The Word Carver: Tribal elder became well-known artist and author after growing up in the struggle
Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2017 1:51 pm
SEATTLE – There’s something ironic about Lawney Reyes.
The 86-year-old tribal member is a World War II enthusiast who realizes part of the United States’ allied victory in the multi-country conflict relied upon the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. This effectively ended the salmon runs to one of the Columbia River’s largest fisheries, puting a nail the coffin, so to speak, for the Sinixt tribe, which he is a part of.
“That destroyed our tribe, really,” Reyes, a Sinixt, says on one hand.
“But it was also very instrumental in winning World War II, building the ships and planes. Fighting the Japanese and the Germans was a very tricky thing,” he adds later.
Reyes witnessed the event as close as any other living tribal member, as he spent a majority of his early life in Old Inchelium, Inchelium, Kettle Falls and Grand Coulee.
Missing the war by less than a decade, he found himself in Germany after enlisting in the early 1950s. He began his own study of the people. Reyes also acquired a German helmet.
“They’re a very smart people — much more advanced than any people I’ve ever met,” he says. “Germany is about as big as the state of Montana. If it was twice as big I think they’da won the war.”
Being a World War II history fan is only a lesser part of what Reyes is known for. It would be hard to find another Native American in the state who’s made the unique impact of creating hundreds of pieces of authentic tribal artwork while authoring four memoirs from the first half of the 20th century.
FINDING REYES IN SEATTLE
When you arrive at Reyes’ quaint, two-story brick home here on Beacon Hill, chances are you may be greeted by an unexpected guardian — a trusted next-door neighbor, who doesn’t always know when his elderly friend is home or away.
“I watch over Lawney,” the man says, standing near metal steps beyond the bergenias and shrubs which lead up to the front door.
A knock on Reyes’ front door, which you must climb stairs go get to, reveals a naturally-lit room where you immediately see a Christmas tree standing in late February, accompanied by a dobro guitar. You bare witness to a collection of photos on every flat surface excluding the floor, which spans more than 80 years; blips on the time-line of Reyes and his family’s life in no particular order. One frame, an award presented by former Gov. Dan Evans for outstanding accomplishment in sculpture work in 1972, stands out above the rest. There’s not much room for more, but Reyes continues to work tirelessly to provide the next memory in his basement — a large hand-made carving of a canoe with animals.
He recently published “The Last Fish War,” the fourth book he’s authored since turning 70. It deals with the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes’ struggle over fishing rights in the 1950s, which he witnessed.
Much of Reyes’ writing work includes Inchelium, a place he considers home — and a place which has drastically changed since his youth in the early 1930s. He sits comfortably under a single light at a table that contains scattered papers and office supplies which suggest a busy man.
His house — which sits in a neighborhood where property values are in the millions and don’t typically dip below $300,000 — is a far cry from the living conditions he grew up in.
“I used to hunt a lot. You had to in Inchelium — no more salmon after the [Grand Coulee] dam,” Reyes, who was born in Oregon but moved to Inchelium with his parents, starts. “Most of us had to shoot deer, grouse, rabbit.”
He further illustrates the degree of hardship residents faced in the 1930s by clinching a fist, holding a pretend banana.
“Louis Boyd [father of the late Colville Business Council chairman Jim Boyd] walked up to me asking if he could have my peel,” Reyes recalls. “Fruit was hard to come by. That’s how bad things were. Can you imagine: Wanting the peeling of a banana? Then again, you’re a kid and you don’t really think of poverty.”
Many, like the Reyes’ — including parents Julian and Mary, and children Lawney, Luana and Bernie — survived on government commodities, such as beans, flour, cornmeal, powdered milk, salt and sugar. Those who were lucky to own cars were rarely able to wash them due to the excessive dust from the roads. His family owned an old Model T.
Reyes’ father was accustomed to tough living situations. He arrived in the United States from the Philippines at age 17. He could only speak Filipino and Spanish when he got to America, Reyes says, and he had no education.
Julian landed in Seattle and looked for work as far away as Missoula, Montana before settling in Inchelium, where he married Reyes’ mother Mary Christian, who was raised in the town. Though he was a foreigner, Julian fit in well in the community, Reyes says.
