Paddle to Seattle founder Emmett Oliver celebrated on his 100th birthday

SUQUAMISH — Emmett Oliver established the Paddle to Seattle in 1989 to ensure Washington's First Peoples were represented in the state's centennial celebration.

The event set the stage for the annual Canoe Journey, a revival of Northwest Native canoe cultures that has grown to include the participation of indigenous peoples from Canada, Mexico, Greenland, Japan and Russia.

On Dec. 7 in Suquamish's House of Awakened Culture, young people sang songs and danced dances they learned while participating in the Canoe Journey. Adults talked about the difference the Canoe Journey has made in young people's lives by focusing their attention on traditional teachings and imbuing them with the physical and spiritual discipline required to travel the marine highways of their ancestors.

"Who knows how many young lives have been saved?" said James "Smitty" Hillaire of the Lummi Nation. "I am very thankful for that revival."

The celebration was held to honor Oliver on his 100th birthday. Guests shared memories, words of praise, as well as songs and dances. The family provided lunch and presented attendees gifts of paddle pendants made of steel, created and signed by Oliver's son, Marvin, the noted Coast Salish artist; and bookmarks featuring 13 photos of Emmett Oliver and his family.

Emmett Oliver dined, chatted with guests, and enjoyed the presentations, at one time raising his hands in the Coast Salish way of saying thank you.

At an earlier birthday party held at Aegis Living of Edmonds, where he lives, Oliver blew out 100 candles on a cake but remarked to his daughter, Marylin Bard of Kingston, that he feels 75.

“The cost of his prescriptions for a month is not even $15,” Bard said. “He’s in pretty good health.”

While Oliver is widely known by the latest generation for his involvement in the Paddle to Seattle, he had a long career as a Coast Guard officer, an educator and an equal rights activist.

He was born Emmett Sampson Oliver on Dec. 2, 1913 in South Bend, 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.

“Living in an era when many of his Native peers did not develop their talents or find a meaningful place in their rapidly changing cultures, Emmett pursued an education,” Susanna A. Hayes, an associate professor at Western Washington University, once wrote. “… His achievements served to bolster his motivation when he felt drawn to less challenging work.”

In the ensuing years, he became a Coast Guard Reserve officer, serving in World War II and the Korean War and retiring as commander.

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 the ensuing years, 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 educational policy with regard to education of Native Americans at the national and state level; general educational practices in K-12 schools; and Native community involvement in the education of their children.

“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. He knew from his own experience and formal studies that Native communities were seldom given a voice in selecting or designing programs for their children.”

“I was excited to be working with him,” said Elaine Grinnell, an artist and storyteller from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “He would get out and talk personally to school districts, and that had never happened before.” He also talked to parents, to make sure they understood how important it was to get an education. “At the time, the importance of education wasn’t prominent, because we knew we could get a job in logging or fishing,” Grinnell said. “He knew we deserved more. He knew that an education was something nobody could ever take away from you.”

Grinnell said 67 people from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe are in college today.

As an educator, he didn’t cut any slack. Pete Kruse Sr., now an octogenarian himself, remembered when Oliver was his track coach in 1949. “I slipped out of school one day and they caught me,” he said. “At the track meet, I took second place in low hurdles and he took the points away from me. If not for him and my other coaches, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.”

In 1989, Oliver served on the state Heritage Council and on the Maritime Committee of the Centennial Commission. The centennial celebration was to include the participation of tall ships; he offered to work with the state's Native communities to have a presence. That presence — the Paddle to Seattle — ushered 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 lives.

As on the Canoe Journey, “we can gather like this and share in the joys of our lives,” said Eric Day, a canoe skipper from the Swinomish Tribe. “We don’t need those influences of drugs and alcohol.”

Young people are learning their languages and songs are coming back. Guy Capoeman, a skipper from the Quinault Nation, remembered when Quinault had one song. It now has many. The Quinault Nation hosted the 2013 Canoe Journey at Taholah, and its weeklong potlatch included the gifting of 10 canoes. “This is what Tribal Journeys is doing,” Capoeman said, calling Oliver “our champion.”

Another person said at the birthday celebration, “I am honored to be able to say I lived in the time of Emmett Oliver.”

Oliver and his late wife, Georgia, had three children. Their family now numbers nine grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. The Oliver family has its own canoe in the Canoe Journey, but family members can be found in several canoes. Oliver was on the beach at Taholah and watched as his 14-year-old grandson, Owen, arrived in the Chinook Nation’s canoe.

At his birthday celebration, Emmett Oliver's love for his family was apparent. “When my grandpa sees me, he just lights up,” granddaughter Christina Oliver said. “He’s joyful.”


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