Published on July 8, 2014 by Amy
Lawney L. Reyes (born c. 1931 in Bend, Oregon) is an American Indian artist, curator and memoirist.
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Reyes’ mother, born Mary Christian, was Sin Aikst (now known as the Sinixt and historically as the Senjextee and also as “the Lake”, now one of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation); his father, Julian Reyes, was Filipino, but had largely assimilated to an Indian way of life. His mother’s father, Alex Christian, was known as Pic Ah Kelowna, “White Grizzly Bear”; his great uncle (brother of his maternal grandmother) was Chief James Bernard, a Sin Aikst leader in the early 20th century.
Reyes’ early childhood was spent largely on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. In 1935–1937, during the period of construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, his parents had moved to the Coulee and started a Chinese restaurant even though “[n]either of them could prepare Chinese food except for simple dishes such as pork fried rice, egg foo-yung, and chop suey”. They soon acquired an ethnically Chinese partner and cook, Harry Wong; Wong bought them out of the restaurant in 1937. His parents separated in 1939 and subsequently divorced; his mother later worked again for Wong in Tacoma, Washington, and eventually married him.
During their time based at Grand Coulee, the 4-year-old Lawney became a reasonably competent player of the ukelele. He and 2-year-old sister Luana did a brief spell with their father on the Eastern Washington vaudeville circuit performing Hawaiian music.
From 1940 to 1942, Reyes was a student at the Chemawa Indian School five miles north of Salem, Oregon; he would later write that his consciousness of being “Indian” was largely formed through his conversations there with other students. The rest of his childhood and youth was spent living with his father, variously on the Colville Reservation and in Okanogan, Washington.
After graduating from Okanogan High School in 1949, he initially moved to Tacoma, Washington, living with his mother. He moved back east across the mountains and attended Wenatchee Junior College, where he obtained a two-year degree. He met Joyce Meacham, a Yakama and Warm Springs Indian; they were married in 1955; she later had a career in social work and especially in Indian Health programs. He served in the U.S. Army; active service and leave gave him the opportunity to see much of Europe, from Pompeii to Malmö, Sweden, which confirmed his interest in working in a field related to “architecture design, and art”. Upon his return he attended the University of Washington, studying painting and sculpture and majoring in interior design. He graduated in 1959.
He worked for Seafirst Bank, initially as a designer, eventually creating and curating the Seafirst Corporate Art Collection. During this time, he also used his nights and weekends to be a sculptor (mainly in wood) and a freelance interior designer. He became an increasingly acclaimed artist—winning a major award from the Center for Indian Art in Washington, D.C. and being invited to teach Contemporary Indian Art at the University of Washington—and curator, serving as commissioner of the Seattle Arts Commission and a member of the (Washington) Governor’s Task Force for the state’s arts appropriation budget.
He took early retirement from Seafirst in 1984, and traveled North America visiting various Indian tribes, and later writing two books, his memoir White Grizzly Bear’s Legacy: Learning to be Indian and a biography of his brother Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian’s Quest for Justice.
Reyes’ late brother Bernie Whitebear was a prominent activist, a founder of the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, and the Daybreak Star Cultural Center; SIHB would grow to prominence under the directorship of their late sister, Luana Reyes, who eventually became the number two person in the U.S. federal government’s Indian Health Services.
Reyes’ 2002 memoir White Grizzly Bear’s Legacy: Learning to be Indian combines his own memories and research with notes from library and field research (including taped interviews) done by his mother before her death in a traffic accident in May 1978. Among other things, it describes fishing at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River and living in Inchelium, Washington at its old site, before both Kettle Falls and Old Inchelium were flooded by the rising waters after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam (which also prevented salmon from reaching the Upper Columbia); the life of the Sin Aikst/Lakes as the flooding and other changes rendered many of their traditional ways impossible, along with their attempts to preserve elements of their traditions; and the ambivalent effect of institutions such as the Chemawa Indian School circa 1940, simultaneously acculturating natives to the dominant American culture while also instilling a sense of “Indianness” rather than just their individual tribes.
His second book — Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian’s Quest for Justice (2006) — is a biography of his brother Bernie Whitebear (1937–2000), one of the so-called “Gang of Four” or “Four Amigos” who founded Seattle’s Minority Executive Directors’s Coalition.
Reyes’ third book, B Street: A Gathering of Saints and Sinners, about the Grand Coulee area between 1933 and 1941, during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, was published in 2008 by the University of Washington Press.
Reyes helped design the Daybreak Star Cultural Center; his sculpture “Blue Jay” (which measures 30 feet (9 m) wide and 12 feet (3.7 m) high) hung prominently for over 30 years at the Bank of California building in downtown Seattle; after a bank merger it came to hang at Daybreak Star in 2004. His “Dreamcatcher”, at the corner of 32nd Avenues and Yesler Way in Seattle honors the memory of his brother Bernie and his sister Luana.
Reyes received the Washington State Arts Commission Governor’s Arts Award in 1971.