“My dad really adjusted to Indian ways of living,” he says. “Although he was Filipino, he was accepted as one of the tribe and respected. In those days, everyone in Inchelium was struggling. When we lost the Kettle, I remember we all, in 1938, we had to move out of Old Inchelium. They drug our house up with a caterpillar,” and moved it up to “higher ground, what we call as Cobbs Creek.”
He recalls being a young boy when the waters of what would become Lake Roosevelt began to rise. “It was like, God, you’re in a different world.”
Kettle Falls, specifically, “was very powerful,” Reyes adds. “Also very noisy. If you were standing next to the falls you had to shout to hear each other because the noise from the falls was so loud and powerful.
“But it was also beautiful country there, too. Columbia River, back in the old days before it was flooded over, was a beautiful river to see. I had no desire to live anywhere else because I thought I was living in a paradise. Now it’s like a dead lake.”
Reyes has fond memories of growing up in Inchelium. He and his friends turned over outhouses on Halloween for fun, which was part of a more modern tradition which angered residents.
He also took interest in an old Indian man named Cashmere St. Paul, a character is his non-fiction work that could one day be the focus of its own book. Cashmere was a storyteller in the small town.
“I don’t know how many Indians in those days knew the language but he knew it well,” Reyes recalls. “He used to tell us his hunting adventures.”
As a child, Reyes’ parents decided to leave Inchelium for opportunities elsewhere. “There was no work in those days,” Reyes said. “My dad would take any little job he could get. Not only our family, I’m sure everyone else in Inchelium had a rough time surviving.”
On the job-seeking trail they found their share of prejudice. His mother was called a squaw, and a white man intentionally ran over his dog, Pickles, Reyes says, due to their identity.
“That’s when I first started to realize there are enemies trying to do you harm,” he says of losing his favorite dog, which is mentioned in his books.
Eventually, Julian and Mary dreamt big, envisioning opening a Chinese restaurant as scores of men and women poured into land bordering the southern part of the Colville Reservation to work on the Grand Coulee Dam. Julian traveled as far as Seattle to get the materials for the restaurant, a one-month trial that turned into staple of B Street, a thrown together business area which acted as a release for the thousands of workers it took to complete one of the world’s largest structures.
For more about this time period, read Reyes’ first two books, White Grizzly Bear’s Legacy ($19.95) and Bernie Whitebear ($14.49). The former was reviewed as a “quietly dignified book about a family dealing with very tough times (City Living);” while the latter was reviewed as “A loving tribute to Seattle’s most admired Indian activist (Seattle Times).”
“Ever since she was a young girl, Mary had dreamed of having a business,” Reyes writes in “B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam.” “She had no experience or training, but she had a strong desire to create something of her own.”
Reyes and his family spent two years selling Chinese food to the workers of the Grand Coulee Dam at the Woo Dip, starting in 1935.
“The buildings were raised quickly and with no regard for design or comfort,” Reyes writes in the book. “Nearly all of the structures were made of rough lumber and tarpaper. Some were painted later. Many business owners cared only about putting up an enclosure , a place where they could make money by selling something. This assembly of poorly constructed buildings on both sides of the dusty thoroughfare became known as B Street, or, familiarly, ‘The Street.’ Before 1934, there was no power in the area, and people used kerosene and gas lamps for light.”
The Reyes’ got to know people from many walks of life while operating their restaurant. Lawney recalls getting to know prostitutes who came to the family’s establishment when he was just about school age. He also learned how to play stringed instruments at age 4, and eventually the family developed a traveling Hawaiian performance act.
“Those memories of those days enabled us to write ‘B Street,’” Reyes says.
The book starts at $17 on Amazon. The Seattle Times reviewed the book, stating, Reyes “grieves for the tranquil and nature-bound culture of the Indian village but relates, in the voice of an excited child, his delight at watching life in a rip-roaring Western boomtown that everyone knew was temporary."
“When I went to Chemawa [boarding school, in Salem, Oregon], I really enjoyed it,” Reyes, who began attending around age 9, says. “They wanted to teach you a trade — carpenter, baker, barber — so you could make a living.” He recalls being amazed that students made their own shoes.
The downside, however, was “they’re trying to make you forget your Indian culture so you could learn the white culture so you could survive in the white man’s world,” Reyes said. “Our biggest problem was trying to stay alive.”
A positive, Chemawa allowed Reyes to develop as an artist. A teacher caught wind of his sketching abilities and allowed him to participate in art with upper classmen.
