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Monday, July 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Eaglestaff's Death Leaves Void -- `The Indian Heritage School Was Bob. I Think Bob Was Irreplaceable In So Many Ways.'

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

The death of Robert Eaglestaff over the weekend has struck like a lightning bolt to the heart of the Native-American community.

"It's a tragic situation," said Bernie Whitebear, director of Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes. "It's a great loss not only from a professional standpoint, but a community and cultural standpoint."

Mr. Eaglestaff, 43, principal of Seattle Public Schools' American Indian Heritage School and Program, died of a heart attack Friday night while dancing at a powwow in Enterprise, Ore. Efforts to revive him failed.

His death - shocking because of his age and apparent fitness - has brought a sense of irreplaceable loss to those left behind.

"I don't know who's going to take his place," said Michael Cook, vice principal at the school. "There is nobody else in the Native community with his credentials, his experience, and with the rapport he had in the community. It's put the whole program in a very tender place."

Mr. Eaglestaff is credited with transforming the 22-year-old American Indian Heritage School from a place of little hope to a vibrant community of students who win awards, go on to college and look with pride on the past and toward the future.

American Indian Heritage used to be referred to as "The Last Stop on the way to No Future." But in the seven years Mr. Eaglestaff was at the school's helm, enrollment doubled to more than 120. The school has attracted so much attention that it has had to turn away many students of different cultures who want to enroll.

Just last month, it was designated a K-12 school, a longtime goal of Mr. Eaglestaff. Previously, it was for grades six through 12.

"There's a really positive feeling about the school," said Seattle School Board President Linda Harris. "He has done a wonderful job of increasing graduation rates and preventing dropouts."

In the past four years, every single senior has graduated, and enrolled in higher education after graduation, compared with a 50 percent dropout rate nationally for Native Americans, said Amy Markishtum, the school registrar.

A wake for Mr. Eaglestaff will be held Wednesday in Fort Yates, N.D. Another wake will be Thursday in Eagle Butte, S.D., followed by burial Friday on his reservation.

A local memorial service is being scheduled for Aug. 1 at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle's Discovery Park. There will be a three-day powwow at the park beginning this Friday.

Jeff Swanson, a young Native-American dancer from Everett, will dedicate his dancing at the powwow to Mr. Eaglestaff's memory.

"He was my hero. He was a role model for young people. I really looked up to him," he said.

Mr. Eaglestaff participated in powwows on reservations around the nation. He created most of his own dance regalia. He also helped lead a dance troupe made up largely of students; when he died, he had been taking a group of students on a tour of powwows leading to the Black Hills Pow-Wow in South Dakota.

Marina Sabbas, who teaches history, health, storytelling and law at Indian Heritage, said Mr. Eaglestaff was a visionary.

"He wanted students to fully realize their potential in the community, the nation and the world," she said. "He really loved the students. He didn't give up on them."

Caring and compassionate, Mr. Eaglestaff always took time to listen to his staff, she said.

"The Indian Heritage School was Bob," Sabbas said. "I really think Bob was irreplaceable in so many ways."

He spoke out against racism, even in its subtlest form, and used humor as well his passionate eloquence to educate the community on issues such as using Native Americans as mascots.

He disagreed with school officials who left it up to students to vote on things such as the mascot issue: "If the civil-rights laws were handled in the manner in which we're handling the mascot issue," he once said, "the civil-rights laws never would have been passed."

Mr. Eaglestaff, who was 6 feet 6, played basketball for Brigham Young University and the University of North Dakota. He continued to play recreationally.

"He's got friends everywhere," said Sheryl Fryberg, a former member of the Tulalip Tribal Council.

Her husband, Ray, who met Mr. Eaglestaff playing basketball, said his patience and kindness made him a person and a principal who will be difficult to replace.

"It's going to be a big set of shoes they are going to have to fill," he said.

Mr. Eaglestaff was born Dec. 20, 1952, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

He earned a bachelor's degree in education at the University of North Dakota, and a master's degree in education administration at the University of South Dakota, in addition to attending BYU.

He moved to Seattle in 1980 and worked as vice principal at Summit Alternative School before coming to Indian Heritage.

A few days before his death, Mr. Eaglestaff learned that his doctoral dissertation proposal on school administration involving the community had been approved at the University of Washington.

Mr. Eaglestaff, long interested in science, said recently that he had been invited to visit the NASA campus in Southern California next summer, for his input in the design of a spacecraft.

Gerrilyn Hamley of Seattle, who was married to Mr. Eaglestaff for 17 years before they were divorced in 1994, said Mr. Eaglestaff "was a kind and soft-hearted man who disliked conflicts" and wanted peace between people.

"He was like his tribe, the Minneconjou Lakota. Minneconjou means `plants beside the water,' and he saw them as being a real peaceful people. His grandfather's role in the tribe was peacemaker."

Survivors include his children Robin Eaglestaff and Louis Eaglestaff, Seattle, and Stacy Gayton, Fort Yates, N.D.; his mother, Marguerite Eaglestaff, Eagle Butte, S.D.; brothers Tom Eaglestaff and Bill Eaglestaff, Eagle Butte, S.D., and Darrell Eaglestaff, Fort Yates, N.D.; sisters Donna Jean Jetty, Fort Totten,

N.D., and Suzie Eaglestaff, Fort Yates, N.D.

Published Correction Date: 07/23/96 - A Memorial Service For Robert Eaglestaff, Who Was Principal Of Seattle Public Schools' American Indian Heritage School And Program, Will Be From 4 To 8 P.M. Aug. 12 At Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center In Seattle's Discovery Park. This Story Gave The Wrong Date For The Service.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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