Tulalip elder celebrates milestone

TULALIP — The first woman to serve on the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors.

A pioneer in leaving home to attend college, then returning to the reservation to help her people.

And now, the oldest Tulalip elder.

Bernice Williams turned 98 last week, and celebrated with a lunch in her honor at the Tulalip Senior Center. The room was packed, and a line of young and old stood at attention, ready to wish a happy birthday to the woman whose memory is a history of the Tulalip Tribes.

She was born on Dec. 14, 1910. She was the 13th of 16 children, said her daughter, Eleanor Nielsen.

Williams, who just quietly smiled for most of her birthday party, modestly said she does not remember any Lushootseed, but Nielsen believes otherwise. Williams was raised among elders who only spoke Lushootseed, the traditional language of Coast Salish people.

“I remember she would interpret the language,” Nielsen said. “A lot of the older people didn’t want to speak English, and my mother would interpret.”

Williams was a bridge between Indian culture and the outside world. She was born on the reservation, but went to an Indian school in Oregon. She was admitted to the University of Kansas, but attended a nearby Indian college for her fourth year. That’s where the best classes were offered, Williams said.

When she returned to Tulalip, she fought hard for Indian rights. She worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for several years, and was the first woman to serve on the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors, Nielsen said.

Williams’ friend and relatives told stories of how hard she worked when she was younger, chopping wood for elders who were shut in their homes, and driving around the reservation to keep an eye out for problems.

She never stopped working. She was 89 years old when Don Hatch said he caught her cleaning out her gutters.

“I told her if I saw her doing that again I’d cut that ladder in pieces,” Hatch said.

But that sense of work ethic was what made Williams such a strong tribal leader in an era when Indians had very little, Hatch said.

“She’s a good protector of the people,” he said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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