TAHOLAH, Wash. - He was called "Skinny" by his friends growing up. Later in life, working on behalf of the Quinault and other Indian nations, the boundless energy of the late Joseph DeLaCruz was legion.
Friends and associates well remember his endless pacing at the backs of conference rooms and meeting halls all across the country, as policies that would change the face of Indian country forever were hammered into shape.
DeLaCruz, who succumbed to a heart attack April 16, came into the service of his people in the late 1960s. After serving as business manager for the Quinault tribe for four years, he was elected tribal president in 1971. It was a position he was to hold for 22 years.
In the words of life-long family friend and political associate Ramona Bennett, former chairman of the Puyallup tribe, "timing is everything." And DeLaCruz's timing could not have been better.
He came on council when the national trend was toward self-determination. In 1969 President Nixon had delivered the Self-Determination Proclamation, basically stating that the U.S. government had failed in its fiduciary responsibility to protect Native resources and rights and even to establish relevant services. It was a time of civil rights action. And DeLaCruz was ever a man for action.
"When Joe and I were growing up, one of the popular sayings was that 'It would take an act of Congress,' meaning something can't be done," reminisces Bennett. "And we just took that as the job description."
Incensed by the depletion of natural resources on the 211,000-acre Quinault reservation in the coastal rain forests of Washington, DeLaCruz led a stand against BIA mismanagement and its practice of extending white, corporate leases on the tribe's vast timber, shellfish and fishing reserves. His determination to change the status quo often led to personal, physical intervention. An Associated Press story indicated DeLaCruz once drove his pickup truck onto a bridge to block loggers from gaining access to the reservation. In 1993, disgusted with littering and ecological damages created by tourists, he closed the 23-mile-long stretch of tribal beaches to non-tribal members for once and for all.
When all else failed, DeLaCruz simply took a stand and wouldn't move off the mark. And he was generous.
Many tribal leaders remember he was always willing to work with other tribes to help them wrest control from the federal bureaucracy in areas of land use, health, self- governance, education and law enforcement.
"Joe DeLaCruz was a very good role model for a lot of leaders like myself," says Andy de los Angeles, former chairman of the recently federally recognized Snoqualmie tribe. "He had a couple of issues that he always fought for, which were sovereignty and the environmental practices that were done on Indian reservations. In particular ... the destruction of the salmon streams on the reservations. The comparison he made, if I remember his words right, was that it was the equivalent to the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam."
After serving four years as president of the National Tribal Chairman's Association, in 1981 he was elected president of the highly influential National Congress of American Indians, and his policies and philosophy went international. Even after his term of office with the NCAI was over, his travels never ceased.
"My family lived in Fife, and Joe used to always stop and have coffee on his way to and from the airport," Bennett said with a chuckle. "He traveled so much. One time he was visiting us and he really had to go open his suitcase to see if he was coming or going. He said, 'Oh, my tickets are here and my clothes are all clean, so I must be on my way somewhere. Let's see, where am I supposed to be?'"
Everyone who knew DeLaCruz has memories that stand out crystal clear across time. For Bennett, it was her first trip as chairman and representative for the Puyallup tribe to a National Tribal Chairman's Association meeting in Albuquerque in the early 1970s. Initially told she would have to remain in the lobby with the other chairmen's wives because she was female, Bennett eventually forced her way into the hall where more than 300 male delegates were developing a list of natural resources that needed to be preserved and protected.
"I stood up and said, 'Mr. Chairman, I would like to make a motion to include our most endangered and important natural resource - our Native children.'"
According to Bennett, she was immediately the object of insults and derision. "And then," she says, "Joe DeLaCruz just came striding across the room and said, 'Mr. Chairman, this is Ramona Bennett. She is the chairwoman of the proud Puyallup tribe, and what she is saying is absolutely true. From my own experience surveying my tribe, I am aware that we have a hemorrhage of our children flowing out of our families and communities into various group homes, adopted homes and foster homes. And virtually none of them are Native. And I want to go on record seconding her motion.' "
"He didn't have a favorite issue or favorite topic," she adds. "Whatever affected and influenced Indians was a matter for his concern. He could have just sat there. Three hundred guys did. And he didn't just talk from across the room. He came and stood with me."
This particular stand developed into the Indian Child Welfare Act, a piece of legislation that DeLaCruz was highly influential in getting passed in 1977.
It was appropriate, says Bernie White Bear, founder and leader of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle, that DelaCruz "died with his boots on," traveling to yet another conference in yet another city, unceasing in his efforts to assist Native causes.
"He was a road warrior," says W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallum tribe. "He's going to go down as one of the big champions of Indian Country."
Bennett says Native people everywhere should be deeply grateful to his family, his wife, Dorothy, and his children and grandchildren, for sharing him with them.
"Joe went to that airport to go on a journey, and he did," says Bennett. "It wasn't the journey he planned on going on. But he went on a journey and he leaves behind a lot of people whose lives were richer for knowing him.
"The old ones would say his work was well done."