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Friday, February 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sculpture returns to its roots: 'Blue Jay' memorializes late Colville tribe activist

Seattle Times staff reporter

The enormous wooden blue jay has a nut in its mouth and the memory of Bernie Whitebear in its eye.

"(The bird's eye is) a bear holding a white man. It was meant, more or less, as a joke between my brother and I. But it fit in the design and I wanted the piece to remember my brother," says 72-year-old artist Lawney Reyes, the older brother of the late Colville tribe activist.

After more than three decades, Reyes' "Blue Jay," a 30-foot-long white sugar-pine sculpture, has returned to its nest at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Magnolia's Discovery Park.

In December, the Union Bank of California donated the sculpture along with an oil painting and a buffalo hide painting to the center, a gift that will be commemorated in a ceremony today.

Whitebear, who died in 2000 of cancer, led a Native American occupation of Magnolia's Fort Lawton in 1970. At the end of the conflict, he and other activists won a 20-acre section of the park. They created the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, which built the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center there.

Union Bank commissioned Reyes to create the sculpture in 1972. The bank used to house the artworks in its downtown Seattle building, but decided to donate them after a remodel. "Its return is significant," said Merlee Markishtum, foundation arts coordinator. "Lawney is so tied to this place, not just because he was one of the architects for the center, but his family has strong roots here. It is interesting to note, Bernie is right back here where he belongs."

Reyes said Whitebear used to hang out with his brother during the carving sessions for "Blue Jay." "He would have liked it coming back here. I believe things repeat itself in a full circle of life. It has happened many times in my life — just like this piece.

"Bernie fought a lot of white men for Indian people. He did this for all his life, that's why he's so well-known and respected," he said.

Reyes drew his inspiration for "Blue Jay," with its use of dark blues, deep reds and black finishes, from the Salish culture and Northern Coast tribes. The blue jay, according to Salish legend, has healing powers.

Inside the nut in the bird's beak is a carving of the sun, which Reyes says holds great symbolic significance for the Salish. "I wanted a sun and a moon in the piece. I also wanted a piece of him (Whitebear) in there," Reyes says. In 2003, Reyes unveiled another work memorializing his late brother and his late sister Luana Reyes, a stainless-steel dreamcatcher sculpture in the Leschi neighborhood at the east end of Yesler Way.

Reyes, a Beacon Hill resident, will dedicate "Blue Jay" at Daybreak Star at 5 p.m. today. He will also speak about contemporary Indian art and preview his latest book, "B Street," a story about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam and its effect on Native Americans in Eastern Washington.

Levi J. Long: 206-464-2061 or levilong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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