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HOLY ROAD: Vice chairwoman of Swinomish Tribe passes

LA CONNER, Wash. - The Swinomish Tribe is mourning the loss of Susan Mae Wilbur, the tribe's vice chairwoman, who died Jan. 29. She was 49 and had suffered a series of strokes.

About 200 people attended the prayer service Feb. 1 in the Swinomish Social Services Building. About 500 attended the funeral Feb. 2 in the La Conner High School gymnasium.

Wilbur, whose Swinomish name was Lop-che-alh, "was a true leader of the Swinomish Tribe and servant to her people," said Marty Loesch, tribal spokesman, in a press statement.

When she was in her late 20s, Wilbur was elected to the Swinomish Senate and the La Conner School Board - the first American Indian to serve on the latter. She was director of the Swinomish Day Care Center since its inception in 1992.

Previously, Wilbur was the tribe's recreation director. She also spent time as a youth alcohol counselor.

In addition to serving as vice chairwoman, she chaired the Senate's Budget Committee and the Swinomish Housing Authority Board. Wilbur served on the Skagit River System Cooperative Board, the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, the American Indian Health Commission, the Northwest Washington Service Unit Health Board, the tribe's Personnel Committee and the Swinomish Gaming Commission.

"No words adequately express the loss felt by the tribe, the La Conner community, her husband, Todd Wilbur, and the rest of her family as a result of her passing," Loesch said.

Swinomish Sen. Chester Cayou said the Senate expected to meet on Feb. 5, and noted, "It will be very hard to do that meeting with that empty seat there. It's going to be hard for a while."

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Cayou said Wilbur's seat will remain vacant until the election in May. Cayou served on the Senate with Wilbur for 20 years. "She was very dedicated to education and to tribal ventures." Wilbur was involved in the development of the Northern Lights Casino and its adjacent stores, a tribally owned service station and a marina that is planned.

Eron Berg, former mayor of La Conner, which neighbors the Swinomish reservation, said Wilbur helped strengthen ties between the two communities.

Relations had been strained. "When I took office (in 2000), I thought, 'We're neighbors of people who have been here 10,000 years and who welcomed us here. They are a part of our schools and our community.'"

The town took steps to establish Native American Day to honor the Swinomish, their heritage and traditions. It became a legal holiday in the town of 700 people - it's believed to be the first such legal holiday in an American town.

"Susan spent time organizing the activities, the games, the canoe events," Berg said. "She was the first one there in the morning and last to leave in the afternoon."

Berg, 29, said Wilbur was an inspiration for him on the campaign trail when he ran unsuccessfully for the legislature. He was constantly reminded of his youth. "She started while she was in her 20s. That was 20 years ago and she was a woman."

Berg added, "It was truly an honor to work with her. She had the entire community in mind with every decision she made. She was a great friend of the town of La Conner and the residents of our community."

The Washington Legislature and the Skagit County Board of Commissioners approved resolutions honoring Wilbur's "spirit, devotion and servitude" and remembering her as "a great and honored community leader."

Richard Walker is a correspondent for Indian Country Today. Contact him at