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Emmett Oliver, Founder of Paddle to Seattle, Walks On at 102

Emmett Oliver was a lot of things in his life. A U.S. Coast Guard officer. An educator. A policy maker. An advocate. He walked on March 7. He was 102.

Emmett Oliver was a lot of things in his life. A U.S. Coast Guard officer. An educator. A policy maker. An advocate.

But it is, perhaps, the Paddle to Seattle that he organized in 1989 that has had the greatest impact on the lives of Indigenous Peoples—not just in the Pacific Northwest, but around the Pacific Rim.

Oliver, a citizen of the Quinault Nation, was a member of the committee planning the State of Washington’s centennial celebration when he organized the Paddle to Seattle to ensure the state’s First Peoples were represented.

The return of indigenous canoes to an indigenous place—Seattle, a city named for the 1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples—gave birth to the annual Canoe Journey and a cultural renaissance involving multiple generations from a growing number of indigenous nations.

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver is seen here looking for whales.

“He was very strong and very go-get ’em,” said Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, Oliver’s niece. “If it was right, he did it. And he moved forward with such positive force.”

Oliver passed away at 4:19 p.m. March 7 in his room at Aegis Living of Edmonds, a suburb of Seattle. He was 102. He was surrounded by members of his family.

Hansen said her uncle loved the drum. As the family gathered in his room, a nephew, Marvin Velasquez, drummed and the family sang a Quileute paddle song. “Then he passed,” she said. “He was drummed into the other side.”

Oliver was preceded to the other side by his wife, Georgia; and son, Arne. He is survived by his son, the artist Marvin Oliver, of Seattle; daughter, Marylin Bard, of Kingston, Washington; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“For nearly a century, the waters were silent,” Quinault President Fawn Sharp said late March 7. “We didn’t have canoes. We had Fish Wars. We had contention. Through his vision, we now not only have renewal and this amazing [cultural] resurgence, but more and more of our history is being restored.”

She added, “It’s an incredibly sad day to know he’s walked on.”

Emmett Sampson Oliver was born on December 2, 1913 in South Bend, Washington. His father, a fisherman on the Willapa River, gave him a skiff and fishing net when he was 12. “Rising early and rowing across the river, he gathered his catch before school each day,” Western Washington University professor Susanna A. Hayes wrote in 2002 for the university’s Center for Cross-Cultural Research. “His father sold the fish and gave Emmett the proceeds. But personal and intellectual curiosity prompted Emmett to seek career goals” beyond fishing.

The younger Oliver’s mother graduated from Chemawa Indian School; an uncle graduated from Carlisle Institute and Dartmouth College and went on to a career as an administrator, including superintendent of the Tulalip Indian Boarding School.

Emmett Oliver attended public school in South Bend, Tulalip Indian Boarding School, and Sherman Institute in California; he excelled in academics, football and track. He attended Bacone, a two-year Indian college in Oklahoma that focused primarily on training future teachers. He later received a scholarship and transferred to the University of Redlands in California, where he earned a degree in biology and education. He returned to Bacone to teach science and coach the track and football teams.

“He saw himself as demanding, firm, and dedicated to bringing out the best in all his students,” Hayes wrote of Oliver’s time at Bacone. “His track students distinguished themselves as medal winners in state competitions despite their relative inexperience as competitive runners.”

Oliver and his wife, Georgia Abeita of Isleta Pueblo, met at Bacone. During their 63 years together, “they dedicated their lives to teaching and improving educational programs for Native students,” Hayes wrote.

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver is seen here with his wife Georgia on their 50 year anniversary. His son Marvin and his wife Brigette are also pictured.

After they married in 1937, the Olivers were hired as teachers by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and assigned to a school at Acoma Pueblo. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II, Oliver was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard. After the war, he received a one-year leave to finish graduate studies at the University of Washington. He then accepted a teaching job at Shelton High School, near Olympia; the proximity to Seattle enabled him to continue his duties as a Coast Guard Reserve officer.

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver served with the U.S. Coast Guard.

At Shelton, he encountered ethnic stereotypes that he had originally encountered in childhood. As a teacher of successful Native students at Bacone and Acoma, he knew that “with encouragement and rewards from all teachers and administrators, Native students were capable of excellent work,” Hayes wrote.

“The attitude, that non-Native teachers could do little to help Native students, conflicted with Emmett’s philosophy of education and his cross-cultural experiences,” Hayes wrote. “He had non-Native teachers and mentors throughout his career who were very helpful and supportive to him. In Emmett's view, Native American students can and do learn from dedicated, effective educators regardless of their ethnicity or culture.”

She added, “To make a difference for his students, Emmett utilized his motivational skills to reinforce their athletic and academic abilities … Emmett did everything possible to encourage his Native students to be successful in their daily school activities. He shared a lesson learned at the Coast Guard Academy: If you consistently show up, remain alert and pay close attention, there is a good chance your efforts will produce positive results.”

As a Coast Guard Reserve officer, he served in the Pacific during the Korean War, and developed and led a Coast Guard leadership institute in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s. He retired from the Coast Guard as a commander. While in the Bay area, he taught at a high school and served as chairman of the Bay Area Native American Committee, which helped plan and execute the takeover of Alcatraz Island.

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver retired from the Coast Guard as a commander.

