Bernie Whitebear
American Indian activst
Bernie Whitebear
Bernie Whitebear, birth name Bernard Reyes, 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.
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  • 2000
    Age 62
    Whitebear died of colon cancer, July 16, 2000.
    More Details Hide Details construction of the People's Lodge has been indefinitely postponed. A Native American Canoe Center is in the master plan for South Lake Union Park; 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. Whitebear married Jessica King. He had six children. 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. He acted like a parent to "every Indian kid in Seattle", according to his brother. He gave away most money that came his way to those he considered needier, sometimes borrowing money from his siblings to do so. His only monetary self-indulgence was a collection of old cars, which he tinkered with in his spare time. Most of them were stored in his back yard; others ended up at Daybreak Star or in friends' yards.
  • 1995
    Age 57
    In the same era when Daybreak Star was being constructed, Whitebear served on the Seattle Arts Commission. In 1995, he was appointed to the board of the National Museum of the American Indian, and was involved in the planning for the new museum that opened September 21, 2004 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C..
    More Details Hide Details 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. The Pacific Northwest Indian Canoe Center is intended as part of the ongoing development at South Lake Union, just north of downtown. Whitebear's death in 2000 slowed fundraising and other progress on both of these projects.
  • 1977
    Age 39
    His brother Lawney Reyes, a sculptor and designer — joined with architects Arai Jackson to design the facility, which opened in 1977.
    More Details Hide Details Reyes later became a curator of art and author, writing a personal memoir and a biography of his brother (Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice, 2006). Along with Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett, Whitebear became one of Seattle's so-called "Gang of Four" or "Four Amigos" who founded Seattle's Minority Executive Directors's Coalition. 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. The Center also operated a pre-school, family support programs, and sponsored a large annual pow-wow every July. It supports a "social-service agency with more than 100 staffers, an annual budget of $4 million, and eight federally funded programs serving Indians - infants to elderly." In addition, UIATF has acquired other land in Seattle outside Daybreak Star, including a quarter-block downtown at Second and Cherry.
  • 1969
    Age 31
    Whitebear left Boeing to help operate the clinic. In 1969 it established itself as a separate non-profit, the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB).
    More Details Hide Details In 1970, Whitebear became the group's first executive director. Lawney Reyes characterizes the SIHB as "the first major achievement for the Indian community in Seattle," and said 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 increasingly acted as the true administrator of the group. After about a year Whitebear resigned, in order to focus on acquiring a land base for Seattle's urban Indians. After a national search, Luana Reyes, Whitebear's sister, was hired as executive director after a business career in San Francisco. Over the next decade, she developed SIHB as a 200-employee institution recognized as a national model. She was later appointed as the deputy director of the federal Indian Health Service (a political appointee position). Shortly after this, Whitebear became deeply involved in a movement for Seattle Indians to acquire a share of the land to be declared surplus at Fort Lawton, as the government downsized this army post. The group was influenced by the Indians Of All Tribes (IAT), a mostly student group of activists who had occupied Alcatraz Island, site of a federal prison, in San Francisco Bay. Initially, the Seattle movement 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.
  • 1961
    Age 23
    As early as 1961, Whitebear organized a pow-wow at Seattle's Masonic Temple; in 1966 he moved to the city.
    More Details Hide Details Throughout this period, he retained his job at Boeing (and even played Sitting Bull in a Boeing employees' production of Annie Get Your Gun.) He also became involved with young Indians in learning the songs and dances of the Plateau Indians (including the Colville), and those of the Plains, as well as more about specific tribes. Whitebear tracked down Indians knowledgeable in these various traditions, and he taught himself many of the traditional songs and dances of Native cultures. In 1968, Whitebear put together a Native American dance group to tour Southeastern Europe along with the Balkan-style Koleda Dance Ensemble. They later made a second trip, performing in France and Germany. According to his brother Reyes, Whitebear's experiences in Europe helped him "realize his calling in life", to "make Indians more visible to white people" and to help "the various tribes… forge a united front."
    In the summer of 1961, along with his various family members, Whitebear raised opposition to a federal government proposal to "terminate" the relationship of the federally recognized Colville Reservation.
    More Details Hide Details Under the termination program, the government proposed to pay US$60,000 to each tribal member to relinquish their rights as American Indians. The reservation would be disbanded and the tribal members essentially assimilated to majority culture.
  • 1957
    Age 19
    In September 1957 Reyes enlisted in the United States Army, where he served in the 101st Airborne Division as a Green Beret paratrooper.
    More Details Hide Details After leaving the army in 1959 and returning to the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington State, Reyes took a job at Boeing, the major employer, and remained in the Army Reserve. 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. They had these rights affirmed in the United States Supreme Court ruling known as the Boldt Decision (1974), which made the Washington's tribes co-managers of the state's fisheries. Through the fishing rights struggle, Whitebear developed a deeper sense of historic conflicts between Indians and the white population than he had attained growing up around Okanogan. During this period, the struggle over the rights to fish for salmon occasionally reached the level of physical violence. 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. 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 "fraternal organization" called the "Skins", with three Tacoma taverns as their "lodges". "When the Skins gathered," Reyes wrote, "others gave them a wide berth." According to the older Lawney Reyes, 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.
  • 1955
    Age 17
    For the rest of his childhood and youth, Reyes lived with his father, variously on the Colville Reservation and in Okanogan, Washington, where he graduated from high school in 1955.
    More Details Hide Details Being from a musically inclined family, Reyes took up the trumpet. He eventually advanced to lead trumpet of the Okanogan High School band. 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. After attending one year of classes at the University of Washington, Reyes lived with his mother in Tacoma, Washington for about a year. There he first met, and fished with, Bob Satiacum, another Native American. 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 the Coast Guard.
  • 1940
    Age 2
    While his older brother Lawney Reyes and sister Luana Reyes went away to attend boarding school, Chemawa Indian School in 1940–1942, Bernard was too young to do so.
    More Details Hide Details He lived with foster grandparents, the Halls.
  • 1939
    Age 1
    His early childhood was spent largely on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. His parents separated in 1939 and subsequently divorced; his mother would later marry Harry Wong, with whom she and Bernie's father had run a Chinese restaurant in 1935-1937, during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.
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  • 1937
    Born on September 27, 1937.
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