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Saturday, November 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Luana Reyes, 68, a leader in agency for Indian health

Seattle Times staff reporter

Luana Reyes grew up poor. Her family lived mostly in tents in and around the Colville Indian Reservation. Even when they had a house, there was no heat, plumbing or electricity. Often, there was no food.

She became the chief financial officer and director of headquarters operations for the Indian Health Service, a national agency within the federal Department of Health and Human Services. She oversaw the agency's $2.6 billion budget, money used to provide health and dental care to an estimated 1.5 million American Indians.

Diagnosed in late September with sudden-onset aplastic anemia, which attacks bone marrow, Ms. Reyes died at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., Monday (Nov. 5). She was 68.

Last month, after Ms. Reyes was admitted to the Georgetown hospital, President Bush announced that she was a recipient of the 2001 Presidential Rank Meritorious Award, presented annually to top federal managers for exceptional performance.

Even if she'd lived to spend the $25,000 award, she probably would have given most of it away — to "Indians who needed it more than she did," said her brother, Lawney Reyes.

Ms. Reyes was a lifelong advocate for Native Americans and worked tirelessly within the government to make sure treaty obligations to provide health care were met. Colleagues and family say her humility, drive and ability to empower others made her the kind of leader people followed.

"There are literally thousands of Indians who are a lot better off than they ever were before because of her efforts," Lawney Reyes said.

Their father, Julian Reyes, was from the Philippines, and he worked in restaurants, logging camps and orchards. Their mother, Mary Christian Hall Wong, was a Sin-aikst Indian, a tribe now part of the Colville Confederated Tribes. The late Bernie Whitebear, founder of the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, was Ms. Reyes' younger brother.

Born in Portland, she was a baby when the family moved to Inchelium, Ferry County, and opened a restaurant. The family was among 300 Indians forcibly relocated to make way for the Grand Coulee Dam.

In 1941, Ms. Reyes' parents divorced and she and her brother Lawney were sent to the Chemawa Indian Boarding School near Salem, Ore. Two years later, they were reunited with their father and little brother in Okanogan. The three children were the only nonwhite students in the local high school. Ms. Reyes was a straight-A student, her brother said.

She moved to Tacoma to live with her mother and stepfather and briefly attended college, but couldn't afford tuition. At 22 she moved to San Francisco, where she rose quickly through the ranks of a large financing company. She came to Seattle in 1962.

In 1970, Bernie Whitebear launched the Seattle Indian Health Board. Ms. Reyes took over as executive director that year when her brother resigned to dedicate himself to the Indian occupation at Fort Lawton, which eventually led to the creation of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

At the time, the board was the only agency in the country devoted to Indian health. It still is the largest organization of its kind and serves as a model for other urban Indian communities.

"Bernie started it but Luana grew it," their brother said. "By the time she left 10 years later, there were 200 employees and it was a multimillion-dollar operation."

Ms. Reyes helped found the American Indian Health Care Association and the National Coalition of Urban Indian Health Centers, focusing national attention on the health-care needs of Indians in urban areas. Because of her success in Seattle, she was offered a job at the Maryland-based national Indian Health Service in 1982, where she worked until her death.

On Thursday, more than 200 of her colleagues and friends from both coasts attended a memorial service for her in Wheaton, Md.

"The service ran way longer than any of us realized and it was because none of us wanted to say goodbye," said Tony Kendrick, who reported to Ms. Reyes. "She was a wonderful woman who influenced so many."

Ms. Reyes is survived by her brothers Lawney Reyes and Harry Wong, sisters Teresa Wong and Laura Wong-Whitebear, all of Seattle; her daughter, Kecia Reyes of Germantown, Md.; and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial service is planned in Seattle, but no date has been set. For information, contact Kecia Reyes at kwreyes@hotmail.com. Memorials can be made to United National Indian Tribal Youth, P.O. Box 800, Oklahoma City, OK 73101, or the American Indian College Fund Headquarters, 8333 Greenwood Blvd., Denver, CO 80221.

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