Lawney Reyes was born c.1931 to Mary Christian, Sin Aikst (now known as the Sinixt). Historically her people were known as the Senjextee and also as "the Lake"; they now make up one of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation). His father was Julian Reyes, a native Filipino who largely assimilated to an Indian way of life after his marriage. Lawney's maternal grandfather, Alex Christian, was known as Pic Ah Kelowna, (White Grizzly Bear); his great-uncle (brother of his maternal grandmother) was Chief James Bernard, a Sin Aikst leader in the early 20th century. Lawney's siblings included Luana Reyes and Bernie Whitebear.
Reyes' early childhood with his family was largely lived on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. In 1935–1937, during the period of construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, his parents had moved to the Coulee and started a Chinese restaurant, even though "[n]either of them could prepare Chinese food except for simple dishes such as pork fried rice, egg foo-yung, and chop suey". They soon acquired an ethnically Chinese partner and cook, Harry Wong; Wong bought them out of the restaurant in 1937. His parents separated in 1939 and subsequently divorced; his mother later worked again for Wong in Tacoma, Washington. She and Wong eventually married.
During their time based at Grand Coulee, the 4-year-old Lawney became a reasonably competent player of the ukulele. He and 2-year-old sister Luana toured for a brief spell with their father on the Eastern Washington vaudeville circuit performing Hawaiian music.
From 1940 to 1942, Reyes was a student at the Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school five miles north of Salem, Oregon; he would later write that his consciousness of being "Indian" was largely formed through his conversations there with other students. The rest of his childhood and youth was spent living with his father, variously on the Colville Reservation and in Okanogan, Washington.
After graduating from Okanogan High School in 1949, Reyes moved to Tacoma, Washington, where he lived again with his mother and her second husband. He moved back east across the mountains and attended Wenatchee Junior College, where he obtained a two-year degree. He met Joyce Meacham, a Yakama and Warm Springs Indian; they were married in 1955; she later had a career in social work and especially in Indian Health programs.
Reyes served in the U.S. Army; active service and leave gave him the opportunity to see much of Europe, from Pompeii to Malmö, Sweden, which confirmed his interest in working in a field related to "architecture design, and art". Upon his return he attended the University of Washington, studying painting and sculpture and majoring in interior design. He graduated in 1959.
He worked for Seafirst Bank, initially as a designer, eventually collecting and curating the Seafirst Corporate Art Collection. During this time, he also used his nights and weekends to work at sculpture (mainly in wood) and as a freelance interior designer. He became an increasingly acclaimed artist—winning a major award from the Center for Indian Art in Washington, D.C. and being invited to teach Contemporary Indian Art at the University of Washington—and curator, serving as commissioner of the Seattle Arts Commission and a member of the (Washington) Governor's Task Force for the state's arts appropriation budget.
He took early retirement from Seafirst in 1984, and traveled North America visiting various Indian tribes. He wrote two books, his memoir White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to be Indian (2002), and a biography of his brother Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice.
Reyes' late brother Bernie Whitebear was a prominent activist, a founder of the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, and the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. Luana Reyes became director of SIHB, developing it to a prominent role in the Seattle area. She later was appointed as the number two official in the U.S. federal government's Indian Health Services.
Reyes' 2002 memoir White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to be Indian combines his own memories and research with notes from library and field research (including taped interviews) done by his mother before her death in a traffic accident in May 1978. Among other things, it describes traditional tribal fishing at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River and living in Inchelium, Washington at its old site. Both Kettle Falls and Old Inchelium were later flooded by the rising waters after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam (which also prevented salmon from reaching the Upper Columbia). His book also described the forced changes of life for the Sin Aikst/Lakes as conditions forced them away from traditional patterns and how they worked to preserve elements of their traditions. He explored the ambiguous effect of institutions such as the Chemawa Indian School circa 1940, which simultaneously acculturated natives to the majority American culture while inspiring a sense of "Indianness," rather than affiliation with only individual tribes.
His second book, Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice (2006), is a biography of his brother Bernie Whitebear (1937–2000). He was one of the so-called "Gang of Four" or "Four Amigos" who founded Seattle's Minority Executive Directors' Coalition.
Reyes' third book, B Street: A Gathering of Saints and Sinners (2008), is an exploration of the Grand Coulee area between 1933 and 1941, during the construction of the Dam. It was published by the University of Washington Press.
Sculpture and design
Reyes' works are prominent in Seattle. He helped design the Daybreak Star Cultural Center at Fort Lawton in the Magnolia section of Seattle. His sculpture Blue Jay (which measures 30 feet (9 m) wide and 12 feet (3.7 m) high) was hung prominently for over 30 years at the Bank of California building in downtown Seattle; after a bank merger, the piece was transferred in 2004 to the Daybreak Star Center. His Dreamcatcher, installed at the corner of 32nd Avenues and Yesler Way in Seattle, honors the memory of his brother Bernie and his sister Luana.
Reyes received the Washington State Arts Commission Governor's Arts Award in 1971.
- Levi J. Long, Sculpture returns to its roots: 'Blue Jay' memorializes late Colville tribe activist, Seattle Times, 27 February 2004. Accessed 17 March 2007.
- Reyes 2002 does not give a birth date explicitly, but says (p. 92) that he was nine years old in August 1940.
- Levi J. Long, Sculpture returns to its roots: 'Blue Jay' memorializes late Colville tribe activist, Seattle Times, February 27, 2004 (Accessed online 17 March 2007) refers to him as a "72-year-old artist" in February 2004.
- The biography on his official site, accessed 11 March 2007, says that he was born in Bend, and that his family moved to the Colville Reservation in 1933, but does not give a date of birth.
- Reyes 2002, passim.
- Reyes 2002, p. 28–50.
- Reyes (2002), p. 74–75.
- Reyes 2002, p. 90.
- Reyes 2002, p. 185, 194.
- Reyes 2008, p. 94–102.
- Reyes 2002, passim. In particular, p. 112 "These experiences helped me develop for the first time the feeling of being an Indian."
- Reyes 2006, p. 52
- Reyes 2002, p. 181–182.
- Biography on his official site, accessed 11 March 2007.
- Reyes 2002, p. 181–182; 184–185 for his wife's later career.
- "100 Top Books By 100 UW Authors". Retrieved 2007-08-16.
- Reyes 2002, p. 182.
- Reyes 2002, p. 182–185.
- Reyes 2002, p.185.
- Reyes 2002, p. 185 et. seq.
- Reyes 2002, p. xi–xvi.
- Reyes 2002, passim.
- Roberto Maestas, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, University of Washington. Accessed 11 March 2007.
- Jamie Garner and Dorry Elias, "Bernie Whitebear: Elegy for a gone-but-never-forgotten activist", Real Change (Seattle's "homeless paper"), 15 August 2000.
- UWP Website
- Lawney Reyes, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, University of Washington. Accessed 11 March 2007.
- Daybreak Star Cultural Center home page. Accessed 11 March 2007.
- List of the Governor's Arts Awards, Washington State Arts Commission. Accessed 11 March 2007.
- Lawney L. Reyes, White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to be Indian, University of Washington Press, 2002. ISBN 0-295-98202-0.
- Lawney L. Reyes, Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian's Quest for Justice, University of Arizona, 2006. ISBN 0-8165-2521-8. ISBN 978-0-8165-2521-8.
- B Street: A Gathering of Saints and Sinners, University of Washington Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-295-98853-5.