Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

Prominent education advocate and former Port Gamble S’Klallam tribal councilman Ted George died on May 13 from natural causes. At age 92, George was the tribe’s oldest elder before his passing, the tribe says.

He is described by his loved ones as a leader, storyteller and an activist. He wore other hats such as husband, brother, uncle, father, and grandpa — and was largely characterized as a person who was kind, genuine and lived a life of purpose, in an online obituary written by his family.

“He had a soft but firm handshake, one that made you feel secure but you still knew he meant business,” his granddaughter wrote. “Hugs that made you feel warm and safe and a smile and laugh that could fill a room even after he's left it.”

George is survived by his wife Karlene, brother Robert, eight children, 14 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

George was born in 1928 to his parents Martha and Bennie George. His mother was a Suquamish citizen and his father was a Port Gamble S’Klallam citizen. Because of his parents’ mixed tribal identities, George and his nine siblings had to choose which tribe to enroll at.

George chose Port Gamble S’Klallam and went on to make many significant contributions to the tribal nation, and for Indian Country.

He graduated from North Kitsap High School in 1947, a time when many Native students reported dropping out of school due to “unending” harassment by their white peers.

After high school, George received an education degree from Western Washington University, becoming his tribe’s first citizen to graduate from college in 1951.

He hoped to use his degree to teach at an Indian School to educate upcoming Native generations, but did not get a job until three years after college. His hiring was largely spurred by the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education that said racial segregation in schools was unconstituional.

George eventually went on to teach Native youth in the school district he attended as a youth and worked as a summer youth program counselor for the Port Gamble S’Klallam.

On a national level, George was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the Bureau of Indian Affairs education committee in 1967. This role allowed him to visit Indian boarding schools across the country. One year later in 1968, he fought in Congress for the closure of the boarding school system.

The educator turned advocate went on to serve as regional director of the Administration for Native Americans, an agency currently located within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this role he served for 16 years and was responsible for awarding grant money for tribes in eight states in the West to further economic, social and cultural developments.

“We’re a piddlin’ little agency of about $30 million, but our money has probably turned more corners and has been on the cutting edge of a lot of Indian issues,” George previously said of his work at the agency. During his tenure, the program was named best domestic assistance program by the National Congress of American Indians.

George was also a leader in advocating for tribal hunting rights, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal News reported.

He was arrested hunting elk in 1988, then asserted his treaty rights at his trial. He won. This victory resulted in negotiations between the tribe and state agencies to better serve Native hunters.

After completing his work on a national scale, George became heavily involved in the church and was chair of the episcopoal diocese of Olympia’s first nations committee.

Year later, Port Gamble S’Klallam created a special service award named in his honor. The Theodore “Ted’ George Legacy Award was created by the tribe’s council to honor a tribal citizen who has demonstrated a lifetime of dedicated service to the advancement of the tribal nation.

George was the first recipient of the award in 2018.

The community will honor the elder’s legacy during a celebration of life event happening on June 11 at 1 p.m. More information can be found here.

George’s family asks in lieu of flowers, donations are welcomed to the Ted George student financial aid fund managed by the tribe’s foundation. More information can be found here.

Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

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