A culture-bearer returns home | Passages

Evelynne Beatrice Gemmell’s heart was firmly rooted in Suquamish

SUQUAMISH — An elder once said that the Point Elliott Treaty was not signed 160 years ago, but two handshakes ago. In other words, the mid-1800s were not that long ago — it was the time of the grandparents’ grandparents.

Evelynne Beatrice Gemmell personified that statement. She was the granddaughter of Suquamish Tribe culture-bearer Julia Jacob (1874-1960). Jacob was, in turn, the daughter of Wahalchu (1799-1911), the last chief of the Suquamish Tribe and a signer of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855.

Gemmell was born in 1924, 13 years after her great-grandfather passed away. But the cultural knowledge she received from him was carried from grandmother to her. And so, Gemmell was an important link to Suquamish’s past.

She had also served in the U.S. Navy and, at 93, was the Suquamish Tribe’s oldest female elder and veteran.

And so, when she passed away on June 23 and was returned home from California for a July 8 memorial service in the House of Awakened Culture, she was accorded a mix of traditional and military honors. The Suquamish Warriors escorted her ashes and those of her husband to the longhouse. Flags were lowered to half staff. “Taps” was played twice — once by a Navy sailor, and again by Rich Demain, a Suquamish Tribe elder. Singers drummed and offered a song.

“The experience of saying goodbye the way we do is keeping them with us, in a way,” Bob Gemmell, a son, said.

Family friend Barbara Lawrence-Piecuch added, “There is no death, merely a change of worlds. It is our way.”

Gemmell’s ashes will be interred next to her grandmother’s grave.

‘Why don’t we pick up where we left off?’

Gemmell was born on March 1, 1924 and spent her youth playing in rural Indianola. She remembered seeing bears as she rowed with her grandmother from Indianola to Suquamish Village to attend Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Church. Later, she helped children learn to read in a one-room school house. Reading, according to her children, was a lifelong passion to her.

Gemmell enlisted in the Navy after the start of World War II. Her boyfriend, Leonard Austin Gemmell (1923-2014), served as a U.S. Army technician 5 during the war, and received the Bronze Star for sneaking into enemy territory to retrieve ammunition and supplies in Okinawa. He was injured in action.

According to their children, Leonard asked Evelynne after the war, “Why don’t we pick up where we left off?” The couple married in 1947. They were married for 67 years and, according to their children, “were completely devoted” to each other.

Leonard worked at The Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Seattle Times, among other newspapers (his son, Bill, said he was a “paper chaser”). Evelynne spent most of her civilian career working at McClellan Air Force Base, assembling electrical and hydraulics units on F4 fighter planes used in the Vietnam War. On her 90th birthday, as she toured the Aerospace Museum of California at McClellan Field, she was approached by two Vietnam War Air Force veterans who thanked for her service. “Because of your work, we made it home safely,” one of the veterans told her.

Ironically, she hadn’t flown in an airplane for 40 years. “I won’t fly because I know how they’re built,” she was known to say.

The couple moved to California in their later years for their health. They loved Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra music, and Leonard, an avid karaoke singer, was known as “the Sinatra man.” He won a blue ribbon at the the California State Fair for a Frank Sinatra performance that made the crowds go wild. Just a few months prior to his death, he performed with his son, Bill.

A sentimental journey home

Leonard was originally interred at the Sacramento Valley Veterans Cemetery in Dixon, California. He was uninterred June 29 so his and his wife’s ashes could be buried at the Suquamish Tribal Cemetery.

Nearly two weeks ago, their son Bob and his wife, Lea, started up their 1987 VW Westfalia. With their parents ashes, and their border collie “R.E.X.”, they hit the road for the journey back to Evelynne’s native homeland. (Before they left the driveway, they told their parents, “No fighting, or we’ll turn this car around.”)

Bob remembered a strikingly similar journey as a child, traveling with his family around the country in his parents’ VW Westfalia with their border collie.

“It was sweet and sad. And melancholy, if you’ll forgive the pun,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much of our story was shaped by motion and the landscape. Driving down every road there was a memory of something that happened there, on the way to somewhere else. As a songwriter, I’ve always romanticized the road. Now, I think I see why.”

In the four-day trip, Bob and Lea traced the arc of their parents’ lives together, stopping at each of the neighborhoods their parents had lived. In California: Sacramento, Carmichael, Novato, Petaluma, Lagunitas. In Washington: Tacoma and Olympia.

“[This trip] was not only a final road trip for mom and dad, but it allowed me to trace a precise arc of my entire life with them, chronologically,” Bob said.

While he processed the loss of his mother, talking to his parents along the way, he said he wanted to give them “a swell time.”

The bus reached Purdy Spit on July 5 where Bob was met by his brother, Bill.

Noting that his parents had lived out of the area for a long time, Bob said the experience “of seeing how much my parents were loved by the Tribe and the community” reconnected the family and the Suquamish Tribe. “I could feel that happening while I was with them,” he said.

The family talked of life lessons they will remember from their parents.

”Respect, number one,” Bill said of his mother. “She was a living example. Mom never had a bad word to say and always found good in people. She was thoughtful in expressing her love for others.”

Other attributes their descendants hold dear: perseverance and work ethic.

“The planet is a little smaller today,” Bob posted on his Facebook page on June 26. “Evelynne Gemmell passed into the light on a beautiful summer evening. Mourning doves were singing outside.

“We’ll be holding hands forever … When I get to the other side, I’ll call.”

— Sophie Bonomi is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. Contact her at sbonomi@soundpublishing.com.

Evelynne McMillan in 1925, held by her father, Clair McMillan. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Evelynne McMillan in 1925, held by her father, Clair McMillan. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Leonard, Billy, Susie and Evelynne Gemmell. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Leonard, Billy, Susie and Evelynne Gemmell. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Evelynne Gemmell with her four eldest children in 1954. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Evelynne Gemmell with her four eldest children in 1954. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Bob Gemmell and his grand-daughter Penelope at the Suquamish Tribal Cemetary July 8. (Courtesy Gemmell family)

Bob Gemmell and his grand-daughter Penelope at the Suquamish Tribal Cemetary July 8. (Courtesy Gemmell family)