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Robert W. Joe, Former Swinomish Chairman, Passes

Robert Wayne Joe Sr., a member of the Swinomish Senate for 25 years and chairman for 18 years and overall leadership recognized nationwide for improving the lives of not only his tribal community but all Native Americans, passed away June 21.

Robert Wayne Joe Sr., a member of the Swinomish Senate for 25 years and chairman for 18, passed away June 21 at his home in Swinomish, Washington. He was 76.

“Robert Joe was a great man. He was my teacher, my elder and my uncle. The results of his work can be seen throughout our entire community and his leadership was felt across Indian Country and the United States. While we mourn his loss, we also celebrate the life of this great man,” said Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman.

Prayer service was June 23 in the Swinomish Gymnasium. Funeral service was June 24 in the La Conner High School Gymnasium followed by burial service at the Swinomish Cemetery.

Joe, whose Swinomish name was Wa-wal-ton, was born on February 16, 1935 to Andrew and Louise (John) Joe. Growing up, he was an altar boy, a puller on the canoe “Whispering Arrow,” and a three-sport athlete at La Conner High School. He fished in Alaska and Washington.

He was first elected Swinomish chairman in 1978. Adept at politics, he also remained active in his faith. “He traveled many miles with Father Pat Twohy to pray for families,” his family wrote in his obituary. “He also spoke for a lot of families. Robert extended his help and his love for everyone.” Joe was a source for Twohy’s book, Beginnings/A Meditation on Coast Salish Lifeways.

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According to a press release he was known as a collaborative, compassionate and creative leader who was a passionate defender of tribal sovereignty. His leadership was recognized nationwide.

While Joe served in tribal leadership roles he was able to see the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community grow through the opening of the Swinomish Bingo Hall in 1989, the Centennial Accord Agreement signed by the Chairman and Washington Governor Booth Gardner in 1990, and the building of the Swinomish Smokehouse in 1991-the first such building in the area for more than 100 years. Not to mention installation of updated sewer and water systems in 1993 for tribal members and non-Native residents and the opening of the Swinomish Casino & Cabaret in 1997.

Joe was named the Special Chairman of the American Goodwill Games, led the National Self-Governance effort for tribes in 1996 and in 2001 received the High Honor Award from Harvard University for intergovernmental cooperation related to joint land use planning.

“There is not a person on this reservation who was not touched by Wa-Walton. To be with him was to know that you were loved. He threw his arms around generations of Swinomish children and generously shared the lessons of the elders who taught him. The Swinomish Tribe would not be what it is today without his steady leadership through difficult times,” said Cladoosby.

Joe’s large extended family – his obituary listed 10 sisters and five brothers – includes a son, Robert Joe Jr.; four grandchildren and their spouses; and 11 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in passing by his wife, Betty; sister, Vivian; daughter-in-law, Helen; and a granddaughter, Jamie.