Remembering the life – and lessons – of “silent warrior” Lawney Reyes

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ONE AFTERNOON IN AUGUST, a hundred people gathered at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Centerat the north end of Discovery Park, for a memorial service.

Two weeks earlier, artist, author and activist Lawney Reyes – an enrolled member of the Colville Reservation Confederate Tribes, Sinixt Group – had died at the age of 91.

Panelists remembered Reyes as one of the quietest and most loyal activists in the community – he was, in many ways, responsible for the building we were sitting in, but did not attract attention like his brother Bernie Whitebear, who became the face of the 1970 protests securing the ground for Daybreak Star. (In 1970, this area was U.S. Army Base Fort Lawton, but the Army declared hundreds of acres surplus. The city of Seattle wanted them for a park—and would get most of them—but the Indigenous activists fought and won a plot that would become Daybreak Star.)

“Bernie was the bulldog,” said his friend and fellow activist Randy Lewis, a former Wenatchi/Methow from the Confederate Tribes of Colville, during his eulogy. “Lawney was the silent warrior.”

Reyes had been there for those protests. He helped design the Daybreak Star building. He was the artistic director of Seattle First National Bank (now Bank of America) and quietly provided financial support when the cultural center fell on hard times. He had also made the beautiful, enormous “Blue Jay” – a sculpture of pine, leather and copper – hanging on Daybreak Star, gazing out at the panelists and the rest of us.

People talked for hours about Reyes, who was clearly loved and respected, known for sticking around when the going got tough. One night during the 1970 protests, which involved a week-long occupation camp, everyone left for the Eagles Auditorium (now ACT Theater) to see a benefit protest concert by Redbone, the Native American band/ Mexican whose single “Come and Get Your Love” would become a hit.

Lewis, who had gone on an errand, returned to find the camp unprotected. (Detractors periodically showed up, throwing rocks and bottles.) Soon Reyes joined him and they stood guard together. It sounded typical – panelists kept using the word “steadfast”. His presence wasn’t the loudest or the most visible, but it was absolutely necessary.

I had attended the memorial while relating two stories to the land we now call Discovery Park. An article, part of the newspaper’s A1 Revisited project, examines the Fort Lawton protests, what prompted them, and where and how the Seattle Times’ coverage failed. This story will unfold later. The other story, in this week’s magazine, is a broader story of this land and its fraught past – undetectable to most people today when walking through its forests and grasslands.

Reyes’ memorial service and accounts of the eulogies crystallized a thought that had frozen around the report: so much is unknown. We walk in a park and associate this landscape with tranquility. We look at an old photograph, not noticing the key individual standing in the background, towards the edge of the frame.

The eye of “Blue Jay”, hanging in the atrium of Daybreak Star, contains a little joke that Reyes carved for his brother. It’s an image of a bear clutching a mustachioed white man – a nod to Bernie Whitebear and white people’s sometimes thwarted relationship with his activist work.

Unless you know what you’re looking for, this detail is hard to see.

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