Whitebear's legacy lives

The news came quietly as rain falling on cedars: The People's Lodge is on indefinite hold.

Last December, in case you haven't heard, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF) board unanimously approved a proposed 10-year plan focusing on repairs to the Daybreak Star center and a revitalization of the center's mission. There was nothing in the plan for the People's Lodge, Bernie Whitebear's vision of a great building for Native Americans in Discovery Park.

It's a matter of finances.

After the emotional debate through the latter half of the '90s, the letter-writing campaigns, the public meetings and, yes, the heartbreak of old friends like Whitebear and Bob Kildall staking opposite ground, the denouement comes as an anticlimax.

It was always possible for honorable people to oppose People's Lodge. Plans for the original, 123,000-square-foot structure struck some, like Kildall, as just too big. Kildall was present at Discovery Park's creation in 1970 after the Whitebear-led Native American occupation of Fort Lawton.

Not all were so dignified in their opposition.

Two overheated public meetings in the summer of 1999, one at Seattle Pacific University and the other at the Seattle Center, revealed a clash of worldviews. Moments of mutual respect happened on both sides. At other times caricature scenes were played out that reinforced the worst suspicions about some of those against Whitebear's vision - especially when they jiggled their little placards in unison, an image right out of "Inherit the Wind."

In a Feb. 24 Seattle Times story on the People's Lodge, Vic Barry, president of the Magnolia Community Club, is quoted: "A lot of people were paranoid it was backdoor way to get a casino into Discovery Park."

True, people were paranoid - and it was a naked disgrace. A few simple phone calls to Olympia would have established once and for all that no gambling license had ever been applied for.

Now UIATF aims to honor Whitebear's legacy with a new vision for Daybreak Star. As a UIATF document states, that vision means bringing "our Native Communities together and to share our traditional values in harmony with our neighbors and our human family."

There's no way to spin it: The People's Lodge project, the great hall, was at the center of Whitebear's dream. He gazed upon the blueprints from his deathbed. Yet the language about harmony and the human family honors also Whitebear's legacy.

So many have had enough of division, polarization and irreducible differences, along with those who profit by them, just as some good Republicans are bone weary of the Bush administration.

There must be a better way. Whitebear's life, and death, are instructive.

Whitebear's wake on July 20, 2000, at Daybreak Star unfolded on a warm, blue evening with scenes lifted out of clock-time.

Outside, while salmon baked over an alder fire, drumming thrummed from inside where a long line made its way to the open coffin. From the Daybreak Star overlook a gauze of heat haze hung over the sound, a fabric connecting the thicket of masts in Shilshole with the forested headlands of Kitsap County to the northwest. The view presented itself as one living organism. Empty of modern boats, the water seemed, as in the old days, a road, a connector, a front porch, a provider of sustenance, not a moat or precious real-estate commodity.

As the wake progressed and the sky darkened, the meanings behind such facile words as "sacred" and "soul" felt solid and real.

The next day's funeral service at the Washington State Convention Center belonged more to the politicians and the official world - Mike Lowry, Patty Murray, Daniel Inouye, Gary Locke and Ron Sims.

The lights dimmed at 10 a.m., precisely on time.

"We are better because Bernie was in our life," Sims said.

Father Pat Twohy dipped a cedar bough into water and waved it over the closed casket.

"We wish to honor our beloved in a good manner," the Catholic priest intoned.

Those two days, remarkable in the life of this city, demonstrated Whitebear's power to bring people together.

Lawney Reyes, Whitebear's brother, wrote a wonderful book about growing up in eastern Washington, "White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to Be Indian." It's a picaresque tale of hardship and love and the dignity of the human spirit. Bernie Whitebear is the little boy trailing behind his big brother.

Reyes, former art director for Seafirst Corporation and a respected artist, remembers, as a boy, falling asleep on the Colville Reservation to the sound of the Columbia flowing past.

Yes, the mighty Columbia once made noise. That was before Grand Coulee Dam. Now you can rent a houseboat, load up on beer and fishing tackle, and cruise Lake Roosevelt, an artificial lake created by the dam. And the Columbia itself, every cubic inch, is regulated by Grand Coulee.

"We are aware that the Columbia River, once the greatest force in the Northwest, is now a lifeless body of water," Reyes wrote in his book.

Bernie Whitebear walked and earned respect in both worlds: that of his people, and of those who built the dams.

Next month, the University of Arizona Press will issue "Bernie Whitebear, An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice," written by Lawney Reyes.

It's a big brother's tribute to a life well lived.

If the People's Lodge isn't built, there are other ways to honor the memory of Bernie Whitebear.

In the act of doing so, all of us will profit.[[In-content Ad]]