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Reyes, Lawney (b. 1931)

  • By Rosette Royale
  • Posted 10/20/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11131

Lawney Reyes, a Sin-Aikst Indian artist, architect, and author, overcame a childhood of poverty and discrimination to become an award-winning sculptor and a historian of Northwest Native American activism and culture. Born in Oregon in 1931, he moved with his family to the Colville Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington. In a peripatetic childhood he moved to and from the town of Grand Coulee in Grant County during construction of the historic dam, whose completion flooded his hometown. He attended an Indian boarding school in Oregon, where he had his first exposure to art instruction. Reyes attended the University of Washington, but before completing a degree in interior design in 1959, he served in the U.S. Army. That led him to Europe, where he saw classical architecture that influenced his thinking. He worked as the interior designer for Seafirst in the 1970s, and in the next decade curated the bank's multimillion-dollar corporate art collection. Also during the 1970s, he co-designed the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Reyes created sculptures and public artworks that graced Seattle. After discovering family recordings in 2000, he debuted as an author and devoted his time to writing.

Underfed, Then Underwater

Lawney Reyes was born on May 13, 1931, in Bend, Oregon. He was the first child of Julian Reyes, a Filipino immigrant, and Mary Christian, a member of the Sin-Aikst Indian Tribe (also known as "Sinixt" or "Colville"). On February 20, 1933, in Portland, Oregon, Mary gave birth to Lawney's sister, Luana. Mary had grown up on the Colville Indian Reservation in the town of Inchelium, in Northeastern Washington on the banks of the Columbia River. After Luana's birth, the family returned to Inchelium.

Like many Indian families on the reservation, the Reyes family lived in desperate poverty. During one particularly frigid winter, Lawney and his mother gathered dead tree limbs for firewood to feed the heater in their tent. Julian tried to feed the family by taking odd jobs, but the family relied on government commodities like "beans, flour, cornmeal, oatmeal, powdered milk, salt, and sugar" (Reyes, B Street, 34-35).

But nearby, an economic opportunity beckoned. More than 70 miles downriver from Inchelium, in the town of Grand Coulee, a massive federal project was underway: the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. The project required thousands of workers, and Mary reasoned those workers needed to eat. She proposed the family relocate to Grand Coulee, where she and Julian would open a Chinese restaurant. It was an audacious plan, not only because neither she nor her husband had ever run a business: Neither of them knew how to cook Chinese food. But with few options, in the spring of 1935, the family jumped in their Model T and relocated to Grand Coulee to become restaurateurs.

The restaurant, called "Woo Dip," was right on the main thoroughfare, B Street, and the family lived in a room above the restaurant. B Street thrummed with noise and activity, full of construction workers looking to spend their meager paychecks. Sometimes Reyes would sit and watch the structure's fevered development. "He found the construction of the dam and the large number of men at work fascinating" (Reyes, B Street, 78-79). It was his first time seeing a large-scale architectural project.

The dam's construction, while considered a major feat for builders, carried a portent of doom for members of the Colville Federated Tribes. Its completion would prevent salmon from reaching their ancestral waterways and would flood the Reyes' hometown of Inchelium. Mary wanted to go back before the town disappeared, so in May 1937 the family returned to Inchelium. Several months later, on September 27, Mary gave birth to a third child, Bernard.

To save the family's house, friends helped roll it to higher ground. The dam was completed in the spring of 1940; by 1941, the newly formed Lake Roosevelt submerged the town under 120 feet of water, taking with it the places where the tribe fished for salmon and harvested camas root, bitterroot, and chokecherries. "So that broke up the community," Reyes said (Royale interview).

Good from the Bad

Around the same time, Reyes's family was breaking apart. With little warning, in the spring of 1939 Mary left home. "Luana, Bernard, and I were caught off guard and puzzled at the circumstances that faced our family," Reyes later wrote (Reyes, Bernie Whitebear, 18). Mary hired a divorce lawyer and took Julian to court, but in May 1940 a judge ruled in Julian's favor, granting him custody of their children. (Mary eventually remarried and had three more children.)

The judge, aware that Julian couldn't care for three children alone, ordered Lawney and Luana to be sent to Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school outside Salem, Oregon; Bernard would be cared for by Mary's foster parents. In August 1940, Julian drove Lawney and Luana to the town of Nespelem, where they were placed in the open flatbed of a pickup truck and ferried four hours by another driver to Chemawa. Reyes remembered, "We got there at 2 a.m. It was dark. We were hungry" (Royale interview).

The U.S. government authorized the creation of Chemawa in the 1870s, as a way to integrate Indian children from Northwest tribes into white society. Close to 300 Native youth attended the school by the time Reyes and his sister arrived. While interacting with people from other tribes taught him about different Native cultures, "I was homesick," Reyes said, adding, "But sometimes bad things can turn into good things" (Royale interview).

Every fall, the school held a pageant, where non-Indians could visit the campus. Part of the 1940 pageant involved the display of a canvas mural, roughly 30 feet long and 12 feet tall. High-school students acted as artists, but the school's art teacher was shown some of Reyes's sketches. Impressed, he invited the 9-year-old to paint with the upper classmen. "That was really my first training in art," Reyes said (Royale interview).

He and his sister spent two years at Chemawa, and after returning to live with their father, Reyes jumped from one Eastern Washington school district to the next. When his father, who spoke Spanish, got a job in 1944 in Okanogan translating for Mexican apple pickers, Lawney and his siblings moved once more. In 1949, he graduated from Okanogan High School, a school that was almost entirely white; three years later, he graduated from Wenatchee Junior College. Friends told him he should attend the University of Washington, so in 1952, with $300 to his name, he moved to Seattle to enroll in the state's largest university.

Serving His Country and His Art

Reyes enjoyed his freshman and sophomore years at UW, so much so that he looked forward to his junior year. But in the spring of 1954 he was diagnosed with lobar pneumonia, which affects one or more of the lobes of the lungs. The illness laid him low for months, and by the time he had recuperated UW's fall session had already begun. With school a no-go that year, he needed something else to fill the time. Reyes found it in the army.

Reyes reasoned that if he served in the military, he could benefit from the G.I. Bill, which offered cash payments for tuition and living expenses. He enlisted in December and was stationed at Fort Ord in California. After serving there for a few months, he was shipped to Bremerhaven, Germany. He stayed in the country for close to 18 months.

When his tour ended, he traveled to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London. But it was Italian cities such as Rome, Venice, and Milan that intrigued him. Of particular interest was architecture in Pompeii, a city buried in ash and rubble spewed by Mount Vesuvius. His own hometown of Inchelium had been consumed, not by fire but by water.

But all vacations end, so Reyes returned stateside, just in time to begin his junior year at UW. He took classes in architecture and interior design taught by professionals in both fields. In 1959, he graduated with a degree in interior design. Now he needed a job.

Designing a Career

During his early years at UW, Reyes, like his father before him, had pieced together a living. The young student worked as a janitor and served as a houseboy for a fraternity. But as a graduate, he got commissions to do interior design work on homes as well as commercial spaces. Someone he knew at an architectural firm told him the company needed help; he worked there for six months. Even though he'd been trained in interior design, established architects gave him instruction, he said: "That's how I got exposure" in architecture (Royale interview).

In 1963, Seattle First National Bank (commonly referred to as Seafirst) hired Reyes as its interior designer. It was the largest bank in Washington at the time and was opening offices throughout the state. Reyes created their interiors. In 1969, Seafirst showed its financial dominance in the region by opening a 50-story headquarters. Located at 1001 Fourth Avenue in Seattle, the Seafirst Building at the time was not just the city's tallest structure but the tallest west of the Mississippi River.

Seafirst owned 18 floors in the building, and Reyes was charged with creating a cohesive design scheme. As the bank's profits grew, it opened branches in London, Switzerland, and Kuala Lumpur. Reyes designed foreign offices sight-unseen, his sketches realized after being sent to Seafirst's international properties.

