The first half of Eugene Standingbear’s life could be split up into 10-year periods:
- 1906-16 – Growing up on the reservation, learning Lakota traditions, watching intertribal tensions grudgingly melt, and feeling the relentless pressure of white civilization.
- 1916-26 –Attending Indian schools that were sometimes kind, sometimes brutal… but always intent on overhauling native students with skills and ways of the new America.
- 1926-36 – Getting married and living not just the good life, but the gatsby life among the richest of the rich… becoming a golf champ, touring the country in a fleet of limousines, and finding himself among CEOs and Presidents.
- 1936-46 – Divorcing his pretty Osage wife, leaving the wealthy tribe, and tumbling into two grueling years in tough mining towns, then soaring into a prosperous, maiselly marriage, building a 5-star restaurant, and enjoying the rugged life of a commercial fisherman… the subjects of the installment below.
In the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Eugene’s restlessness and heavy drinking were taking a toll on his Osage family, so he divorced and left the reservation in 1937. Jobs were scarce around the country, but the lead and zinc mines in northeastern Oklahoma were flourishing. Most of the bullets fired by American soldiers in the two world wars were forged by lead from the Picher mines.
Picher was “the buckle of the nation’s mining belt”… a tough mining town (with a toxic future) sitting in the northeast corner of Oklahoma… about 85 miles from Eugene’s luxury estate in Pawhuska as the eagle flies.
Picher was a different world from anything Eugene had experienced. After drilling all day he trudged back to town with short, heavy steps. He rented a room upstairs above one of the local taverns. As he came through the front door of the tavern, the bartender reached under the bar, grabbed a pint bottle of whiskey, and slapped it on the bar top. Eugene grabbed it on the way to his room while the bartender marked it on his tab. All the miners living upstairs were offered the same service. Drudgery and alcohol were the work-a-day routine of many lead-and-zinc miners of Picher.
The miners were all muscle and bone and could cut calluses off their hands with a knife. On weekends the taverns were filled with smoke, swearing, and laughter. Someone eager for a fight might stand up and throw his hat on the floor to challenge the house, and someone else would usually step right up.
In the bar one Saturday night a fight broke out between two medium-sized men, about Eugene’s height and build… 5’10 or 5’11. It might have been a good match-up except that one of the men was drunk and being pummeled by a light-complexioned, blond-and-blue-eyed Swede. Eugene hadn’t seen a defenseless whipping like that since the Pipestone office of JB Davis, so with some bitter memories and no second thought he stepped in to help out. Eugene quickly took down the Swede with a jab and a hook while the drunken third guy fell against the bar and slid to the floor, head lolling.
That’s when the other Swede got up. He was huge, 6’5, 240 pounds. He’d been casually watching his pal beat up the drunk who’d muttered an insult to the two a few minutes earlier. The Nordic giant casually walked up to Eugene, took him in a chokehold and began to squeeze. Eugene began to gag and fought desperately until they both fell to the floor. Still in the headlock on the verge of passing out, Eugene slapped the floor repeatedly to signal, I’ve had enough! but the big Swede apparently had never been a wrestler and didn’t understand the signal. He tightened his grip, and Eugene gasped for several mouthfuls of air before his body went limp and everything went black.
He woke up a few minutes later sprawled out on the floor, climbed to his feet, staggered to the bar, and sipped a whiskey to recover.
Marriage #2: Prosperity in the Northwest
After two years in the lead mines, Eugene developed a chronic cough. The company doctor found spots on his lungs and made him leave the mines before they killed him. So when the second world war broke out in 1939, his lung condition kept him out of the army.
With so many men overseas in the early 40s, there were plenty of jobs and women when Eugene moved to Kansas City in 1939. He found a job with North American Aviation, a factory that was assembling B-25 bombers by the thousands. Around the same time he met and soon married a bright, attractive Jewish woman who had a good job with a Kansas City law firm.
Velma B. Sparks had a nice figure and a confident bearing and smile, and her knee-length skirts revealed shapely calves that caught men’s eye. She also had a good business sense and liked to dance… all qualities that attracted Eugene.
Eugene, fresh out of the mines, now had a tough, lean exterior that enhanced his natural agility and charm. His impulsiveness, confidence, and protectiveness made him especially appealing to pretty women like Velma who got more attention than they knew what to do with.
