This past Saturday, October 8, 2005 was a good day, especially because it was predicted to rain, but 10 individuals still headed out from Edmonds Community College to volunteer at the Bernie Whitebear Memorial Ethnobotanical Garden in Discovery Park, Seattle, WA next to the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. The event was conducted by Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook, my AmeriCorps co-conspirator and one of the students who helped plan the garden when she was a student at the University of Washington. She invited one and all to, “Learn about indigenous plants and their traditional uses by joining a team of volunteers providing garden maintenance.” We provided rides from Edmonds Community College with Mitzellah Ah-Fook and Tom Murphy piloting. (To learn more about the next visit to the garden and the other SERVICE LEARNING TRIPS, visit the Edmonds CC website and pre-register today.)

The Bernie Whitebear Ethnobotanical Memorial Garden holds so much history; it can not be learned in one day. This “hands on learning” was an enlightening and wonderful experience. The heart and soul that went into this garden is admirable.

What does “ethnobotanical” mean? Ethno=people + botanical=plants. Put the pieces together. Every piece of land holds a history of a people all you have to do is dig below the surface and pull out the weeds covering the knowledge.

This was not a typical “weeding” or “clean up,” because (as I learned) much of how we garden is wrong. We get rid of things that don’t look appealing and hide the truth of what it is. Often in society, we get rid of the things that are useful, like the history of marginalized people, in order to make the world seem nice and beautiful instead of using that history to produce a more sustainable future for all. This garden and its surrounding 20 acres holds, not only a history of a man, but a history of stolen land and stolen identity and the reclaiming/marking of lands, identities and the rebuilding of useable knowledge….

Bernie Whitebear was born, Bernie Reyes to a Filipino immigrant father and indigenous Indian mother. In poverty, he grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington, and eventually worked at Boeing as an engineer. He took on the name “Whitebear” in honor of his maternal grandfather and rose to become a prominent leader among Seattle’s Indians. He built coalitions and promoted grassroots organizing with many community and government organizations. Whitebear was noted for his friendships and alliances among the “Gang of Four” which included Larry Gossett an African American, Bernie Whitebear, a Native American, Bob Santos, an Asian American, and Roberto Maestes, a Latino. (learn more)

In 1970, he helped to found the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF). In the same year, UIATF along with allies occupied Fort Lawton in Seattle, which was originally Indian land. They pushed through the gates and declared they were reclaiming it for the city’s estimated 25,000 Indians after plans were announced to list the fort as surplus and turn it over to Seattle for a city park. The occupation lasted for three months, with arrests and several re-invasions during that time. The efforts drew national media attention and a supporting visit from Jane Fonda. Congress ordered the city to negotiate and the city eventually reached an agreement for a 99-year lease on a 20-acre parcel of land in the former Fort Lawton. The land was used to build an Indian cultural center, the Daybreak Star Cultural Center, which provides educational and social services.

Whitebear passed away in 2000 of colon cancer at the age of 62. He was survived by siblings Luana Reyes, Teresa Wong, Laura Wong Whitebear, Lawney Reyes and Harry Wong. For an overview of Whitebear’s life and achievements, see this Indian Country article. Before he died, on October 31, 1997, the Washington state Governor Gary Locke declared the month of October `Bernie Whitebear Month’ and proclaimed Bernie Whitebear as a “Citizen of the Decade.” After his death, the Fremont Public Association gave its 2004 Award, “Local Heroes Award,” to Bob Santos, Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas, and Bernie Whitebear’s family representatives.

The memorial garden began as an Anthropology project in Professor Eugene Hunn’s ethnobiology 35 student ethnobiology class. She was contacted by the Daybreak Start Center and it evolved into a class project. At first, the garden was covered in “a thicket of Himalayan blackberries, English holly, European buttercup and laurel cherry.” That was cleared away for “wild ginger, red elderberry, kinnikinnick, bog blueberry, common camas and more than 60 other native Pacific Northwest plants.” Many people and organizations contributed to the garden. To learn more, go to UNIVERSITY WEEK article by Joel Schwarz.

As we stand upon this land and work it with our hands (today or tomorrow), it is important to remember whose land and whose blood lies in its soil. The soil is deep and if you ask people will tell you of the history that runs even deeper.