The job was full-time, but throughout the 1960s and 1970s Reyes also worked with a dogged persistence fulfilling design commissions and creating art. He painted and sculpted, displaying work in local galleries and national shows. And with the artwork came acclaim.

A Time of Accolades

During the 1967 Biennial Exhibition of American Indian Arts and Crafts, held at The Center for Indian Arts in America in Washington, D.C., Reyes won a first-place award in carving and third place in both graphics and sculpture. The following year brought him a first-place award from the Seventh Annual Scottsdale National Indian Arts Exhibition and a second-place award in sculpture from the Philbrook Art Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Prior to the time he began competing in shows, Reyes had gravitated toward pieces that didn't necessarily reflect his Native ancestry. "I was working in everything from the Italian renaissance to abstract," Reyes recalled (Monthan). But as his skills grew, he began to tap into the artistic styles of regional Natives: "My artwork was a mixture of Salish and Pacific Northwest" traditions (Royale interview). He sculpted white sugar-pine and red cedar, adding details with abalone shell inlays, copper discs, horsehair, or even human hair.

In 1970, he returned to his alma mater not as a student but as a teacher: He taught a UW class called Contemporary Indian Art. It was the first time such a course had been taught at the university, but being in the vanguard wasn't easy: "I didn't really care for it because I was too busy" (Royale interview).

The work kept coming, and Reyes had to turn down commissions, though some proved to enticing to pass up. In 1971, for a Northwest-themed production of Nutcracker, Reyes was tapped to design the titular centerpiece of the Tchaikovsky ballet. In 1972, Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) presented Reyes with a Washington State Arts Commission Award for "Outstanding Accomplishment in Sculpture" (Johnson, "Evans presents ... ").

In October 1976 Reyes was appointed to the Seattle Arts Commission and in the fall of 1997 he was elected to the Washington State Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. And then one day in 1978, a Seafirst board member asked Reyes if he wanted a new job.

Building a Collection

Specifically, the board member asked if Reyes wanted to help create Seafirst's corporate art collection. "I told him I didn't know a thing about acquiring an art collection," Reyes recalled (Royale interview).

The bank flew Reyes to New York City, where he spent a week with an art collector learning how to judge an artwork's merits and to use computer systems to track art pieces. When he returned to Seattle, he agreed to take the job as corporate art director, which he held from 1978 to 1984. He helped the bank acquire more than 2,000 pieces. "It was the best art you could buy in America" (Royale interview).

During his seven-year tenure, Reyes visited New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to buy art. He focused mostly on pieces by internationally renowned artists, such as Morris Louis, known for Color Field painting, a niche of Abstract Expressionism.

But the position ended in 1982, as did many others at Seafirst, when the bank was left holding millions of dollars in bad debt. Of the bank's 8,000 employees, 400 lost their jobs that year. Seafirst avoided total collapse after being acquired by Bank of America. The art collection, which was criticized by some for its lack of Northwest artists, was valued at roughly $1.25 million. Even though he had little to do, Reyes stayed with the company until the summer of 1984. "It was probably the best job I ever had," he said (Royale interview).

By the time he left, Reyes was deeply involved in other work: the fight for Native American justice.

A New Day Dawns

During the 1960s, Reyes's younger brother, who now went by the name Bernie Whitebear, had blossomed into a Native American activist. He began to hold large powwows including, in 1968, at Seattle Center. "Although the pow wows were large and colorful, Bernie realized that something was missing," Reyes wrote (Reyes, Bernie Whitebear, 91). Namely, land that Native Americans owned on which to hold powwows and other events.

In February 1970, Whitebear learned that the U.S. Army planned to reduce services at Fort Lawton, located in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, and the reduction meant the city could get any land decommissioned from military use. Whitebear and other Native leaders thought the city's Indians deserved some of the property. At the time, Whitebear was the executive director of the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), but to take on the land issue he resigned. His and Lawney's sister, Luana Reyes, was chosen to take over SIHB. Whitebear's attempts to meet with Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) to discuss the possibility of land acquisition proved fruitless.