The two newlyweds were at a dance one summer evening in the roof garden of a plush Kansas City hotel during a coast-to-coast tour of one of the popular Big Bands of the era. They were seated at a table in the third row. As Eugene escorted Velma to the large, crowded dance floor, winding their way between tables, a brash fellow in the front row grabbed Velma’s arm, started to rise, and said, “Hey, Baby, let’s dance.”
Without thinking, Eugene moved in front of Velma and delivered a fist into the man’s left cheek, sending his sprawling across the table. The man pushed himself up, but Eugene’s second punch knocked him to the floor.
The manager rushed to the scene to hold people back as they began rising from their chairs and moving in for a closer look. The band continued to play even as several of the band members stood on tiptoes to peer over the crowd gathering around the scuffle… but the one-two knockdown had made a quick end to the fight. Eugene, heart pounding, glanced back at Velma, who was grinning… and they made their way to the dance floor.
Velma and Eugene were in their element with each other. She thrived on attention, as long as she had someone close by to protect her. Eugene was proud to be with a pretty woman, and he was willing and able (maybe even eager after a few drinks) to protect her honor.
They liked to eat at the best restaurants in town. Velma’s favorites were an old Southern-style steak house on the old side of town and an expensive fried-chicken restaurant called the Old Mill 14 miles southeast of downtown, across a dirt road from the old, decrepit Burrus Mill that had become a landmark. Both restaurants needed reservations weeks in advance.
One evening they’d just finished dinner at the steak house. For a Deep South atmosphere, black waiters strode among the tables in snow-white uniforms. With indirect lighting there were no shadows, and the entire room seemed to glow. Over an after-dinner drink, Velma was lost in thought and said moodily, “Y’know what I’d like someday? Really like?”
Eugene shook his head, “Hm-m-m-m?”
“I’d like to have a place like this someday.”
If her ancestors were listening, they probably whispered silently, “From your lips to God’s ear.” Within a year they sold all of their property in Kansas City and moved cross-country to Bremerton, Washington, where Velma’s son was stationed in the Navy. Her main goal now was to start a new, prosperous life… so over the next three years they would both get good jobs, pool their assets, and build The Colonial House restaurant across the street from the local country club.
Here’s how it came together….
As usual, things fell neatly into place for Eugene as soon as they arrived in Bremerton in 1942. The city was booming. Ships badly damaged at Pearl Harbor the previous year had arrived limping or towed at Puget Sound shipyard at Bremerton to be restored. City population had grown from 15,000 to 80,000 by 1942, bringing a tsunami of wealth to the region.
With a solid background in clerical work, Velma quickly got a job as the head of Civilian and Naval Housing, with an office right next door to the captain of the base. Eugene, having worked as a mechanical and general draftsman at NAA in Kansas City, now got a job in the navy yard’s Plant Engineering department, which was located in the same building as Velma’s office. He started out with an Engineer-2 rating for design and development of technical systems, and quickly rose to a GS-9 rating as a design engineer in a mid-level position.
Meanwhile, Eugene decided to build Velma the restaurant of her dreams. He bought 10 acres of land across the street from the country club. There was no competition for miles. The club itself only had a sandwich bar.
By now Eugene had gotten to know a lot of the brass and many heavy hitters on the base, including two lieutenants and a lieutenant commander in Materials. There were storehouses brimming with building materials up for bid as navy surplus. Eugene’s pals kept close track of what was up for bid, so with a few quiet words now and then, Eugene had no trouble winning the bids for the materials he needed to build a restaurant. For a fraction of the going costs he bought ceiling frames, windows, sturdy oak flooring, and pre-fab walls, and within three months Colonial House was open for business.
Bremerton’s population boom and economic boon of the early 40s brought along a few problems, including discrimination against blacks and an inevitable housing shortage and crime wave stirred up by hundreds of rowdy, young sailors and 32,000 new shipyard workers. Velma was helping to solve the housing shortage as head of the Civilian and Naval Housing Office. To contend with the crime wave, the Bremerton police department grew from 12 full-time officers to 54… (but to accommodate the war effort they maintained a look-the-other-way attitude toward the sailors and shipyard workers who swarmed into town every weekend to let off steam).
