“You shall walk two paths…yours and that of the White Man. Pick up those things from the White Man’s path that you can use.” Wise words from Sitting Bull.
Stories are the core of Northwest Indian culture and education, and have been for at least 8,00 years. Emmett Oliver’s story is of one Northwest Indian who was poor, dropped out of school, returned, got two college degrees, and revolutionized Indian education in his native state.
Like many American Indians, Emmett Oliver grew up off the reservation. His unique personal experience combines the best of two cultures and has contributed to each. He has truly followed two paths.
“She came more than a thousand miles and a lifetime of years for the event. Her eyes found her youngest son, handsome and proud in his cap and gown.” These are the opening words of the book “Two Paths”, commissioned by Emmett and written by his friend Ben Smith. Emmett paid for the publication of the books and then gave them away to all Indian schools in Washington State, as an example of what successes could be achieved by education.
After a college sports career, someone suggested that Emmett might consider becoming a teacher. What followed was a lifetime of teaching and counseling both high school and college students, and in encouraging children from Northwest Indian communities to pursue their education.
After the second World War, Emmett returned as a Coast Guard Commander. Handsome, dignified and charismatic, he resumed teaching with his wife Georgia. They both came as educators to California, where we became friends more than 55 years ago. They were my introduction to Indian America.
Tall Ship “The Danmark” training ship for Coast Guard during War
In November, 1969, Indian tribes occupied Alcatraz Island and its abandoned Federal prison in San Francisco Bay. One of the leaders of that movement was Emmett Oliver. He was Chair of BANAC (Bay Area Native American Committee.) the organization that spearheaded the takeover which lasted 19 months. The takeover was a reminder to many (including Emmett’s son, Marvin) of their Indian heritage.
The takeover led to Emmett’s attendance at the National Indian Education Conference in Minneapolis with a large number of prominent Indian educators, where Emmett was encouraged to return to his involvement in Indian education. This led to directing the Indian student programs at UCLA. His mother’s drive for her children to be educated had re-emerged and in that moment his whole life came into focus. He would devote the rest of his life to Indian education.
In the summer of 1970 Emmett joined the Division of Minority Affairs of the University of Washington to head the Indian Student division. His first task was to recruit and counsel Indian students.
At that time, Washington boasted a full-blood Cherokee role model named Sonny Sixkiller, who was their star quarterback. Our daughter was then a student at the University, and a friend of Sonny.
Sonny Sixkiller at the University of Washington
Working with the BIA offices who handled funding, Emmett invited outstanding Indian students from their high schools on weekends when home games were planned. They toured various Departments in which they expressed interest after which they went to the football game. Emmett said “The plan worked in interesting students to go to college. If not to Washington, then to some other college.”
Emmett’s effectiveness brought him to the attention of the Department of Education for the State of Washington and he was hired as the first Supervisor of Indian Education for the State. This gave him a greater opportunity to work more closely with the Indian communities.
“I believed that parent involvement in education at the elementary and secondary level must be increased, and I knew first hand the peril of dropping out, the limitations of purely vocational training, and the need for solid educational grounding if Indians were ever going to be able to attend college and assume positions of leadership in society.”
The first great “Paddle To Seattle” in 1989 that Emmett conceived and coordinated was the Native American contribution to the Washington State Centennial. It was a celebration of Indian culture, and through the annual canoe races, it has culminated in well over 100 canoes from various Northwest tribes participating each year.
Emmett’s daughter, Marylin has been heavily involved in the races, working tirelessly with participants all over the State. She is currently a Seattle Delegate to the City of Perugia, Italy. Emmett’s son, Marvin, is a Professor of Indian Art at the University of Washington and at the University of Alaska and an artist whose massive sculptures can be seen in many places around the world.
“Spirit of the Future” Public sculpture by Marvin Oliver, in Perugia, Italy.
“Mystical Journey” at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, 26’Steel and Glass suspended sculpture by Marvin Oliver
Emmett’s is a spirit venture, drawing on the past and enlightening the future. His innermost being believes you cannot teach someone you do not love.
Emmett Oliver at 101, with two of his granddaughters at end of 2014 Paddle to Seattle