Photo by Richard Walker
Emmett Oliver gets an embrace from his niece, Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, at the 2012 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Squaxin. Oliver, who organized the 1989 Paddle to Seattle, which spawned the annual Canoe Journey, walked on March 7. He was 102.

Emmett Oliver, Founder of Paddle to Seattle, Walks On at 102

Richard Walker

Emmett Oliver was a lot of things in his life. A U.S. Coast Guard officer. An educator. A policy maker. An advocate.

But it is, perhaps, the Paddle to Seattle that he organized in 1989 that has had the greatest impact on the lives of Indigenous Peoples—not just in the Pacific Northwest, but around the Pacific Rim.

Oliver, a citizen of the Quinault Nation, was a member of the committee planning the State of Washington’s centennial celebration when he organized the Paddle to Seattle to ensure the state’s First Peoples were represented.

The return of indigenous canoes to an indigenous place—Seattle, a city named for the 1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples—gave birth to the annual Canoe Journey and a cultural renaissance involving multiple generations from a growing number of indigenous nations.

“He was very strong and very go-get ’em,” said Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, Oliver’s niece. “If it was right, he did it. And he moved forward with such positive force.”

Oliver passed away at 4:19 p.m. March 7 in his room at Aegis Living of Edmonds, a suburb of Seattle. He was 102. He was surrounded by members of his family.

Hansen said her uncle loved the drum. As the family gathered in his room, a nephew, Marvin Velasquez, drummed and the family sang a Quileute paddle song. “Then he passed,” she said. “He was drummed into the other side.”

Oliver was preceded to the other side by his wife, Georgia; and son, Arne. He is survived by his son, the artist Marvin Oliver, of Seattle; daughter, Marylin Bard, of Kingston, Washington; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“For nearly a century, the waters were silent,” Quinault President Fawn Sharp said late March 7. “We didn’t have canoes. We had Fish Wars. We had contention. Through his vision, we now not only have renewal and this amazing [cultural] resurgence, but more and more of our history is being restored.”

She added, “It’s an incredibly sad day to know he’s walked on.”

Emmett Sampson Oliver was born on December 2, 1913 in South Bend, Washington. His father, a fisherman on the Willapa River, gave him a skiff and fishing net when he was 12. “Rising early and rowing across the river, he gathered his catch before school each day,” Western Washington University professor Susanna A. Hayes wrote in 2002 for the university’s Center for Cross-Cultural Research. “His father sold the fish and gave Emmett the proceeds. But personal and intellectual curiosity prompted Emmett to seek career goals” beyond fishing.

The younger Oliver’s mother graduated from Chemawa Indian School; an uncle graduated from Carlisle Institute and Dartmouth College and went on to a career as an administrator, including superintendent of the Tulalip Indian Boarding School.

Emmett Oliver attended public school in South Bend, Tulalip Indian Boarding School, and Sherman Institute in California; he excelled in academics, football and track. He attended Bacone, a two-year Indian college in Oklahoma that focused primarily on training future teachers. He later received a scholarship and transferred to the University of Redlands in California, where he earned a degree in biology and education. He returned to Bacone to teach science and coach the track and football teams.

“He saw himself as demanding, firm, and dedicated to bringing out the best in all his students,” Hayes wrote of Oliver’s time at Bacone. “His track students distinguished themselves as medal winners in state competitions despite their relative inexperience as competitive runners.”

Oliver and his wife, Georgia Abeita of Isleta Pueblo, met at Bacone. During their 63 years together, “they dedicated their lives to teaching and improving educational programs for Native students,” Hayes wrote.

After they married in 1937, the Olivers were hired as teachers by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and assigned to a school at Acoma Pueblo. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II, Oliver was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard. After the war, he received a one-year leave to finish graduate studies at the University of Washington. He then accepted a teaching job at Shelton High School, near Olympia; the proximity to Seattle enabled him to continue his duties as a Coast Guard Reserve officer.

At Shelton, he encountered ethnic stereotypes that he had originally encountered in childhood. As a teacher of successful Native students at Bacone and Acoma, he knew that “with encouragement and rewards from all teachers and administrators, Native students were capable of excellent work,” Hayes wrote.

“The attitude, that non-Native teachers could do little to help Native students, conflicted with Emmett’s philosophy of education and his cross-cultural experiences,” Hayes wrote. “He had non-Native teachers and mentors throughout his career who were very helpful and supportive to him. In Emmett's view, Native American students can and do learn from dedicated, effective educators regardless of their ethnicity or culture.”

She added, “To make a difference for his students, Emmett utilized his motivational skills to reinforce their athletic and academic abilities … Emmett did everything possible to encourage his Native students to be successful in their daily school activities. He shared a lesson learned at the Coast Guard Academy: If you consistently show up, remain alert and pay close attention, there is a good chance your efforts will produce positive results.”

As a Coast Guard Reserve officer, he served in the Pacific during the Korean War, and developed and led a Coast Guard leadership institute in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s. He retired from the Coast Guard as a commander. While in the Bay area, he taught at a high school and served as chairman of the Bay Area Native American Committee, which helped plan and execute the takeover of Alcatraz Island.

In 1969, he became interim director of the Indian Student Cultural Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. He later returned to Washington to direct the Indian Student Program at the University of Washington. Less than a year later, in 1971, he became director of Indian Education for the state of Washington.

In his new position, he focused on educational policy with regard to education of Native American students; general educational practices in K-12 schools; and Native community involvement in education.

“Until his retirement in June 1982, Emmett 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,” Hayes wrote. “He insisted on accountability and helped formulate clearly stated goals and objectives for programs specifically funded through Native American education sources such as the Johnson O'Malley Act of 1934 and Title IV of the Indian Education Act of 1975. Historically, the funds were usually added to the general school budget rather than providing for the unique needs of Native American students. Emmett insisted that each district formulate a specific plan for services that focused on Native students.”


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