Discrimination wasn’t so easily solved. The black population grew from “7 negroes” in 1940 to around 4,500 by 1942, compelling apprehensive business owners to hang “Whites Only” signs in their windows. While civil rights workers like Bremerton’s own Lillian Walker were fighting for racial justice and equality, there was still an Old South mystique hanging over much of the country that Velma and Eugene would integrate into their restaurant.
The Colonial House was a blend of Velma’s two favorite Kansas City restaurants. A southern atmosphere was created with sturdy pillars rising from the front porch and a small army of black waiters dressed in spotless white. Eugene hired only the best waiters who’d worked on railroad dining cars or in a Harvey House, the popular dining room found in most major train stations.
The walls of Eugene and Velma’s restaurant were decorated with expensive art, and thick drapes flowed from ceiling to floor. Indirect lighting was rheostat-controlled to set a variety of moods and atmospheres for different situations. Rose-colored, shadowless lighting made everyone look good and feel good, so the clientele enjoyed coming back. There were linen tablecloths, sterling silverware, gold-rimmed glasses and dinnerware… a dream come true for Velma.
The restaurant specialized in steaks and fried chicken. Eugene signed contracts with a number of area chicken ranchers, but the best pullets came from a farm south of Tacoma that made 50-mile deliveries with freezer trucks to accommodate the Colonial House.
Velma had a green thumb for gardening as well as money, so she raised a flower garden above the leach field outside the restaurant. She advertised through all the newspapers and radio stations, but the best advertising was at the personal level. With an office next door to the captain, she was given the responsibility of entertaining visiting admirals and dignitaries, and after giving the VIPs a tour of the base, she always gave them each a Colonial House business card.
Every night the Standingbear establishment was packed, reservations-only, with gold braid covering the hat racks. A columnist for a Seattle newspaper listed the Colonial House as one of the best three restaurants in Washington State.
Eugene and Velma both worked evenings in the restaurant while holding onto their jobs on base.
In the summer of 1944, word spread that President Roosevelt was planning a visit, and the captain gave the order to spit-shine the base. At lunchtime Eugene saw a lieutenant commander supervising his black limousine being washed, waxed, and polished by a small team of sailors. Marines out on the grinder were practicing drills they’d be marching to welcome the President when he arrived on the base.
In the afternoon Eugene was back at his drawing board when a call came from the base captain’s office. The head of the department answered.
“Plant Engineering… yes, sir!…” He looked up in the direction of the draftsmen, and his eyes met Eugene’s.
“How about Standingbear, sir?… Yes, sir, one of the best we’ve got… aye-aye, sir, right away.
He hung up the receiver and walked quickly to Eugene’s drafting table.
“Chief, they want a draftsman in the captain’s office PDQ. You’re elected.”
Eugene hustled to the captain’s office, which was in the same building as Plant Engineering, and he was welcomed by the captain and four of the President’s secret servicemen. As the six men took seats around the captain’s desk, the secret servicemen told Eugene they’d need a sketch of the pier area. The President’s arrival the next day would have to be perfect, and it would be announced just an hour or two before he arrived, sparing just enough time for sailors and civilians to dress up and muster at the pier area. His cruise ship would drop anchor 20 feet away from the pier, and the nearby buildings would be evacuated to reduce chances of assassination. All plans would be made from Eugene’s sketch.
Eugene scratched out a rough sketch, then drew a more detailed one and handed everything over to the secret servicemen, who made several copies of the finished draft and burned the originals.
The next morning, August 12, the captain issued the order that the President would be making a speech at the piers in two hours. A horde of Seabees swarmed to the docks and erected a temporary grandstand, all the nearby buildings were evacuated by marine troops, and everyone put on a set of dress whites and flocked to the piers.
The President had boarded the destroyer USS Cummings four days earlier in San Francisco and enjoyed a cruise up the west coast before pulling into #2 drydock at Puget Sound Navy Yard that morning. A big crane laid down a gangplank, a platoon of marine guards took positions at either end of the plank, and a small team of radio and sound technicians hurried aboard to make ship-to-shore connections for FDR’s broadcast address to the nation and to the 10,000 sailors and navy yard workers now in attendance.