Reyes says he learned to be Indian at the school. “Reason was, I met a lot of different Indians, about 1,000 of us,” he says. “A lot could speak their own language. I remember we were kind of treated badly the first year by the matron. She didn’t like Indians; it was very obvious.”
One account Reyes shares is not being able to speak to his sister for almost a year, despite being at the same school. Both were sent on a judges order following a custody battle between his divorced parents. “She was 7. I could see her walking to the mess hall with a bunch of girls. One time I asked the matron: ‘I’d like to talk to my sister. I haven’t talked to her for months.’ The matron says, ‘That’s not your business.’”
When the end of his schooling at Chemawa came around, Reyes recalls returning to his father who was working for George Whitelaw in Keller. “Again, we were in this makeshift tent. There the whole summer. My dad’s job. Loggers would go in, cut the trees down. My dad’s job was to cut the limbs and pile them and burn them later. The problem was there was a lot of rattlesnakes over there. I’d never kill a rattler now, but in those days you better kill them or they’ll kill us. I was only 11 then.”
Reyes’ account of the school was mostly positive. “In a way, Chemawa serves its purpose,” he says. “The only guy that saved us was Colonel [Richard] Pratt, who said, ‘Let’s not kill the Indian, kill the Indian in the Indian. If it weren’t for this Colonel Pratt, hell, there may not be any Indians alive today.”
STABILITY AND UNCERTAINTY
Eventually, the family was able to find stability in Okanogan, where his father was translating for Mexican orchard workers. Reyes was enrolled in the local school, a dominantly white establishment which he graduated from in 1949. He then attended Wenatchee Valley College.
With $300 in his pocket in 1952, he left for Seattle with hopes of attending the University of Washington.
Reyes got in and got two years under his belt before deciding to enlist in the Army, which gave him further direction for his career.
While overseas, he became fascinated with the architecture in places he visited like Copenhagen, Munich, Berlin, London and especially Pompeii.
“I was very impressed at the interior of what the Romans lived in before,” he says.
When Reyes’ service ended, he was back at UW enrolled in an interior design major. While in school, however, he was forced to find work with the birth of his first child.
“I had to go to work or drop out,” Reyes recalls.
He struggled, but found himself landing a job catching salmon with a Puyallup tribal member in the midst of a war over rights.
BECOMING AN ARTIST
“I remember a lady from Czechoslovakia bought my first painting in 1961,” Reyes recalls.
The sale occurred approximately three years after he found interior design jobs in Seattle and Bellevue. Reyes also started sculpting outside of work.
His big break came in 1961 when Seafirst Bank hired him to design commercial interiors. The bank wanted a corporate art collection, and they put Reyes in charge of an account that allowed him to purchase pieces upwards of $100,000.
Before taking the job, Seafirst sent Reyes to New York to visit David Rockefeller, whose Chase Bank had the best corporate art in America, Reyes says. “I met David Rockefeller. He showed me a lot of the artwork. After about five days visiting there and New York City, I knew I could handle the job. I came back and told [my boss], ‘I’ll take the job, I know what I have to do.’”
After Reyes spent a year establishing himself, Rockefeller came to Seattle and called him up. “They said, ‘David’s here, he’d like to see the collection now that you’ve had the chance to build it more.’ We spent an hour and a half looking at pieces I’d bought, with two [bodyguards] always following us.”
The collection Reyes was responsible for building gained even more popularity after Rockefeller’s visit. “A month or so later, about 60 people came up from Los Angeles and wanted to see the collection. It got to the point where different banks and schools would want to borrow pieces so they could display them in their cities.”
Working at Seafirst, Reyes says, “was the best job I ever had. They treated me like royalty: big limousine to pick me up, knew I had money to spend — the bank’s money to buy art.”
Seafirst bank built the first 50-story building in Seattle, Reyes says. The highest price piece Reyes bought for the bank was a $120,000 painting, he says. Overall, he designed close to 100 bank interiors, he says.
Through his own artwork after hours, Reyes’ personal career began to take off. “I started getting more commission to do sculptures for businesses. It got to a point where I did 600 pieces in England and the United States. I even did Iceland, a piece for the president.”
Much of Reyes’ early art was inspired by coastal tribes of the pacific northwest.
Eventually, his day job grew to the point where he couldn’t do the work, Reyes says. “They needed four more designers to do all the work.” So he hung up his design career, retiring at age 53.
