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Tireless advocate Bernie Whitebear mourned

SEATTLE - The drums of the Nez Perce beat through the night keeping vigil while hundreds of people came to wish Bernie Whitebear well on his final journey.

At the services, which Whitebear organized, members of his United Indians of All Tribes Foundation joined with family from the Colville Reservation and Whitebear's many friends during an evening wake to cook the barbecued salmon he so loved. It took many hours for those who wished to pay their last respects to file past the simple wooden coffin in which Whitebear lay, dressed in his Green Beret uniform.

At a morning memorial service at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, tribal leaders gathered with Gov. Gary Locke and former governor Mike Lowry, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, Sen. Patty Murray, R-Wash., and Sen. Dan Inouye, D- Hawaii, Rep. Jay Inslee, D.-Wash., and King County Executive Ron Sims to honor Whitebear and recount stories about their friend and oft-time political opponent.

The stories about Whitebear, who died at home of colon cancer at age 62, are legion. Longtime family friend and congressional hopeful Tom Keefe called Whitebear "a walking anecdote." Everyone who spoke about Whitebear mentioned his kindness and his generous spirit, his wit and pleasure in a good joke.

The man who stormed Seattle's Fort Lawton military base and changed the face of urban Indian life in Seattle for good, the man who founded and administered the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation for more than 20 years and created the Indian Health Board in Seattle was at once courageous and humble, persistent and patient.

"There are so many stories about Bernie," said Michelle Sanidad, Whitebear's appointed successor at the foundation. "He would do anything. He would cook salmon and serve salmon, clean the bathrooms and walk the dog. He would do anything for anybody.

"It's a great sense of loss here."

"Hundreds of thousands of people knew Whitebear through the press," said Ramona Bennett, former chairwoman of the Puyallup Tribe. "But when the cameras were gone, Bernie continued to work very hard. All of our little dreams and our little fantasies, he made them reality and then he administered them very responsibly."

The Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, headquarters for the foundation, was built under Whitebear's direction in 1977. The modern facility is situated on 20 acres of former government property Whitebear managed to wrest from the city of Seattle for his people of all tribes.

The center provides a focal point for urban Indian services including day care, education, health services, pow wows and art exhibits. It also serves as a center of inspiration, power and political planning. Anybody who is anybody in Indian affairs in the Northwest has made the trek to Daybreak Star many times over the years.

"Everybody would be there at some big do and he'd be in back cleaning pans, emptying the trash or whatever," reminisces Bennett. "He just took such pride in that facility. Even after he was sick and really exhausted he would keep working to keep things nice. And I know it was because he really loved his Indian people and he just wanted things to be nice for all of us."

Back in the early 1970s when Whitebear came to the foreground in Indian affairs, things were anything but nice for the estimated 25,000 urban Indians in Seattle. With no health services, no organization, no money and no meeting place except an old church on Boren Avenue, the situation was bleak. When the U.S. government declared the 1,110 acre Fort Lawton overlooking Puget Sound just north of the city surplus, it seemed like the perfect place for an Indian cultural center. It was, after all, situated in the former tribal lands of the Duwamish Tribe.

The city of Seattle called for land-use bids for the base that was soon to be renamed Discovery Park. Whitebear and Bennett, billing clerks for different Seattle freight companies, sat down at a friend's borrowed typewriter, hammered out a few ideas and sent a proposal in. Aside from some attention from the press, their request for land went nowhere.

To direct public attention to the issue, Whitebear and a few others organized a peaceful takeover of the abandoned military base. On March 8, 1970, they forced open the gates and marched in carrying food and tipis, determined to stay until the city gave in to their request for land. They were met in force by military police.

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Bennett recalled watching as the MPs caught and beat up many of her friends before she ran away through the dense forest, ending up well-hidden in a deep ditch.

"I'm peeping up over the top to see what's going on," said Bennett, "and here comes Bernie just running like a bat out of hell and he's got like a whole row of MPs chasing him. And he comes running up this hill and he jumps over my ditch. And as he goes flying over he looks down and goes, 'Whoops, sorry Ramona,' because about 20 MPs are chasing him. And all of a sudden they stopped and they're looking at me and of course he's running off through the under brush."

The MPs never did catch him. After a three-month takeover, Congress ordered the city to negotiate.

Whitebear's influence extended far beyond the Indian community.

About the same time he was making a headline splash at Fort Walton, several other young, minority leaders were coming onto the public scene.

Bob Santos was organizing the Asian community, Larry Gossett was emerging as a young black leader and Roberto Maestas was working in the Latino community. The four men met and, despite occasional political differences, got along famously. In the mid-'70s they founded the Minority Executive Director's Coalition of King County.

"Instead of minority groups fighting for the crumbs, we had a forum to sort out and support each other and to put pressure on government policy, funding questions, issues and projects," said Maestas, a pallbearer at Whitebear's funeral. "I travel all over the country and it's the most advanced coalition of multiracial people working together in confronting problems across racial lines."

Maestas directly attributed the low incidence of youth gang activity in Seattle to the coalition which unites all minorities throughout the city.

If there's anything Whitebear is remembered for, it was his unceasing efforts on behalf of Indian youth. In the early years he organized picnics and trips to pow wows, personally carpooling and making bologna sandwiches for tons of kids whose parents didn't have the time or means to introduce them to their Native heritage.

Later through Daybreak Star he developed the literacy programs, the after-school programs, the obstetric health services, the school lunch programs, and Native heritage programs that changed the lives of Indian youth throughout Seattle.

Whitebear was always there for them.

As Bennett put it, after the Fort Lawton takeover, after Seattle's capitulation and all the fanfare had died away and all the activists went home, herself included, Whitebear was left with all the responsibilities. He shouldered them well.

After he was diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and given a very short time to live (he beat the doctor's estimate by more than two years), a huge appreciation dinner was held for Whitebear at the Union Station building in Seattle. More than 1,000 people came and Maestas was one of them.

"Bernie talked about his life ... and he said 'I might out live most of you all out there despite the prognosis. But in case I don't, let me announce the following. I have been carrying Larry Gossett, Bob Santos and Roberto Maestas on my back for all these 20 some years, so now it's going to be their turn. And I hope none of them trips when they carry me in my coffin to the final resting place."

They didn't. But there are some mighty big shoes still to fill now that Bernie Whitebear is gone.