Swinomish tribal leader Robert “Wa-Walton” Joe Sr. passed away last month.

The Swinomish Tribe issued the following statement:

“Robert Joe was a great man. He was my teacher, my elder and my uncle,” said Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby. “The results of his work can be seen throughout our entire community and his leadership was felt across Indian Country and the United States. While we mourn his loss, we also celebrate the life of this great man.”

Wa-Walton served on the Swinomish Indian Senate for 26 years, from 1976 until 2000, and was the elected Chairman for 18 years, from 1982 until 1997. During that time, Wa-Walton became known as a collaborative, compassionate and creative leader who was a passionate defender of tribal sovereignty. His leadership stretched throughout the Skagit Valley and the Salish Sea, as well as the nation to Washington, D.C. He made this place we all call home a better place to live. His passing is our loss and his legacy will be remembered for generations to come.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community grew under the leadership of Wa-Walton as he dedicated his life to the prosperity of his people. During his years on the Swinomish Indian Senate, there were many successes, such as the building in 1985 of the Swinomish Bingo Hall, his being the Special Chairman of the American Indian Goodwill Games in 1989, the signing of the Centennial Accord Agreement with then-Gov. Booth Gardner in 1990, the development of the Swinomish Smokehouse — the first such building built on Puget Sound in 100 years in 1991 — installation of the new sewer and water systems to benefit both tribal members and non-native residents in 1993, opening of the Swinomish Casino & Cabaret in 1997, leading the National Self-Governance effort for tribes to directly compact for funds to provide federal services in 1996 and the receipt of the High Honor Award from Harvard University for intergovernmental cooperation related to joint land use planning in 2000.

The values of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community are reflected in Wa-Walton’s leadership as he brought compassion, deep concern, never-ending faith and hope to his community. This leadership made possible the tremendous gains experienced in protecting the community, its lands and resources, and improving the conditions for all members of the tribe.

Wa-Walton was a member of the Swinomish Smokehouse Organization and St. Paul’s Catholic Church where he served as deacon for many years with his dear friend, Rev. Patrick Twohy. He was known for a beautiful singing voice that he shared enthusiastically. His strong spirit brought comfort to the community and his prayers will be remembered by all.

“There is not a person on this Reservation who was not touched by Wa-Walton. To be with him was to know that you were loved,” Cladoosby said. “He threw his arms around generations of Swinomish children and generously shared the lessons of the elders who taught him. The Swinomish Tribe would not be what it is today without his steady leadership through difficult times.”