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Thomas ‘Bearhead’ Swaney


ST. IGNATIUS, Mont. – Bearhead was born in St. Ignatius, Mont. April 16, 1931 to Mary Catherine McDonald and James Swaney and was the youngest of seven children. On May 28, he passed away at the home of his daughter, Patty and son-in-law Willie Stevens due to complications of mantle cell lymphoma.

Along with his brothers, Jay, Doogie and Bill, and sisters Eileen and Opal, he grew up in the Dixon area and graduated from high school in 1950. He also spent much time at Post Creek at his Grandpa Joe and Grandma Lucy McDonald’s. Following the tradition of his three brothers who all served in World War II, he enlisted in the Air Force after graduation and served four years during the Korean War.

In 1958, he married Dorene Dupuis and they had four children. After his military service he entered Western Montana College in Dillon, majoring in English. In 1960, he began his career with The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He also worked for the BIA at Crow Agency and Riverside, Calif. He returned to the Flathead Reservation in 1968 and settled his family at Post Creek.

From 1972 to 1975, he served on the tribal council for the St. Ignatius district, and was again elected from 1978 to 1982. He served as tribal chairman in 1978 and was active in the Montana Tribal Chairman’s Association, which later became the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, and was also involved in the National Congress of American Indians, Council of Energy Resource Tribes and Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

In addition to tribal politics, he was active in state and national issues and was one of Montana’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1984. A lifelong critic of the world’s wars, in recent years his “peace pasture” display of crosses marking the military deaths of the war in Iraq drew international media coverage.

During his tribal council service he promoted the formation of many tribal entities, notably as a founding board member of Salish Kootenai College with his cousin and fellow tribal council member Joe McDonald. He was an outspoken environmentalist and supported the creation of the Mission Mountains Wilderness, the designation of the South Fork of the Jocko as a primitive area, and the protection of the Flathead River from hydroelectric dam development – all places Swaney and his family and friends enjoyed many hunting, fishing and camping excursions.

In 1979, he was hired as the director of the CSKTs Air Quality Program. Through his efforts, the tribes were one of the first in the United States to be designated Class I (pristine) air status for the Flathead Reservation. Later that year, he received the American Motors Conservationist of the Year Award for his advocacy in protecting bighorn sheep on Wild Horse Island.

In 1986, he went to work for the Tribal Health Department, and later the Tribal Human Services Department. He retired in 1997 from the Tribal Health and Human Services Department as the division manager of Community Services.

In 1973, he began his involvement in the annual Arlee 4th of July Celebration and served as master of ceremonies for almost two decades. He and his friend, Doug Allard, were some of the first members of the Arlee Celebration Committee created in 1976. He devoted countless hours to the committee as chairman as well as spending much time with his friends Chuck Tellier, Bear Malatare, Jimmy Malatare and others to develop and maintain the celebration grounds. Bearhead and Doug were the honorees of the 106th Annual Arlee 4th of July Celebration.

In his retirement he continued to enjoy hunting, fishing, golfing, playing poker, watching Indian basketball and working on his ranch, faithfully accompanied by his dog “Puppy.” In 2005, he realized a longtime dream of a fishing trip to Alaska with his son, Bill. He took great joy in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was deeply saddened by the loss of his grandson, Thomas Lyles, in 2006.

He is survived by sisters Eileen Decker of St. Ignatius and Opal Cajune of Ronan; daughters Kim Swaney of Ronan, Patty (Willie) Stevens of St. Ignatius, and Ruth Swaney and son Bill Swaney, both of Post Creek. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren are Joanna Phillips and her children Erica and Jason Baldwin of Kotzebue, Ark.; Kyle Thomas, Kale (Kelsey) Gardner and daughter Maeleigh, and Kayla Dix of Arlee; Marianne Addison and sons Talon and Thomas of Ronan; Raymond Adams of Ronan; Thomas’s son Brian Lyles of Pablo; Jamie Dickson (Jeremy McGreevey) and children JoDessa (and Jasper McGreevey arriving soon) of Ronan; Catherine Addison (Brad Endfield) and daughter Talayna Endfield of Ronan; Joe Stevens of St. Ignatius and his daughter Mataya of Ronan; and James “JC” Carpentier II of Everett, Wash.

He was also known as “Grandpa Bearhead” by the granchildren of JoAnn and Chuck Tellier and the children of Cher Desjarlais and Dan Decker. He is uncle, great uncle, great-great uncle, and great-great-great uncle to more than 100 nieces and nephews, and has numerous other relatives among the Swaneys and McDonalds and their extended families.

Preceding him in death were his parents; his brothers; sister Doris, who died in infancy; grandson Thomas Lyles; nephews Daniel “Cricky” Swaney and James “Kitty Kat” Swaney; grand-nephews Steve Swaney and Arnie Swaney; brother-in-law Fred Decker; special cousins Dan McDonald, Ruth Whiting and Thomas “Satch” McDonald; and his best friend Wayne Hamel.

Wake services were held at the home of Patty and Willie Stevens in St. Ignatius, closing services were at the St. Ignatius Community Center, and burial with military rites by the Mission Valley Honor Guard were held at the Decker Family Cemetery. Pallbearers were Eddie Ivanoff, Bear Malatare, John Malatare, Bob Marsenich, Austin Moran, Ernie Moran, Fred Steele and Ron Swaney. Honorary pallbearers were Doug Allard, Larry Anderson, Dr. Joe McDonald, Gene Sorrell and Chuck Tellier and his many friends and relatives.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the community theater project in care of the Arlee Community Development Center, Arlee, MT 59821.