So on March 8, 1970, Whitebear, Puyallup tribal leader Bob Satiacum (1929-1991), and hundreds of Native Americans and their supporters occupied Fort Lawton. Within days, Whitebear and others created the Indian People's Council (later United Indians of All Tribes Foundation [UIATF]) to support their actions. After months of occupation and federal intervention, the city leased 20 acres to UIATF for 99 years. (The rest of the decommissioned land became the city's Discovery Park.)

But the UIATF land had no structure, so Whitebear turned to Reyes for help. With the assistance of two architects, Clifford Jackson and Yoshio Arai, Reyes co-designed a 20,000-square-foot building. The Weyerhaeuser Foundation donated 80 Douglas timbers, each 50 feet long, while the Colville, Makah, and Quinault tribes donated more wood and other supplies. The building had four wings that faced the four cardinal directions.

The building was called Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, its name derived from the words of a Lakota medicine man, Black Elk: "Then as I stood there two men were coming from the East head first like arrows flying and between them rose the Daybreak Star" (Reyes, Bernie Whitebear, 112).

The building opened on May 13, 1977, Reyes's 46th birthday. More than 3,000 people attended the opening.

Passing Thunder, Awakening Dream

Reyes's artistic commitment to Native culture continued through the last decades of the twentieth century. In 1979 he installed a carved cedar sculpture called Thunderbird, a 10-foot-tall sentinel, at the intersection of 32nd Avenue South and East Yesler Way in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood. Reyes was never crazy about the piece, and he later lamented, "If I ever had the chance to do it all over again, I would've done it differently" (Royale interview). A series of difficult deaths brought about the opportunity.

On July 16, 2000, his brother Bernie Whitebear died of colon cancer. Little more than a year later, on November 4, 2001, his sister Luana Reyes died of sudden-onset aplastic anemia; shortly before her death, President George W. Bush (b. 1946) had named her a recipient of the Presidential Rank Meritorious Award for her work with the national Indian Health Service.

By this time, Thunderbird was in a state of decay. When a friend of his brother and sister asked Reyes if he would like to create a sculpture to honor them, Reyes decided to retire Thunderbird. To replace it, he created Dreamcatcher.

Composed of stainless steel, stained glass, and wire, the 18-foot-high sculpture is based on the dreamcatchers of the Ojibwe people. A plaque at the sculpture's base reads, "The dreamcatcher wards off evil things." Reyes thought the piece would represent his siblings. "A lot of people thought Bernie was a dreamer, and he was. But he and Luana also lived to see many of their dreams fulfilled" (Clarridge). A dedication ceremony for the new sculpture was held July 19, 2003.

Whitebear received another brotherly remembrance in early 2004 when a piece Reyes created decades earlier was installed in the Daybreak Star building. Called Blue Jay, the 30-foot-long white-sugar-pine sculpture had been commissioned in 1972 by the Bank of California. The jay's eye is a bear holding a white man -- a joke between Whitebear and Reyes.

At the start of the twenty-first century, Reyes found that other creative pursuits would allow him to fulfill the dreams of another family member: his mother.

Authorial Debut

In the late 1990s, Reyes moved to Pullman, Whitman County, to help care for a grandchild. He stayed in Eastern Washington for six years, and upon his return to Seattle he began looking through his mother's belongings. He found writings and audiocassettes. She had planned to write a family history, but in 1978 she had died in a car accident. "And I thought, 'Well, I've got time. I'm not a writer, but I'll do the best I can and finish all this.' And I did" (Royale interview).

By 2002, he had published his first book, White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to be Indian. Published by University of Washington Press, it blends a cultural study of the Sin-Aikst and the loss of their ancestral places due to Lake Roosevelt with personal family history. (White Grizzly Bear, or Pic Ah Kelowna, was Reyes's maternal grandfather).

