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Tulalip Tribal elder celebrates 100th birthday

From left, Tulalip Tribal elder Bernice Williams reminisces with her daughter, Eleanor Nielsen. - Kirk Boxleitner
From left, Tulalip Tribal elder Bernice Williams reminisces with her daughter, Eleanor Nielsen.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

TULALIP — At 100 years old, Bernice Williams still remembers the way things used to be for her people.

“I remember my mother speaking the Indian language,” Williams said. “We would gather blackberries out in the woods.”

Williams, the eldest of the Tulalip Tribes’ elders, was born on Dec. 14, 1910, but her recollections remain as clear as ever, even if she can’t always hear people’s questions.

She remembers driving a horse and buggy on Quil Ceda Boulevard back when it was still unpaved, and she’s lived long enough to become a great-great-great-grandmother.

Linda Williams, one of Bernice’s granddaughters, helps facilitate her conversations, due to her difficulties with hearing. When Bernice was younger, she spoke exclusively in Lushootseed.

While many Native American children lost their language as a result of being sent to government boarding schools, Bernice’s father, Robert Sheldon, refused to let Bernice or any of his other children attend those schools after her older brother Martin nearly died from an illness he’d contracted at the Tulalip boarding school. It wasn’t until Fred Saunders, a family friend, sold Robert a small house in Marysville that he was released from the small cement jail cell on Tulalip Bay where he’d been held for defying the government, since Robert’s property made him a Marysville taxpayer.

“So many children died in those schools of ordinary, preventable illnesses,” Linda Williams said.

According to her relatives, Bernice has demonstrated an equally stoic, strong-willed and independent personality throughout her life, from learning to drive a car at the age of 10 because her mother Sarah refused to do so, to chasing down a boy who called her a derogatory name and hitting him with her buggy whip when she was 15.

Bernice gathered herbs and made poultices for her mother, a healer, and split wood for her father, who paid her $10 for an entire pile. As the 13th of 19 children, Bernice’s other chores included spinning carded wool into yarn to make clothing, and gathering cedar and beargrass to weave baskets.

“I did the easy parts,” Bernice Williams said. “It taught me how to work on a ranch.”

After completing her 10th year in Marysville as an honor student, Bernice pleaded with her mother to let her attend the Chemawa boarding school near Salem, Ore., because she missed being around Native Americans her own age. Not only did she graduate with honors from that school, but her subsequent graduation with honors from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas made her the first Tulalip woman to earn a college degree. She went on to attend the University of Kansas and become the second Tulalip woman to serve on the Tribal Board of Directors.

Bernice put her education to work for her by returning to the Tulalip reservation in 1936 and informing her fellow Tribal members of their rights under the Indian Reorganization Act, including the right to vote which the government had extended to Native Americans in 1924, but which Washington state had not granted them at that time. She went on to manage Tribal leases for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, among a host of other jobs that ranged from working as a welder during World War II at Todd Shipyards in Seattle, to filleting fish and skinning minks.

“As soon as we saw her car coming down the drive from the mink farm, we’d start running bath water,” laughed Eleanor Nielsen, Bernice’s daughter.

Not only is Bernice Williams the oldest current member of the Tulalip Tribes, but she’s also the second oldest Tulalip Tribal member in history.

“She’s never smoked or drank,” Nielsen said. “When she was 93, she had a hysterectomy for cancer, but she hasn’t taken any medication since. She’s just worked hard, stayed fit and eaten good food.”

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