FDR’s wheelchair was escorted to the side of the ship facing the shore, and he spoke for about 35 minutes from the fo’csle deck next to a 5-inch gunmount.
Some light hand-clapping by the ambivalent crowd was accompanied by a shout from somebody… maybe a sailor… maybe a member of the President’s staff who’d snuck ashore….
“Hold up Fala!”
That was followed by a chorus.
“Show us Fala!”… “We wanna’ see Fala!”….
When FDR picked up his small, black terrier and lifted him above his head, a thunderous cheer broke out, and the President got the loud ovation he needed for the radio audience back home. The dog had broken the ice.
After the brief speech, the anchor went up, and the USS Cummings pulled away from the docks… leaving everyone bewildered.
Where’s he going? they wondered. He just got here.
The ship’s crew would drop the President off in Seattle the next day, proceed across the Pacific, and bombard Japanese-held Wake Island to help put an end to the war.
Back at Puget Sound, meanwhile, the puzzled crowd broke up. The entire base had been cleaned and polished to host FDR, but only Eugene and the base captain had known a day early that the President had no intention of leaving the ship.
When the war ended, the Bremerton economy bubble popped. The labor force in the shipyard dropped from 32,000 to 9,000 by 1947. By 1950, the overall city population had dropped from 80,000 to 28,000.
The Colonial House restaurant survived, but most military contracting jobs like Eugene’s were phased out.
So he took up commercial fishing near the war’s end. He became part owner of the Mary Ann, a 50-foot, all-steel trawler with a 7-ton hull, and spent summer weekends learning all the ropes of salmon-fishing. In the fall he sold his share of the Mary Ann to buy himself a one-man boat about half the size… a 26-foot “pocket trawler.” He spent two years (probably 1945-6) fighting heavy swells and vying for water space with other fishermen, flotillas of destroyers and aircraft carriers, troop transports, and massive freighters steaming through the shipping lanes to and from Seattle. He had to keep a sharp lookout for a few Japanese magnetic mines that were still scattered across the surface of Juan de Fuca Strait.
Eugene’s boats were probably the new diesel models that were quickly replacing the less efficient, more labor-intensive, coal-fired steam trawlers that had been used almost exclusively up until the second world war.
On one fishing trip he wasn’t paying attention on the way home. Entering the Strait he found himself caught in the middle of an armada of the Pacific Fleet heading out toward open sea… and he rocked and rolled through the wild wakes of the big boats.
Eugene was often gone two or three weeks at a time, fishing for salmon 40 miles from shore in the waters off Canada or south Alaska, but occasionally he enjoyed a relaxed day closer to home catching halibut in the waters of the Makah tribe, whose reservation sat on the very northwest tip of the USA (which didn’t include the states of Alaska and Hawaii at the time). The tribal waters for centuries had provided the Makah people some of the best halibut fishing in the north Pacific. Now the area was marked off by buoys and strictly off-limits to non-Makah’s. Eugene befriended and often visited many of the Makah fishermen, became a sort of pet Lakota of the tribe, and was welcomed to fish in their waters. They shared a mutual respect of their diverse ancestral life styles.
The Makahs usually fished from canoes that been hewn from logs 10 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. It seemed to Eugene that the average Makah fisherman with his adz somehow had an instinctive knack for quickly chipping away every chunk of wood that wasn’t part of a solid canoe that would sit upright in the water.
While fishing, the Makahs never strayed beyond the view of shore, since they navigated by lining up two mountain peaks. A willow pole hung over the water from each end of the canoe, each pole connected to a line with a 5- or 10-pound weight and two custom-made, G-shaped halibut hooks baited with snow-white octopus legs cut to resemble squid. All of the fishermen usually slept peacefully in their canoes until someone’s pole began to buck violently. The lucky guy clambered to a sitting position, let out a war whoop, and started wrestling a 100- or 200-pound halibut. Other fishermen nearby also awakened and joined the chorus of shouting and whooping until the fish was landed. Then everyone lay back down to doze.
On his way to and from the salmon waters, Eugene sometimes eased his 26-foot trawler among the canoes to spend a few hours fishing halibut. A canoe would occasionally pull up alongside, and a Makah fisherman would be welcomed aboard for coffee and sandwiches.
