A veteran of twenty-five years as president of the Quinault nation, Joseph Burton de la Cruz (1937–2000) gained a national reputation by serving as president of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association (1977–1981) and as head of the National Congress of American Indians (1981–1985). De la Cruz stepped down from the Quinaults' leadership in 1994 (having held the position since 1970) to make way for Pearl Capoeman Baller, the tribe's first female chief in modern times.
At home on the Quinault nation along the Pacific coast of Washington State, de la Cruz played an active role in founding many tribal enterprises, including forestry management, land restoration, housing construction, and seafood processing. Between 1985 and 1988, de la Cruz also became influential in fisheries management on an international level, as a mediator between the United States, Canada, and Native nations in the Pacific Salmon Fisheries Treaty.
De la Cruz's niece Jennifer Scott's most vivid memory of her uncle was of the day he defiantly drove his truck onto the Chow Chow Bridge near the Washington coast to block logging trucks from entering the Quinault Indian Reservation, in protest of Bureau of Indian Affairs land use practices. "I'll never forget him sitting there on that bridge," Scott said (McGann, 2000). But that action, which helped the Quinaults win compensation for their timber, was only one of many that de la Cruz took for Native Americans. De la Cruz worked for decades to improve Native American health care, to help secure fishing rights, and to obtain other manifestations of sovereignty and economic self-sufficiency.
Randy Scott, a Quinault Indian Tribe lobbyist, called de la Cruz the father of a self-governance policy by which Native American governments exercised line item appropriations from the government instead of getting money through the federal bureaucracy. This policy placed direct, day-to-day control over services such as police, health, land use, and education in the hands of Native governments rather than the Bureau of Indian Affairs (McGann, 2000).
While he headed the Quinaults, de la Cruz was instrumental in incorporating them into the provisions of the Boldt decision, which enforced Native fishing rights in Washington State and provided a national example for such litigation. Asserting that many visitors were not respectful of the area's ecosystem, he also ordered the closure to non-Natives of twenty-six miles of ocean beach on the Quinault Reservation north of Aberdeen.
"Joe was involved in so many issues it's hard to say what his biggest accomplishment was, there's too many to choose just one," said Pearl Capoeman-Baller, current president of Quinault Indian Nation. "Everybody turned to Joe de la Cruz. He was there to protect rights for all tribes, not just Quinault. Joe was one of the greatest Indian leaders in the United States, and he worked endlessly for the Quinault people" (McGann, 2000).
On April 16, 2000, at the age of sixty-two, Joe de la Cruz suffered a heart attack and died at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport while en route to an Oklahoma conference. De la Cruz was survived by his wife, Dorothy; his daughters Gayle de la Cruz, Tina de la Cruz, and Lisa Kyle; and his sons Joe de la Cruz and Steve de la Cruz; as well as seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
"His whole life was dedicated to Indian welfare and Indian concerns," said Bernie Whitebear, of United Indians of All Tribes in Seattle. "The self-governance conference that he was going to was really appropriate. He died with his boots on. A lot of the advances that the tribes are witnessing today in regard to self-governance are a result of his early involvement in that area," Whitebear said. "He was a leader in the indigenous people's efforts throughout the world, including Canada and South America" (McGann, 2000).
Bruce E. Johansen
Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. 1997. Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Henry Holt.; McGann, Chris. 2000. "Indian-Rights Advocate Dies on Way to Conference." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17. Available at: http://www.cherokee.org/Messages/DeLaCruz.html. Accessed January 16, 2007.