Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 22, 2000 - Issue 08

Joseph Burton DeLaCruz

Joe DeLaCruz, a giant cedar of a man who helped lead his Quinault Indian Nation and other Native American tribes toward self-government, died Sunday (April 16) at age 62.

From his roots in the coastal Olympic rain forest, Mr. DeLaCruz rose to the presidency of his tribe and eventually became a national spokesman for Native Americans insisting on their right to govern themselves and control their own destiny.

"Everywhere you look among Native Americans, you see Joe's imprint," said Suzan Harjo, a Cheyenne-Muskogee Indian activist in Washington, D.C. "I am in disbelief. It is a heavy blow when you lose one of those Great Cedars."

Jennifer Scott's most vivid memory of her uncle, Joseph Burton DeLaCruz, was of the day he defiantly drove his truck onto the Chow Chow Bridge to block logging trucks from entering the Quinault Indian Reservation in protest of the Bureau of Indian Affairs land-use practices.

"I'll never forget him sitting there on that bridge," Scott said.

But that brave act -- which helped members of the tribe win compensation for the timber -- was one of many DeLaCruz made for the Quinault Indian tribe and Indians nationwide.

DeLaCruz spent his life taking a stand for Indians in Washington and nationally.

He suffered a heart attack and died Sunday, April 16 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport while preparing to travel to Oklahoma for a Native Health conference. He was 62.

He was president of the Quinault Indian Nation from 1970 to 1994, and served two terms as president of the National Congress of American Indians. He also held office as president of the National Tribal Chairman's Association and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

He worked to improve health care for Native Americans, to secure fishing rights and to obtain sovereignty over Indian affairs.

"His whole life was dedicated to Indian welfare and Indian concerns," said Bernie Whitebear, of United Indians of All Tribes. "The self-governance conference that he was going to was really appropriate. He died with his boots on.

"A lot of the advances that the tribes are witnessing today in regard to self-governance are a result of his early involvement in that area," Whitebear said. "He was a leader in the indigenous people's efforts throughout the world, including Canada, South America."

Randy Scott, a Quinault Indian Tribe lobbyist, called DeLaCruz the father of the new tribal self-governance policy by which tribes get line-item appropriations from the government instead of getting money through the federal bureaucracy.

The policy puts control over government services such as police, health, land use and education in the hands of the tribes, rather than non-Indian entities.

During his tenure as president of his tribe, he was instrumental in making sure the Quinault was part of the Boldt decision, which enforced tribal treaty rights. He also closed a 26-mile section of beach on the tribe's reservation north of Aberdeen to non-tribal members, saying visitors were not respectful of the land.

"Joe was involved in so many issues it's hard to say what his biggest accomplishment was, there's too many to choose just one," said Pearl Capoeman-Baller, current president of Quinault Indian Nation. "Everybody turns to Joe DeLaCruz. He was there to protect rights for all tribes, not just Quinault. Joe was one of the greatest Indian leaders in the United States, and he worked endlessly for the Quinault people."

"(DeLaCruz's death) is one of the greatest losses to the Indian community that we've experienced, not only in Seattle but throughout the nation. It's just a tremendous loss. There's no way to replace him." Whitebear said.

DeLaCruz is survived by his wife, Dorothy, daughters Gayle DeLaCruz, Tina DeLaCruz and Lisa Kyle; and sons Joe DeLaCruz and Steve DeLaCruz, as well as seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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