Joe Benett 1938-2010: Remembering our gentle giant

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2010

Joe Bennett died Sept. 17 at the age of 71. A gentler man never walked Bainbridge Island. He always graced us with his smile and kind words. A quiet, thoughtful fellow, Joe connected us with people of the Inside Passage - both in mind and spirit and the waterways between Puget Sound and Gulf of Alaska.

Joe was born in Juneau, a Tlingit of the Eagle Clan or moiety. He spent his childhood in Angoon, graduated from Sitka's esteemed Sheldon Jackson High School in 1958 and attended Sheldon Jackson College.

Folks here knew him as "Papa Joe" or simply, "Joe." Most never knew or could have pronounced his Tlingit names: Yeildaadzee (Raven's Flint), Yooyakdujeek (Wolf House of the Sitka Kaagwaantaan) and X'aak'Weesh (Freshwater Married Salmon Father).

For most of 25 years from the age of 12, Joe worked as a fisherman in a family business. He served as Bosun's Mate on the Navy Destroyer USS Jenkins from 1961-1965 in the Pacific and Far East. To shipmates, Bennett was "Big Ben." In Otto Preminger's 1965 epic Navy war drama, "In Harm's Way," Big Ben had a part skippering the ship's boat taking stars John Wayne and Kirk Douglas ashore. Recalling it, his smile would broaden and he'd whisper, "I never received any residuals."

Joe met Arlene Shippey in Juneau on Sept. 17, 1965. They married on Sept. 17, 1966. Joe died on their forty-fourth wedding anniversary.

Construction work in Juneau with Islander Cliff Cole led to the Bennetts' move to Bainbridge where they raised three daughters and lived for most of the past forty years.

I visited Juneau one summer and later asked Joe why he left that beautiful country. He sighed, "I got tired of shoveling snow!"

I met Joe in 1981 when he managed Timber Lodge on the beach at Fort Ward, the former Navy recreation center. Joe helped host a community New Year's Eve party. Joe and I rejoiced that a father and son came by kayak, caught a salmon in Rich Passage, cooked and ate it on the beach before the party. Joe had a fire in the fireplace of the cozy room where kids played games and folks gathered. T. J. Wheeler's band played. We counted down to midnight with Terry Domico's world-premiere film of Mt. St. Helen's eruption, and cheered the new year to Ron Konzak's bagpipe "Auld Lang Syne" and Marlin George's fireworks. It was a gathering made warm and recalled through the years by our new Tlingit friend - a good friend to all.

Sports fan Joe loved "March Madness" Alaskan-style, where hoops reign in modern winter longhouses. He flew annually to Juneau's Gold Medal Basketball Tournament, celebrating ancient and modern culture and legendary sports rivalries that "produced the best basketball."

Health challenges led Joe to serve on Seattle's Indian Health Board and to work on behalf of Alaskan natives in Seattle. He grew to actively embrace his Tlingit culture and became a Trustee of the Washington Chapter of Tlingit & Haida Natives of Alaska.

One Grand Old Fourth Parade, Joe decorated our truck with an Eagle Clan totem and blanklet. His Kuteeya Dancers joined us in song and dance afterwhich Joe and Arlene hosted Independence Day salmon bakes.

Joe shared the story of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit whose impassioned civil rights advocacy led to Alaska's 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act, the first in the U.S. - 20 years before the Civil Rights Act. Joe and friends brought the story's film, "For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska," to Lynwood Theater last November. It became a PBS documentary.

The first memorial for Joe was held in the new Suquamish longhouse on Sept. 24. Another was in Juneau on Oct. 2.

In Suquamish, Joe's brother, Pastor Jerry Bennett, of Juneau, offered an opening prayer. Four clan standards and the flags of eleven tribal nations, our State and the U.S. were posted ceremoniously by sixty veterans. Many attended from Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Douglas, Sitka and Juneau. Most were of the two Tlingit moeties, Raven and Eagle, and numerous clans of which Joe, his ancestors and friends were members. Joe's 93-year-old mother, Alice, family and friends shared a Christian memorial service, a veterans' gun salute, a bountiful meal and cultural offerings of Tlingit Raven elders' healing oratory and songs. They brought sacred clan blankets and a Chilkat woven vest mindful of how we are all interconnected. The purpose of the blankets was to help heal the pain and sorrow and to lift the spirits. The vest was to catch the tears "and take them to the deepest part of the ocean."

Throughout, carved on a longhouse pole, a figure reminiscent of Joe smiled on everyone. He blesses us still.

• Gerald Elfendahl is a local historian from Bainbridge Island, Wash.



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