent a lot of time together partying and drinking" and styled themselves as a "[20] In Reyes's brother's view, through this period, Whitebear was "learning much about the problems of urban Indians" and developing an anger that he would soon put to constructive use.[21][22] Through the early 1960s, he began searching for a way to change the dominant American culture's perception of Indians, and to support the recovery and retention of culture that was becoming lost as Indians were losing their specific tribal knowledge and traditions.[23]

In the summer of 1961, along with his various family members, he was among those who successfully opposed a federal government proposal to "terminate" the Colville Reservation by paying US$60,000 to each tribal member to relinquish their rights as American Indians.[24]

Pow wows and performances

As early as 1961, Whitebear organized a pow-wow at Seattle's Masonic Temple; in 1966 he moved to the city. Throughout this period, he retained his job at Boeing (and even played Sitting Bull in a Boeing employees' production of Annie Get Your Gun[25]), but also became involved with young Indians in learning the songs and dances of the Plains and Plateau Indians, as well as those of their own respective tribes. This involved tracking down Indians knowledgeable in these various traditions, and taught Whitebear himself the traditional songs and dances of many Native cultures.[26]

In 1968, Whitebear had the opportunity to put together a Native American dance group to tour [27]

Returning home, Whitebear organized a series of pow wows larger than any that Seattle had ever seen, taking place at the Mercer Arena at Seattle Center, and bringing together some of the leading singers, dancers, and drummers of Plains and Plateau traditions, as well as of the local Northwest Coast Indians.[28]

Activist and leader

During this same period, Whitebear became particularly interested in health issues among Seattle's Indians.[29] At this time, Seattle's estimated 25,000 urban Indians had "no health services, no organization, no money and no meeting place except an old church on Boren Avenue".[30] Alaskan Native Bob Lupson had helped to organize a free clinic for Indian People at Seattle's Public Health Hospital, (later the Pacific Medical Center); other key figures in the clinic were Lyle Griffith, an Oglala Sioux who was then a medical resident at the University of Washington, and Lyle's wife Donna Griffith, and later New Yorkers Peter and Hinda Schnurman, Jill Marsden from England, and pharmacist Eveline Takahashi.[31]

At this time, Bernie Whitebear left Boeing to become part of this clinic, which in 1969 established itself as a separate non-profit, the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB). In 1970, Whitebear became the group's first executive director.[32] Lawney Reyes characterizes the SIHB as "the first major achievement for the Indian community in Seattle," and remarks that his brother became executive director not because he knew anything in particular about healthcare but "because he was Indian and well spoken." Jill Marsden became increasingly the real administrator of the group, and after about a year Whitebear resigned, in order to focus more on obtaining some sort of land base for Seattle's Indians. A national search for a new executive director ended up hiring Whitebear's sister Luana, who until this time had been a successful businesswoman in San Francisco.[33] Over the next decade, she built SIHB into a 200-employee institution recognized as a national model, and launched herself on a career path that ultimately led to the deputy directorship of the federal Indian Health Service.[34][35]

Shortly after this, he became heavily involved in the movement to make sure that Indians would gain a share of the land in Seattle that the federal government freeing up as they reduced the size of the Fort Lawton army post. The group was influenced by the Indians Of All Tribes (IAT) who were then occupying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Initially, they called themselves "Kinatechitapi", Blackfoot for "All Indians". Their first efforts to open discussions with the City of Seattle in advance of the turnover of the land failed. The City said it would not open discussions until it had the land, and referred them to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).[36] As Whitebear later wrote, "This action displayed their ignorance of both the BIA's restricted service policy, which excluded urban Indians, and also the disregard and disfavor urban Indians held for the BIA."[36]

The Kinatechitapi split between a faction that called for direct action and one that preferred to wait until the land was in city hands and then attempt negotiation.[37] Prominent among those who preferred to wait was Pearl Warren, founder of the American Indian Women's Service League, who was concerned that a militant attitude would undercut the existing city-funded services.[38] It was peaceably agreed that those who wished to take more extreme action would not use the name "Kinatechitapi",[37] but the resulting tensions led to Warren losing the next election for the Service League presidency to Joyce Reyes.[39]

The more militant faction soon adopted the name "American Indian Fort Lawton Occupation Forces".[37] Some of the Indians of All Tribes came in from Alcatraz, including Richard Oaks, leader of that action; other activists came from Canada. A plan was formed to invade the base. Another arrival was Grace Thorpe, daughter of athlete Jim Thorpe. Meanwhile, ongoing protests around nearby Fort Lewis, including by American Indian soldiers, were tying native rights to opposition to the Vietnam War. At the behest of the Fort Lewis coalition, Jane Fonda was in town when the invasion took place.[40] According to Whitebear, her presence "captured the imagination of the world press. American Indians were attacking active military forts along with one of the nation's leading opponents of United States involvement in the Vietnam War." Her presence transformed "an effort to secure a land base for urban Indians" into "a bizarre, ready-for-prime-time, movie scenario, complete with soldiers, modern-day Indians, and anti-war activists. Without really appreciating it at the time, the Indian movement had achieved through Jane Fonda's presence, a long-sought credibility which would not have been possible otherwise."[41]