Suddenly, Reyes was an author, and he continued to use family history to illuminate Native American history. His second book, published in 2006, was Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice. A deeply moving biography of his brother, the book charted Whitebear's starring role in the "Red Power" movement of the 1970s.

Two years later, in 2008, came B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam. Once again Reyes tapped his family's story to illuminate the greater experience of the Sin-Aikst Indians. But where his two previous books used first-person narration, B Street employed the third person. All three books featured archival photos, some from family members.

Playing Catch-up

The decades of sculpting, painting, architecture, and writing were unimaginable to Reyes when he was a child living in Inchelium. He credited education with saving him from a life of poverty on the Colville Indian Reservation: "There's still Indians out of work" there (Royale interview).

In his mid-80s, Reyes intends to keep creating because there are still things to explore. "That's just been the story of my life, just catching up ... Sometimes I wonder if I've caught up enough" (Royale interview).


Lawney L. Reyes, B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Reyes, Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006); Rosette Royale interview with Lawney Reyes, October 5 and 6, 2015, Seattle, transcript in possession of Rosette Royale, Seattle; "Chemawa History," Chemawa Indian School website accessed October 10, 2015 (http://www.chemawa.bie.edu/history.html); "The Visual Arts," The Seattle Times, November 29, 1967, p. 33; Jean Batie, "Indian Art Shows at the Collectors," Ibid., June 16, 1968, p. C-11; Dorothy Brant Brazier, "Indian Artist Also an Activist," Ibid., May 13, 1971, p. F-2; Wayne Johnson, "The 'Nutcracker' to Get ALL Together," Ibid., November 7, 1971, p. C-7; Johnson, "Evans Presents 10 Arts Awards," Ibid., April 7, 1972, p. F-4; Johnson, "Art Commission Has Uneventful Meeting," Ibid., October 6, 1976, p. H-4; "Interior Designers' State Chapter Elects Officers," Ibid., November 3, 1977, p. F-3; Ranny Green, "A Showcase of Indian Culture: Daybreak Star," Ibid., January 14, 1979, Sunday magazine pp. 12-21; Deloris Tarzan Ament, "A Change of Heart -- Seafirst Shifts its Collection's Focus Toward Northwest Artists," Ibid., December 15, 1985, p. L-1; Sara Jean Green, "Luana Reyes, 68, a Leader in Agency for Indian Health," Ibid., November 10, 2001, p. B-6; Christine Clarridge, "To Mighty Dreams Accomplished -- Brother's Art Proposed as Activist Memorial," Ibid., September 23, 2002, p. B-1; Levi J. Long, "Sculpture Returns to Its Roots -- 'Blue Jay,' Memorializing Late Colville Tribe Activist, Is Back at Discovery Park," Ibid., February 27, 2004, p. B-1; "Lobar Pneumonia," Atlas of Pathology website accessed October 12, 2015 (http://www.pathologyatlas.ro/lobar-pneumonia-leukocytic-alveolitis.php); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle First National Bank building is dedicated on March 28, 1969" (by Alan J. Stein) and "Fort Lawton military police clash with Native American and other protesters in the future Discovery Park on March 8, 1970" (by Patrick McRoberts and Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 14, 2015); Guy Monthan and Doris Monthan, "Lawney Reyes," American Indian Art, Winter 1979, pp. 55-59; "Morris Louis," The Art Story website accessed October 12, 2015 (http://www.theartstory.org/artist-louis-morris.htm); Dan Richman, "William Jenkins, 1919-2007: Former Seafirst Chairman Had 'a Marvelous Life,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 5, 2007 (http://www.seattlepi.nwsource.com); James M. Rupp, Art in Seattle's Public Places: An Illustrated Guide (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992), 161; Joan Singler, "Dream Catcher in Leschi," Leschi Community Council website accessed October 13, 2015 (http://www.leschicommunitycouncil.org/FeaturesDreamCatcher.htm).

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