Washington and Washington, D.C., pay tribute to Puyallup Tribe Chairman Herman Dillon

Staff writerJune 1, 2014 

The soft smell of cedar echoed through a dimly lit Tacoma Dome on Sunday morning as a thousand people gathered to honor Herman Dillon Sr., chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, who died late last month at 82.

Dignitaries did what dignitaries do when an influential leader dies.

They spoke heartfelt tributes.

The greater honor, however, would come in the early afternoon as Dillon’s casket was lowered into its grave.

Inside the Dome, Puyallup Tribal Council vice chairman Bill Sterud recalled Dillon’s fight for Native American fishing rights, and his quiet leadership during the Puyallup Tribe’s historic 1989 land claims settlement.

Sterud noted, as other speakers would note, Dillon’s military service, first in the Navy Reserve and later, during the Korean War, in the Army.

Sterud recalled “playing the tides,” fishing with Dillon on the Puyallup River, and he recalled Dillon’s days at the Firwood Tavern, where the man met his wife, Darlene.

Swinomish Indian Senate Chairman Brian Cladoosby said Dillon “was deeply proud of his service to his country.”

Veterans from the Puyallup Tribe traded 10-minute shifts, each standing alone beside the casket holding the Stars and Stripes, folded into a memorial triangle.

Around the platform supporting Dillon’s hand-crafted wooden casket stood more than a dozen large sprays of flowers: lilies, roses, gladiolus, carnations, flowers of a hundred colors.

At each of the four corners of the platform stood displays draped by cedar, and at the center of each rose a single salmon composed of small, dark flowers.

“Herman was a warrior,” said Ernie Stensgar, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council.

“He earned his eagle feathers, in battle, and the halls of Congress, testifying, and in state government,” Stensgar said.

Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire called Dillon “a good friend and a great person, a wonderful man and a kind soul, a great teacher and a great guide.”

Gregoire said she first met Dillon when she worked at the state Department of Ecology, and the relationship continued through her tenure as state attorney general and ultimately as governor.

Dillon was “respectful, willing to listen. He always wanted to know what others were thinking,” she said.

“He would work with me, out of the spotlight,” she said. “It always felt to me that he would have my back. He (also) knew when to stand his ground.”

Herman Dillon, she said, “was part of the greatest generation of tribal leaders in the Northwest.”

She noted how he loved his family, his children and the legion of foster children he raised with Darlene.

Gregoire also mentioned Dillon’s sense of humor and “the ready twinkle in his eye.”

Gov. Jay Inslee spoke of Dillon’s leadership and his contribution to the education of tribal youths.

And the fish.

“As he protected treaty rights, he protected the salmon,” Inslee said.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said, “We have lost a friend.”

She said, “We’re going to remember Herman’s Dean Martin hair, and the way he looked like a movie star.”

He was “practical, and full of grace,” she said.

She too spoke of Dillon’s leadership in the land claims settlement negotiations that “put the Puyallup Tribe on the road to prosperity.”

She explained that during Dillon’s tenure on the tribal council, the tribe tripled in size and became the third-largest employer in the county with about 3,300 people on its payroll.

She quoted a poem by Edgar Guest that proclaims death to be “a step on the road to home … Miss me, but let me go.”

Late last week on the floor of the House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer spoke about Dillon’s passing. On Sunday, he spoke in Tacoma.

“We will be forever known by the tracks we leave,” he said.

Dillon’s tracks, he said, include building the tribe into an economic engine, and building a tribal health clinic, and helping to protect the Puyallup River, and raising foster children.

Lt. Gov. Brad Owens also noted Dillon’s love of family.

Former U.S. Congressman Norm Dicks recalled Dillon’s perseverance during the land claims negotiations.

Puyallup Tribal Councilman David Bean asked: What can you say to such a man?

“Thank you,” he said.

The drummers continued drumming as Dillon’s family passed before his open casket.

They played again in the warm noon sunshine on the crest of a hill at the tribal cemetery in east Tacoma, where an honor guard of veterans offered a 21-gun salute, where a lone bugler played a slow and mournful taps.

As Dillon’s casket was lowered into its grave, the drummers played the “Eagle Song.”

High above, a single eagle soared, flying north, headed home.

c.r.roberts@thenewstribune.com

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