Every canoe was equipped not only with an outboard motor, but also with a rifle to fend off sharks and trespassers… one being a nuisance, the other a threat… and it didn’t take Eugene long to figure out which was which. During one of his first visits into Makah waters he noticed the fin of a shark swimming toward a canoe of a sleeping fisherman. Alarmed, he shouted, “Hey!… Shark!… Shark!”
Startled by the shouting, the Makah bolted to a sitting position, looked all around, then stared at Eugene with wide eyes. He glanced at the approaching shark fin, yawned, and lay back down. Eugene watched the shark swim under the canoe and brush it with its fin, causing the small boat to rock the fisherman gently back to sleep.
The only time Eugene saw a Makah rifle used was in the summer of 1946, when a white man with a 50’ trawler began moving quietly into Makah waters early in the morning, before the fishermen arrived, laying a series of buoyed lines. Under each buoyed line there were two hundred hooks on branch lines, all connected to a mainline. In the evenings, as the Makahs were heading home, the big boat would sneak back into the waters and pull up the catch, which was sometimes massive.
The Makahs noticed this new lawbreaker and thief right away. They were curious the first time, surprised the second, and insulted the third. The white guy didn’t just sneak in, grab a treasure, and bolt; it looked like he was trying to set up a criminal enterprise in their water.
One evening there were about two dozen canoes scattered throughout the fishing grounds when the white man’s 50’ trawler eased in to pull in his trawl line. Also in the area was a solid 48’ trawler owned by a wealthy, young, educated Makah—a friend of Eugene’s.
Eugene was coming in from sea in his little 26-footer with a small load of salmon when he heard his friend’s angry voice squawk over the radio, “This is restricted water. You’d better get your ass outa’ here. There’s a rifle on every boat.”
Eugene called his friend on the radio to ask about the situation.
The Makah replied, “Standingbear! This white guy’s trespassing again. We’re gonna’ get his line.”
So Eugene changed course for the Makah’s protected waters and he saw the curious stand-off between the two larger boats. The white man was rushing around on deck, preparing to pull in his illegal trawl line, hoping to make a fast getaway. Eugene pulled up alongside the Makah trawler as its captain repeated his warning to the interloper, “Get the hell outa’ this area now! You’re trespassing!”
As the white man started pulling in the line, the Makah grabbed his rifle and fired a shot in the air.
“Now!” he barked.
The white man looked up, hesitated, then released the trawl line reluctantly into the water. As the big trawler pulled away, the young Makah was pulling the halibut-laden trawl line out of the water, and the canoe fishermen were whooping and hollering.
Eugene became friends with a Makah tribal leader, John George, who had a connection with several wealthy Seattle businessmen. One day John persuaded Eugene to rent out his boat to his rich white friends for $200… so the next morning Eugene met the sport fishermen at the pier, collected the fee, familiarized them with the boat, and helped cast off. When the boat returned that evening, Eugene stood at the end of the pier and watched as the businessmen filed out. When they all appeared to be ashore, he walked to the boat to clean it before nightfall. Then he stopped in his tracks. One drunken fellow was at the helm, shoving the rudder hard left, then right.
“Stop!” Eugene shouted, but the man either ignored him or didn’t hear, and he continued abusing the rudder… which suddenly snapped.
Eugene exploded. He jumped into the boat and delivered a short flurry of punches to the man’s head and shoulders. The guy climbed unsteadily to his feet, cringed, backed away, and stood still with a nose gushing blood and a startled look on his face. Instead of leaving the boat, he glanced at the broken rudder and grinned, like it was all a joke.
Eugene had had his fill of rich, entitled white guys, so he pulled the fishing knife out of its sheath, glared at the man, and said menacingly, “I’m gonna’s scalp you.”
The smirk vanished from the man’s face as he climbed cautiously onto the pier and broke into a wobbly run toward the parking lot, where his friends were waiting.
The following morning John George met Eugene at his boat to apologize for the damage caused by his rich friend’s bad judgment… but he shook his head, “You probably shouldn’t have beat him up, Eugene. Those guys are big shots over there in Seattle.”
Eugene retorted, “Well, I don’t suppose the guy’d be very happy if I went into his garage and started busting things up.” Pointing at the businessman’s blood near the helm, he added, “Hell, that could’ve been my blood.”