On March 8, 1970, Whitebear was among the leaders—arguably the leader—of about 100 "Native Americans and sympathizers" who confronted military police in riot gear at the fort. The MPs ejected them from the fort, but they were able to establish an encampment outside the fort. Organizing as the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF), they used tactics ranging from politicking to occupation of land to celebrity appearances. Some of the key politicking came at the federal level: UIATF, like the City, filed to directly acquire land that the federal government was releasing, and the federal government ultimately insisted that the two come up with a joint plan. Negotiations, confrontation and even a Congressional intervention combined in November 1971 to give them a 99-year lease on 20 acres (81,000 m²) in what would become Seattle's Discovery Park, with options for renewal without renegotiation.[22][40][42][43] In addition, the City gave $600,000 to the American Indian Women' Service League for a social services center.[40]

Whitebear was soon elected CEO of the UIATF.[34] At UIATF, he successfully oversaw fundraising (including a million dollar grant from the state) and construction for what would become the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. His brother Lawney Reyes — a sculptor, designer, curator, and later memoirist[44] (as well as his biographer: Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice, 2006) — joined with architects Arai Jackson to design the facility, which opened in 1977.[45][46]

Along with Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett, he became one of Seattle's so-called "Gang of Four" or "Four Amigos" who founded Seattle's Minority Executive Directors's Coalition.[47][48][49] He continued to build the UIATF as an institution, with programs ranging from the La-ba-te-yah youth home in the Crown Hill neighborhood to the Sacred Circle Art Gallery at Daybreak Star, as well as a pre-school, family support programs, and a large annual pow-wow held every July. In addition, UIATF acquired other land in Seattle outside of Daybreak Star, including a quarter-block downtown at Second and Cherry.[50]

In the same era when Daybreak Star was being constructed, Whitebear served on the Seattle Arts Commission.[51] In 1995, he was appointed to the board of the National Museum of the American Indian, and was involved in the planning for the museum[50] that opened September 21, 2004 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C..[52] He was also involved in the early planning for two other projects, neither of which has been achieved as of 2007. A People's Lodge at Daybreak Star is intended to include a Hall of Ancestors, a Potlatch House, a theater, and a museum;[53] the Pacific Northwest Indian Canoe Center is intended as part of the ongoing development at South Lake Union, just north of downtown.[53] Whitebear's death impacted both of these projects. As of 2007, construction of the People's Lodge has been indefinitely postponed.[54] A Native American Canoe Center is in the master plan for South Lake Union Park;[55] as of 2007, it is being referred to as the Northwest Canoe Center. An October 2007 grant from the Northwest Area Foundation should allow this project (and several other UIATF projects) to proceed.[56]

Whitebear died of colon cancer, July 16, 2000.[42]

Character and legacy

Whitebear has been the subject of many tributes. One of the most unusual came from Washington governor Gary Locke, who in November 1997 declared him to be the state's First Citizen of the Decade, later remarking after Whitebear's death that it should have been "of the Century".[57] Vine Deloria, Jr. called him the most important Indian of the last century.[58]

Besides his prominence as an activist and administrator, Whitebear continued intermittently to perform on stage. He and his Gang of Four colleagues sang and danced annually at the Community Show-Offs, where they "usually stole the show".[59]

Whitebear never married, nor had children,[60] although Marilyn Sieber of the Nit Nat tribe was his "constant companion" for more than a decade in the 1970s and '80s, and the two were at one point engaged.[61] However, in effect, he was like a parent to "every Indian kid in Seattle",[60] He never acquired a personal fortune: he gave away most money that came his way to those he considered needier, even borrowing money from his siblings to do so.[62] His only monetary self-indulgence was a collection of old cars that he tinkered with in his spare time. Most of them sat in his back yard; others ended up at Daybreak Star or in friends' yards.[63]

Whitebear's death was front-page news in the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In fact, the Times ran front page stories on two successive days.[64]

In memory of Whitebear, there is now a Bernie Whitebear Memorial Ethnobotanical Garden next to the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.[65] He and his sister Luana are both memorialized by their brother Lawney's public sculpture "Dreamcatcher" at the corner of Yesler Way and 32nd Street in Seattle.[66] The eleventh floor of King County's Chinook Building at Fifth and Jefferson is also named in his honor.[67]


