Beloved Seattle artist and writer Lawney Reyes has died at the age of 91

by Ron Chew

(This article was originally published in the International Examiner and reprinted under an agreement.)

Lawney Reyes, Seattle Native American artist and writer who documented his family saga and the forgotten history of his tribe The Legacy of the White Grizzly Bear: Indians Will Learndied on August 10, 2022 at the age of 91.

Reyes, a longtime resident of Beacon Hill, worked as a sculptor, interior designer, architect and writer for decades until his death last week. He was inspired by his mother’s tribal stories and the legacy of his immigrant Filipino father. The home of his mother’s tribe – the Sin-Aikst, or Lakes tribe – was wiped out after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s. The tribe is now one of the Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Reyes was born on May 13, 1931 in Bend, Oregon. He attended the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon and attended the University of Washington, where he majored in sculpture, painting, and interior design. He graduated in 1959. He worked as an art director at Seafirst Corporation and curated the company’s art collection. His works of art can be found in numerous collections in Europe, Asia and the USA

At the time of his death, Reyes was working with International Community Health Services on a bronze cast of his iconic grizzly bear sculpture to be installed as part of a permanent art installation at a new senior care facility on North Beacon Hill, due to be completed in 2024.

Reyes’ mother, Mary Christian Hall Wong, was a huge influence on him. She was a famous storyteller who cared deeply about preserving family and tribal history by recording interviews and keeping diaries. Her notes provided ample detail for Reyes’ books. She had intended to write a memoir, but her life was cut short when she died in a car accident on Memorial Day 1978. After her death, Reyes patiently devoured her papers and listened to her tapes. In 1984 he took early retirement from Seafirst Corporation to pursue art.

Reyes’ younger siblings — Teresa Wong, Laura Wong-Whitebear, and Harry Wong Jr. — recall that growing up in Tacoma, Reyes was an unwavering presence despite being a parent and working two jobs in Seattle.

“Lawney was very busy, but he always found time to make regular trips to Tacoma and check on all of us and see how we were,” Teresa said. “As a young child, one of my fondest memories of Lawney was playing and singing on his ukulele. He was a tenor in the college choir and sang songs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” He said funny things like “Who knows, but the nose knows.” When our sister Laura didn’t want to finish her meal, he would tell her, ‘The shrimp boat will come for you.’”

Laura remarked: “He was such a health fanatic. He wouldn’t let me leave the table unless I was eating my vegetables. But I didn’t want to eat the frozen peas and carrots and the canned spinach. I remember being the only one at the table and falling asleep. My sister-in-law Joyce was my savior. She sat next to me with a napkin. Lawney has shared health tips over the years. Whatever unhealthy food we ate, he always said, “It gives you cancer.”

“When we were in elementary school, Lawney taught the three of us how to play poker. We bet toothpicks. He let us win first, but in the end if the winner takes it all, he won.”

Laura said that Reyes was always keen to receive honest feedback on his artistic creations. “When he made something,” she said, “he would bring it into the living room and ask each of us what we thought of it. At the time I was in elementary school. I knew nothing about coastal art. I would say, ‘What is that?’ That didn’t bother him. He believed that young people have a natural instinct for art.”

As a member of the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association, Laura said she later adopted the same attitude toward her own grandchildren, asking for feedback despite her youth.

After the surprising success of The Legacy of the White Grizzly Bear, published by the University of Washington Press in 2002, Reyes devoted himself fully to his newfound writing talents. his third book B Street: Coulee Dam’s infamous playgroundpublished in 2008, weaves together stories from his mother’s diaries and his vivid childhood memories of the busy streets of shops, hotels and restaurants in the town of Inchelium where the family grew up. B street inspired the PBS documentary The Grand Coulee Dam.

Reyes’ last book A tribal manifesto, contained short biographies of 44 historical figures – local, national and international – who “significantly influenced the lives of others”. Their stories, Reyes writes, “reflect the motives the red man developed to respond to the white man’s philosophy of manifest destiny.” The book was completed in 2020.

Earlier this year, the Daybreak Star Cultural Center held an exhibition of Reyes’ work. The center also has the 30-foot-long “Blue Jay” sculpture by Reyes on permanent display, which previously stood at the Bank of California in downtown Seattle for over 30 years.

Reye’s sister Teresa said she will miss meeting her brother for coffee at Fresh Flours on Beacon Hill. “Because Lawney and I had been 16 years, these conversations brought new discoveries about him,” she said. “I discovered that he was quite sociable. Lawney enjoyed reminiscing and telling stories about friends and family. He was so proud of his four grandchildren.”

Lawney is survived by his son Darren Reyes and his wife Helen (two daughters and a son); his daughter Lara Reyes (one daughter); his companion Therese Johns; brother Harry Wong Jr. (one daughter), Seattle; Sister Teresa Wong, Seattle; Sister Laura Wong-Whitebear (two sons), Seattle; and nephew Robert Gaschk and niece Kecia Reyes. He is preceded in death by his wife, Joyce Meachem Reyes; Brother Bernie Whitebear, Seattle; Sister Luana Reyes; Rockville, Maryland; and Sister Lotus Wong, Tacoma.

A memorial service will be held at the Daybreak Star Indian Center on Friday, August 26 from 4pm to 10pm to commemorate the life of Lawney Reyes. The event is open to the public.

📸 Featured Image: Lawney Reyes had written about the busy street in Inchelium where he grew up. Photo courtesy of the Reyes family.

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