Emmett Oliver, the oldest member of the Quinault Indian Nation, passed away in Edmonds Monday afternoon at the age of 102.
“Emmett will be dearly missed. He achieved so much in his life and leaves a legacy that will truly last forever,” said Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp. “He was a United States Coast Guard Commander, an educator, in and out of the classroom, an equal rights activist and a cultural icon. He was known and loved by thousands of people, near and far, and will be remembered as a man who gave of himself throughout his life, always with the objective of helping others foremost in his mind,” she said.
Born in South Bend, Wash., the son of a fisherman, Emmett excelled at football. After college, he served in World War II and the Korean War and for many years as a teacher and a coach. He directed the Indian Student Center at University of California Los Angeles, directed the Indian Student Program at University of Washington, and served as supervisor of Indian Education for the State of Washington. As supervisor, Oliver worked to change tribal educational policy at the state and national levels, general educational practices in K-12 schools and Indian community involvement in the education of their children.
While teaching in the San Francisco Bay area, he was chosen as Chairman of the Bay Area Native American Committee, which was involved in the occupation of Alcatraz, demanding that the site — closed and declared surplus federal property — be returned to Native Americans.
In Washington’s Centennial year of 1989, he established the Paddle to Seattle, and had been involved with canoe families and journeys ever since. He served on the State Heritage Council at that time, as well as on the Maritime Committee of the Centennial Commission. His actions are credited with ushering in a new era of canoe carving and canoe travel upon the ancestral waters of the Salish Sea. The physical and spiritual discipline required to participate in the Canoe Journey, and the cultural sharing and traditional teachings that take place during the event, have changed countless lives.
“The fact is that Emmett saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. It is hard to underestimate
the great positive impact that the resurgence of the canoe culture has had on American Indians in this country. It has helped so many of our children and adults turn away from drugs and alcohol, and displaced depression and despair with hope and culture-based principles. People are learning their culture again. So many more know their language, their songs, their history. They have pride again, and they’re staying in school. Emmett Oliver was a true hero among our people,” said President Sharp.
The revival of Northwest Native canoe cultures has even grown to include the participation of indigenous peoples from Canada, Mexico, Greenland, Japan and Russia.
Born Emmett Sampson Oliver on Dec. 2, 1913 in South Bend, he was the son of a Chinook mother and a Cowlitz father. He attended public school in South Bend, boarding school on the Tulalip Reservation, and Sherman Institute in California where he was a standout academically and athletically. He studied at Bacone College, a two-year Indian college in Oklahoma, then transferred on a scholarship to the University of Redlands. He received a degree in biology and education and returned to Bacone to begin a career as a science teacher. In the ensuing years, he traveled across the state meeting with Native American parent committees who monitored the development and results of programs intended to enhance the education of their children.
Oliver and his late wife, Georgia, had three children. Their family now numbers nine grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.