In 1969, he became interim director of the Indian Student Cultural Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. He later returned to Washington to direct the Indian Student Program at the University of Washington. Less than a year later, in 1971, he became director of Indian Education for the state of Washington.

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver is seen here when he was the head of Indian Education.

In his new position, he focused on educational policy with regard to education of Native American students; general educational practices in K-12 schools; and Native community involvement in education.

“Until his retirement in June 1982, Emmett traveled across the state meeting with Native American parent committees who monitored the development and results of programs intended to enhance the education of their children,” Hayes wrote. “He insisted on accountability and helped formulate clearly stated goals and objectives for programs specifically funded through Native American education sources such as the Johnson O'Malley Act of 1934 and Title IV of the Indian Education Act of 1975. Historically, the funds were usually added to the general school budget rather than providing for the unique needs of Native American students. Emmett insisted that each district formulate a specific plan for services that focused on Native students.”

The Paddle to Seattle

In 1984, Gov. John Spellman appointed Oliver to the Washington State Heritage Council and the State Board of Geographic Names.

As the state of Washington prepared to celebrate its centennial in 1989, Oliver worked with indigenous representatives from the Puget Sound region to ensure the state’s Native cultures were represented in the celebration. The idea: a paddle to Seattle in traditional cedar canoes.

He approached the U.S. Forest Service to make available old-growth cedars needed for canoes. The art of canoe carving was awakened. Family canoes were awakened too. One of those canoes belonged to the family of the president of the Quinault Nation.

Future president Fawn Sharp was a student at Gonzaga University at the time. She received a call from her mom that she was going to paddle to Seattle as part of an all-woman crew. The idea seemed incredible. But she’s convinced Oliver envisioned something that would live on past the event. “He saw that connection [of the canoe and the water] to our culture and our traditions.”

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver is seen here with Ben Smith in 2003.

Live on it did. Impressed by the Paddle to Seattle, Frank Brown, Heiltsuk, invited canoe families to pull to his homeland in Bella Bella, British Columbia, in 1991. The annual Canoe Journey was born. Sharp said she is happy Oliver saw the day that participation in the Canoe Journey grew to 100 canoes. That was in 2012, the Paddle to Squaxin. In the 2013 Paddle to Quinault, Oliver watched from his daughter’s truck as his 14-year-old grandson Owen arrived at Point Grenville in the Chinook Nation’s canoe. That day, Marylin Bard described the moment as “powerful.”

Since the Paddle to Seattle, the Canoe Journey has grown to include more than 100 canoes and the participation of people from other indigenous canoe cultures, including Ainu, Alaska Natives, Greenlandic Inuit, Maori, Native Hawaiians, and Indigenous Peoples from Brazil and Mexico.

The cultural renaissance: the revival of canoe travel upon ancestral waters, the restoration of languages and songs and teachings, the bolstering of indigenous pride, the message to the world that indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest are alive and thriving.

Image Courtesy Oliver family

Emmett Oliver is seen here at the Washington State Awards.

Of the impacts of the cultural renaissance spurred by the Paddle to Seattle, Sharp said, “The fact is that Emmett saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. It is hard to underestimate the great positive impact that the resurgence of the canoe culture has had on American Indians in this country. It has helped so many of our children and adults turn away from drugs and alcohol, and displaced depression and despair with hope and culture-based principles. People are learning their culture again. So many more know their language, their songs, their history. They have pride again, and they’re staying in school. Emmett Oliver was a true hero among our people.”

The annual gathering is rich in meaning and cultural significance. Canoe pullers travel great distances as their ancestors did, so participating in the journey requires mental, physical and spiritual discipline; it’s a no-alcohol event. At each stop, canoe families follow certain protocols—they ask for permission to come ashore, often in their ancestral languages. At night in longhouses there is gifting, honoring and sharing of traditional songs and dances. Meals, including evening dinners of traditional foods, are provided by the host nations.

The Canoe Journey is also an economic development force. Host nations often invest in new construction in order to accommodate thousands of guests that visit their lands for the events.

Hansen, who has led a long campaign to restore the Duwamish Tribe’s government-to-government relationship with the United States, said her uncle urged her to become involved in the Paddle to Seattle. “I started going to meetings in Olympia. I ended up being the host in Seattle,” she said. “His background [as an educator and advocate] was something to marvel at. You couldn’t say no to him.”

What Youth Have Said About the Canoe Journey

The annual Canoe Journey is about the young people, about passing on the teachings and the culture. Here’s how the Canoe Journey has affected the lives of young people, in their words.

Katelynn Pratt, Suquamish Tribe: Overcoming challenges on the water is like overcoming challenges in life. “You work on getting to that next place … [You learn] that there’s always something better, that when you get into a rough place, you can get through it.” What has she learned about herself? “I’ve learned I’m strong.”

Asiah Gonzalez, Swinomish Tribe: “A lot of my teachings come from the canoe. What’s helped me most being out on the water is patience. It’s true what they say: good things come to those who wait; not everything is going to be given to you. [As in life], the water can be calm one minute and turn on you the next. You just have to be prepared. You don’t know what’s coming your way—just be prepared.” 

Adam Charles, Port Gamble S’Klallam: “It’s a lot of tough work, but we got through it, even though we hit a lot of rough patches out there. I just did what I learned from my training, that if it gets rough, I’ve got to keep going.”