  1. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 78, 191.
  2. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 78.
  3. ^ Reyes 2002, passim, especially p. 186 et. seq.
  4. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 38 et. seq., 78.
  5. ^ McRoberts 2003 says he was born at Inchelium, Washington; Reyes indicates that is where the family was living at the time, but Reyes 2006 p. 3–4 indicates the hospital birth. Also, McRoberts says he was "one of six children of an Indian mother and Filipino father"; presumably he is including the half-siblings his mother later had with Harry Wong.
  6. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 31 et. seq., 187.
  7. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 90.
  8. ^ Reyes 2002, p. p. 74–75, 185, 194.
  9. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 93, 103.
  10. ^ Reyes 2002, passim.
  11. ^ a b Reyes 2002, p. 186.
  12. ^ Various mentions in Lawney Reyes's several memoirs, but see especially Reyes 2008, p. 94–102 about his father, sister, and brother performing in vaudeville.
  13. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 52.
  14. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 55–60.
  15. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 61 et. seq.; p. 71 for when he enlisted.
  16. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 72–73.
  17. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 186–187.
  18. ^ a b Reyes 2006, p. 77.
  19. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 78.
  20. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 79.
  21. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 81 et. seq.
  22. ^ a b Reyes 2002, p. 187.
  23. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 83–85.
  24. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 87.
  25. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 89.
  26. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 86–87.
  27. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 89–91.
  28. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 91 et. seq.
  29. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 93.
  30. ^ Cate Montana, Tireless advocate Bernie Whitebear mourned, August 2, 2000, Indian Country Today. Accessed online 12 March 2007. Archived April 30, 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  31. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 93–94.
  32. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 94–96.
  33. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 96–97.
  34. ^ a b Reyes 2002, p. 185–186.
  35. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 97.
  36. ^ a b Whitebear 1994, p. 4.
  37. ^ a b c Whitebear 1994, p. 4–5.
  38. ^ Reyes 2006 p. 103.
  39. ^ Reyes 2006 p. 103–104.
  40. ^ a b c Whitebear 1994, p. 5.
  41. ^ Whitebear 1994, p. 5. Typos in the original have been corrected; it said "modem day-Indians"; this has been corrected to "modern-day Indians"; also, Fonda's name was typoed in one place as "Fcinda".
  42. ^ a b McRoberts 2003
  43. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 97 et. seq., 113.
  44. ^ Reyes 2002, passim, especially p. 181 et. seq.
  45. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 187–188.
  46. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 108 et. seq. provides several anecdotes about the fundraising for Daybreak Star.
  47. ^ Roberto Maestas, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, University of Washington. Accessed 11 March 2007.
  48. ^ Jamie Garner and Dorry Elias, "Bernie Whitebear: Elegy for a gone-but-never-forgotten activist", Real Change (Seattle's "homeless paper"), 15 August 2000.
  49. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 188–189.
  50. ^ a b Reyes 2002, p. 189.
  51. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 113.
  52. ^ "The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C." in Internship Program, National Museum of the American Indian. Accessed online 25 October 2007.
  53. ^ a b Reyes 2002, p. 190.
  54. ^ Aimee Curl, Fort Lawton Freeze Tag, Seattle Weekly, September 12, 2007. Accessed online 25 October 2007.
  55. ^ Lake Union Park City Council Resolution 30206, City of Seattle official site. Introduced/referred July 10, 2000. Adopted July 17, 2000. Accessed online 25 October 2007.
  56. ^ Northwest Area Foundation Awards $3.5 Million to United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation Press Release, 10 October 2007, posted by Philanthropy News Digest, 15 October 2007. Accessed online 25 October 2007.
  57. ^ Reyes 2002, p. 191, 192.
  58. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 136.
  59. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 122.
  60. ^ a b Reyes 2006, passim., esp. p. 118.
  61. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 117–118.
  62. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 117. His brother Lawney Reyes narrates (Reyes 2006, p. 119) that Bernie was a soft touch for his nieces and nephews, often giving or lending them the very money he had borrowed from their parents.
  63. ^ Reyes 2006, passim., p. 142.
  64. ^ Reyes 2006, p. 147.
  65. ^ Bernie Whitebear Ethnobotanical Memorial Garden, AfterWords, Edmonds Community College, October 11, 2005. Accessed 2007-03-12.
  66. ^ Lawney Reyes, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, University of Washington. Accessed 2007-03-11.
  67. ^ Magnolia Great Bernice Stern and Daybreak Star Founder Bernie Whitebear honored at grand opening of new Chinook Building, King County official site, 2008-01-25. Accessed 2009-06-03.


  • Lawney L. Reyes, White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to be Indian, University of Washington Press, 2002. ISBN 0-295-98202-0.
  • Lawney L. Reyes, Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice, University of Arizona, 2006. ISBN 0-8165-2521-8. ISBN 978-0-8165-2521-8.
  • Patrick McRoberts, Whitebear, Bernie (1937-2000), Essay 5170, February 4, 2003. Accessed 12 March 2007.
  • Bernie Whitebear, "Self-Determination: Taking Back Fort Lawton. Meeting the Needs of Seattle's Native American Community Through Conversion", , Volume IV, Number 4 /Volume V, Number 1 Spring - Summer 1994Race, Poverty & the Environment, p. 3–6.

External links

  • Urban Indians and Seattle's civil rights history, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, contains numerous oral histories, research reports, and other documents, many of which relate to Bernie Whitebear's life, including some of his own writings in Indian Center News.
  • Bernie Whitebear, A Brief History of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, written in 1994.
  • Year-End Tribute to Hazel Wolf, Jacob Lawrence, Alan Hovhaness, and Bernie Whitebear, KCTS/Seattle television, December 28, 2000, includes video footage.
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