He wanted to focus on his creations and, later, his history. Reyes wound up in his grandfather’s land with a white man kneeling down begging for forgiveness.
In 1912, Reyes’ grandfather, Pic Ah Kelowna (White Grizzly Bear/Alex Christian) was given three weeks to leave his ancestral homeland in British Columbia. A group of Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist group which began settling in the region, was taking over the Sinixt homeland and Christian was one of the last to be removed.
Though he pleaded with government officials to remain, he was eventually told to leave. He returned to his home to witness his possessions seized and tribal cemetery desecrated.
In 2009, Reyes accepted an invitation to speak at a college in Castlegar. “They wanted me to talk to the community and I didn’t really know it at the time but a lot of that community is Doukhobors. I think they kind of run the town.”
One of the residents bought Reyes’ book on his grandfather. “Word got around and quite a few people read White Grizzly Bear. They didn’t realize I was the grandson. They didn’t know him as that. They knew him as Indian Alex.”
Indian Alex had quite the reputation. He was a highly regarded trapper who would sneak up on grizzly bears with a .25 caliber pistol. Alex would transport the hides from British Columbia to Colville to sell them. But Christian’s status didn’t exempt him from the poor treatment — something the Doukhobors wanted to apologize for a century later.
As Reyes stood in his family and tribes’ land, the executive director of the church made a gesture that impacted Reyes.
“He got down there and kneeled in front of me to beg forgiveness for what his forbearers did to mine,” he recalls. “I told him I can’t forgive you. I’ll forgive you for my standpoint, because times have changed, but I can’t forgive you for what you did to my grandfather and all the Indians there at the time.”
Eventually, a memorial rock — which gave Reyes an opportunity to list names of his ancestors — was placed.
In 1994, Reyes moved to Pullman to live with his daughter, who had gotten pregnant while in school. He spent five years helping raise his granddaughter and stumbled into writing through the discovery of memoirs written by his mother Mary, who died in a car crash in 1978.
“I knew my mother had started writing memoirs and wasn’t a trained writer; neither am I, really,” Reyes says. “When I heard some of the cassettes when she was interview Indians, Kettle Falls Indians, I thought: Why she did this was to leave memoirs for our grandchildren so they’d know where they came from.”
Mary traveled to Seattle and Washington, D.C. to collect information about her tribe. Reading some of his mother’s writings sparked an idea. He began writing a book with the content.
“I had a friend I went to college with. I knew he read a lot of great books, so I said, ‘I want you to read this and tell me what you think.’ He says, ‘God, this is a pretty good story; you should try to get it published.’ I never thought I would get a book published; it wasn’t my intent,” Reyes says. “I talked to Therese about this and we decided to write a book. As it turned out the editor and chief of UW Press liked it and wanted to know if I wanted to get it published. I couldn’t believe that me, a guy that didn’t know a damn thing about writing, could get published.”
The process of writing his first book was very difficult, Reyes recalls. “All I was doing was telling my story about my life. Therese, she edited the book and turned it into the book it is. She handled the chronology. She wanted to make sure everything was in place timewise. All I did was think about the past. One thing that helped me: I got a pretty good memory of the past. I consumed almost everything [related to] Old Inchelium.”
Therese interjects: “It’s really incredible. I’ve never met anyone with a memory like his. He remembers the kids at Chemawa [from more than 70 years ago]. He remembers the kids’ names.”
His first book on the legacy of his grandfather has been printed 4,400 times, “maybe more by now,” says Reyes, who has done more than 100 readings on his four books.
The tribal author is hesitant to go forward with his book on Cashmere St. Paul, because he doesn’t think it will market well. “No one knows him,” he says.
Around 2006, another book idea sprung up after Reyes began watching HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” He saw a man named Earl McClung being interviewed while watching the show and couldn’t believe he didn’t know him.
“[Earl] didn’t know me because he’s eight years older than I am but he knew my mom and dad,” Reyes says.
McClung declined the book offer initially, but gave Reyes an opportunity to meet the living members of Easy Company in Atlanta, Georgia. “I told Therese I really want to go meet the guy; I think he’s a hero.”
Though those projects may not come to fruition, it’s clear Lawney Reyes will continue to work, even as he nears 90 — living comfortably but never forgetting his humble beginnings.
“I’ve had a long life and some very unusual adventures,” Reyes says.