John laughed, “That ain’t what’s bothering you, Standingbear; you just like white man’s blood.”
Word of the altercation spread quickly on the small Makah reservation until it became a joke that their Lakota friend liked white man’s blood. And the bloodstains became a topic of light-hearted conversation whenever Makah fishermen boarded the 26’ boat to visit their friend Eugene… the “wild Lakota” who was gonna’ scalp the white man.
There were many white commercial fishermen in northern Washington who loved to drink and party. One particular fisherman had a wife, eight children (including a wild and very pretty teenage girl), and a big country home adjacent to Olympic National Park, and one Saturday night he hosted one of his popular drinking parties. Eugene always enjoyed these uninhibited parties of coarse talk, dirty jokes, and deep, hearty laughter. They were a rugged bunch, and they all wore their fishing knives in leather sheaths on their belts.
Drinks were furnished by an alcoholic Makah bootlegger who drank almost as much as he sold. Eugene happened to arrive at the same time as the bootlegger, and he noticed the man stagger toward the house with a box of whiskey bottles. What could go wrong? Eugene thought with a bad feeling in his gut. He followed the bootlegger into the house and watched him set the whiskey on the kitchen counter, then lean unsteadily against the kitchen doorway. The pretty teen happened to be sitting at the kitchen table, and she began to tease and flirt with the handsome, young bootlegger… who tried to flirt back but was so drunk that he wasn’t making any sense.
A while later Eugene noticed the Makah was no longer present. Nor was the girl. He made a quick tour of the house and found them in the parents’ bedroom. The Makah was kneeling on the bed, pants down around his ankles, and fumbling to remove the panties from the giggling, teasing girl, who was also lying on the bed and pretending to struggle.
Eugene yanked the Makah off the bed, pulled up his pants, buckled his belt, and escorted him quickly through the house and out the back door. Eugene and the girl both knew that the fishermen were a rough lot, and if they found out the Makah had tried to rape the girl, they’d probably kill him. The girl seemed to be enjoying the drama, but Eugene wanted to save the fellow’s life, so he half-dragged the stumbling Makah to his car, opened the passenger door, stuffed the man in, then rushed around to the driver’s side.
As they pulled out of the yard, Eugene glanced through the rear-view mirror to see the yard suddenly light up as the front door of the farmhouse was flung open, headlights came on, and engines started.
The chase was on.
For an hour, a trio of cars filled with drunk, angry fishermen chased the two Indians all over the Olympic Mountains. With a half-mile lead, Eugene suddenly made a hard, right-hand turn onto a familiar lane that led through a tree-lined path to a small mountain lake. He cut the lights and bounced over bumps until they reached the shoreline, then he shut off the engine and sat in silence, fingers crossed.
The Makah was unconscious in the passenger seat. Eugene waited for five minutes that seemed like five hours. When none of the other cars showed up, he dragged the Makah out of the car and down to the shore. He made him take off all his clothes and go for a swim in the icy lake to sober up.
Meanwhile, the three-car posse, having lost sign of the getaway car, backtracked and took the path to the lake. The Makah was putting his clothes back on as the angry mob came barreling through the trees, Eugene knew they were trapped. A dozen fishermen jumped from the cars, armed with shotguns and rifles, and swarmed down to the shore.
Eugene pulled out his fishing knife and stepped between the Makah and the fishermen.
The lead fisherman ordered Eugene to step aside, but he refused. “You’ll have to go over me. This man’s too drunk to fight.”
Fortunately, one of the fishermen was a friend of Eugene’s, and between the two of them they managed to talk the angry mob out of killing the Makah. The leader was still furious about the attempted rape of his daughter and threatened to report the two Indians to the police, but the incident was soon forgotten. Eugene never heard another word about it.
Traditionally there was an unwritten law among the Lakota people and some other tribes. Unmarried men didn’t abuse girls or women. Boys were taught to avoid girls until they were old enough and mature enough to be good husbands and fathers. Even so, unmarried girls were rarely left alone. Any man guilty of raping a girl would be taken far away from the encampment, castrated, and left to live or die. Girls’ virtue was closely protected by their families and neighbors and by a code of harsh justice… until reservation life and alcohol change everything.