A Thing About Skins Tribute to Dick Gregory's support of Native people: A heartfelt letter written by Puyallup Tribe elder Nancy Shippentower.
Editor’s Note: Elder Nancy Shippentower, from the Puyallup Tribe, was kind enough to send me this letter about Dick Gregory’s work with the Tribes of the Pacific Northwest during the Fish Wars. If you do not know about the Fish Wars, please read up. Nancy comes from a long line of resistors and warriors, including Uncle Billy Frank, Janet McCloud and Don McCloud. She knows warriors. Dick Gregory was a warrior for Native people and for justice all over the world. Rest in Peace.
Here is Nancy Shippentower’s letter:
I was in the mountains when i heard about Dick Gregory this morning, it was very sad news. I always hoped I could have went to see him. I was thinking about this this year.
Dick came into our lives when I was about 14 or 15. He did a comedy act on the waterfront at the Seattle Yachts Club and Ivar’s Chowderhouse. He was meeting with all our people and raising money for their bail or to buy boats and other necessary items to stay strong in our Indigenous rights and treaty rights.
Both Dick Gregory and Marlon Brando went to jail. Dick went to Thurston County and Marlon went to Pierce County. The difference was that Dick got sentenced to 6 months in jail and Marlon didn’t.
When he went to jail he went on a fast, and almost died. My mother Janet McCloud went with a bunch of her kids and teenagers and we set up a teepee and tents across from the jail on the Capitol grounds. They were asked why they were there and her reply was, ‘We will be here till Dick is released from jail.’
There was a lot of harassment and one day Robert Culp & his wife Francis Nyune came to court to ask the judge to release Dick. The judge said, ‘this is not going to be a celebrity mockery of justice’ and told them ‘no.’
After a few days/weeks of fasting, he declined in health. The county sent for his wife Lillian and she came they took him to St. Peters’ Hospital with armed guards and wanted her to sign for his IV feeding. She met with Dick and came out and said ‘no.’ They then tried to court order the feeding and were denied. Finally, the judge said ‘he’s not dying on my watch,’ and ordered his immediate release.
In the meantime they turned the sprinklers on the encampment and arrested 8 teenagers. My mom, Janet McCloud, then knew they were releasing him.
I tell his story because during that time no tribes would touch the so called ‘illegal fisher people.’ In fact, they were called ‘renegades’ but I believe with Dick Gregory going to jail like that, it enlightened everyone. He brought media attention to the plight of our people and I will always be grateful for his perseverance in the injustices he spoke about and defended.
He stayed for awhile because he was so malnourished and he had to regain his strength. He was a lot of fun and told stories. He and my dad, Don McCloud, were good storytellers.
(To Dick Gregory’s wife) Lillian, I am truly sorry for the great loss you have just went through. You are in my prayers and he will always be remembered I will never forget this man who opened the eyes to all injustices throughout the world.
Gyasi, as you can see in some of the pictures that Hank posted, he was well received within the tribe. That envelope with the teepee drawn on it is my mom’s handwriting; when they returned things back it did not go back to her but to other people.
We met him again at the University of Puget Sound; he was giving a talk and we stood up afterwards and talked about what he did for our people. Laura talked because she was one the teenagers who went to jail on the Capitol grounds. He talked about his stay in jail and was happy to see us; he had heard about mom passing and spoke a few words about her.
The problem I’m seeing is that fewer people can carry the weight of what these leaders carried in those days. Not only was he fighting the state on our behalf, but he was also fighting for his own people in the south and also over here. When we were camping, the Black Panthers came in the evening and met with mom and wanted to send a message to Mr. Gregory so she delivered it. I don’t know what was in those messages, I was too young yet.
Thank you almost 50 years ago
Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories