Gobin, Bernie (1930-2009)

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 6/30/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9070

Bernie "Kai Kai" Gobin (his Indian name means "blue jay" or "wise one") was a fisherman, artist, musician, and political leader on the Tulalip Reservation, where he lived most of his life. Gobin's formal schooling ended in seventh grade but he never stopped learning and teaching the traditional knowledge of the Snohomish and other Salish peoples who make up the Tulalip Tribes. His many activities were ultimately devoted to the same fundamental goal -- preserving and passing on his Indian heritage. Gobin's father taught him to carve and paint, and in addition to creating drums, masks, rattles and other ceremonial artifacts, Gobin taught his sons and others to carve too. Gobin was a successful politician and administrator, serving for many years on the Board of Directors that governs the Tulalip Tribes and in other tribal government posts. A commercial fisherman himself, Gobin was particularly active in the dual struggle to reclaim treaty fishing rights and to protect and rebuild declining salmon runs. Gobin led the effort to build a fish hatchery owned and run by the Tulalip Tribes, which was later named in his honor.

Tulalip Boyhood

Bernard William Gobin was born on December 8, 1930, in Darrington, Washington, where his parents, Joe and Ruth Gobin, were visiting. Bernie and his six siblings were raised on the Tulalip Reservation in Snohomish County on Puget Sound north of Everett. The family lived "way back in the woods there," Gobin recalled years later. "It was really nice back there ... Had our own big garden and cow and pigs and chickens ..." (TOBP, p. 7).

As a young boy, Bernie spent his days in the cedar forests and the waters of Tulalip Bay. In the evenings, he gathered with his sisters, brothers, and cousins at the home of their grandmother, Nancy Jones. Jones, who grew up in the nineteenth century speaking Lushootseed, the language of the Snohomish and other Puget Sound peoples, told the children traditional stories, each with its moral, passing on their tribal culture. At other times, Bernie followed his grandmother along streams and through the forest as she gathered resources like Indian tea, which have since disappeared from many areas.

Later in life, Gobin realized that during these excursions, just as in the storytelling sessions, Jones was teaching him. As an adult and eventually a tribal elder himself, Gobin recalled and passed on as many stories and teachings as he could and wished that he remembered all of them. Recognizing how easily ancient knowledge could disappear with each generation contributed to Gobin's lifelong desire to preserve and transmit his heritage.

School and Army

That passion was also fueled by awareness that some cultural loss was the result of deliberate policies imposed on the Tulalips, as on Indians across the continent. Gobin's father, Joe, attended the U.S.-government-run school on the reservation, notorious for its brutal suppression of Indian language and customs during the first third of the twentieth century. Bernie Gobin said of his father:

"He went to the school, to the government school, yes. And he told me he couldn't talk English when he went to school and of course when he died he couldn't talk Indian. So that was really a shame" (TOBP, p. 7).

Although Bernie was not subjected to the government school, which closed a few years before he entered first grade, he said "I always felt out of place" (TOBP, p. 9) in the Marysville public schools that he did attend. Like other children coming from the poverty of the reservation, he was conscious of the distinction between his clothing and shoes and those of his classmates from town. It didn't help that within a few years of his starting school, the family home "way back in the woods" that Bernie loved burned down, and he and his siblings were moved around from one temporary home to another, some little more than shacks or sheds. Feeling out of place at school, Bernie spent a lot of time hunting and fishing instead of attending classes. He left school for good before he finished seventh grade.

A few years later, when he was just 15, Gobin falsified his age, convinced officials he was 17, and enlisted in the Army at Fort Lewis. The young soldier was deployed to Korea with the 63rd Infantry Division. It was 1946, several years before the outbreak of the Korean War, and Gobin spent his time serving guard duty.

Family and Church

After his Army service, Gobin returned to the Tulalip Reservation and the outdoor life that he loved. He spent time cutting cedar shakes in the forest, but worked primarily as a commercial fisherman as he would for much of his life. In 1950, Bernie Gobin married Delores Young, who had also grown up on the Tulalip Reservation. The couple knew each other from the time they were young children -- both their families were active in the reservation's Shaker Church -- and had been dating off and on since they were around 15. Bernie and Delores Gobin had six children -- daughters Cherie Ann and Patti and sons Steve, Joe, Glen, and Tom.

Gobin came down with tuberculosis when he was 22 and spent much of the next two years in the hospital, where one of his lungs was removed. After he recovered he went back to work fishing and found time to pursue many other interests. He played guitar and steel guitar at church services. A longtime member of the Church of God, he helped found the Church of God Band, with which he performed around Puget Sound and as far afield as Indiana.

Coast Salish Art

Gobin also began making a conscious effort to pass on Tulalip culture to the young children he and his wife were raising. From his own father, Gobin learned to carve and paint in the Coast Salish style of his ancestors. Gobin began using the winters, when there was no work fishing, to create canoe paddles, ceremonial bowls, bentwood boxes, masks, and other items, some used as gifts and others kept in the family. Gobin explained the significance of his work:

"I wanted to carve so my kids wouldn't have to go to a museum and see it through glass. This was a part of our lives" (Thompson, "Tulalips shape...").

In addition to his own work, Gobin preserved many other cultural artifacts in his home, including baskets and hampers that his grandmother probably collected and stored berries and shellfish in as far back as the late 1800s. And he passed on not only artifacts themselves but also the cultural skills involved in producing them. As they grew older, Gobin taught his sons to carve, as he did many others on the reservation.

Somehow, along with his fishing, music, and carving, Gobin found the time to embark on what would be a lifelong involvement in tribal government. His first position was as an Associate Judge in the tribal courts, where he presided over divorce, child neglect, and disturbing the peace cases. He had the power to send people to the county jail, but often felt uncomfortable exercising it. Discussing the longest jail sentence he remembered imposing -- 45 days -- Gobin said:

"I don't think it really did any good, no. I always felt bad that I did that. But I didn't want to, but it was the same thing every week. With that particular person. So we had to do something drastic. I was in a number of cases that I didn't like being involved" (TOBP, p. 12).

Tribal Leader

In the early 1950s, after a few years as a judge, Gobin became one of the seven members of the Tulalip Board of Directors, the governing body of the Tulalip Tribes. He was initially appointed to take the place of a director who was stepping down, but was encouraged to run for election in his own right. Gobin won and was repeatedly re-elected, eventually serving on the Board of Directors for more than 20 years. During his tenure, he served at different times as chairman and vice chairman of the board.

When Gobin first joined the board, the Tulalip Tribes' top priority was regaining title to land on the reservation. As a result of the U.S. government's allotment policy, under which title to reservation land was given to individuals rather than the tribe as a whole, much of the reservation's 22,000 acres had been sold off to non-Indians. When the Tulalip Tribes took advantage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to become self-governing in 1936, the tribe owned virtually no land on its own reservation. The newly created Board of Directors began an effort to get land back that was still ongoing when Gobin became a member in the 1950s. He and the other directors negotiated for the return of land held by the federal government, including 2,000 acres that had been used as an ammunition depot during World War II, which the tribe leased to Boeing as a test site after regaining title. By 1968, when Gobin was serving a term as chairman of what a reporter described as "a young, aggressive ... tribal council" (Hannula), the Tulalip Tribes had built a land base of 4,400 acres. The income from that property made the Tulalips somewhat better off than many tribes at the time and allowed the tribal government to assist individual members and improve life on the reservation.

By the late 1960s, the Tulalips, like other Western Washington Indians, were also working to regain or enforce their treaty-guaranteed right to fish, particularly for salmon. Although the confrontations between tribal fishers and state fisheries officials were not as heated at Tulalip as elsewhere around Puget Sound, Gobin later recalled state officials harassing tribal boats if they ventured more than a short distance from the reservation beach. Gobin described how he and tribal business manager Wayne Williams negotiated an agreement with a state fisheries patrolman that allowed the tribal boats to fish farther out from shore.

Reclaiming Fishing Rights

The Tulalips joined other tribes in the lawsuit against the State of Washington that led to the historic Boldt Decision in which federal judge George Boldt (1903-1984) affirmed that treaty tribes had the right to 50 percent of the total catch of salmon and other fish. When the case was being tried during the summer of 1973, Gobin, along with Stan Jones and other tribal leaders, traveled daily to Judge Boldt's Tacoma courtroom to hear the testimony.

Boldt's decision in 1974 giving Indians control over half the harvest dramatically enlarged the responsibilities of the Tulalip Tribes and other tribal governments by giving them a major role in fisheries management. Gobin became one of the first members of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), which the Western Washington treaty tribes established to aid individual tribes in managing their fisheries and to develop coordinated positions on management issues. In that role, he worked with state and federal officials to reach agreement on fisheries issues, often traveling as far as Washington, D.C.

The NWIFC and tribal fisheries officials had to devote much of their effort to restoring salmon runs, which had been in decline for years as a result of dams and development that destroyed or blocked access to critical habitat. Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) of the Nisqually Tribe, the longtime chair of the NWIFC, paid tribute to Gobin's work after his death, saying:

"Bernie was a big part of the management scheme we put in place to revive salmon runs. He never missed a meeting. He was committed to restoring and protecting salmon habitat" (Thompson, "Bernie Gobin...").

Gobin combined his policy work at NWIFC with hands-on work locally on the Tulalip Reservation. Even before the Boldt decision was announced, Gobin helped work out an agreement with the state Department of Fisheries to supply chinook fingerlings from state hatcheries to rearing ponds on the Tulalip Reservation, from where they could be released, when ready, directly into salt water, thus increasing the eventual return of salmon to reservation waters.

Building the Hatchery

After becoming the first Tulalip Fisheries director, Gobin worked to expand the tribe's salmon rearing program. He and Stan Jones traveled to the Quinault Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula to study the Quinault reservation's facilities, and then constructed similar ones at Tulalip, using three swimming pools, buckets of eggs, and old boxes from the state fisheries department filled with Tulalip Creek water and gravel.

By the late 1970s, Gobin and the tribal leadership were negotiating with the federal government for funding for a full-scale salmon hatchery on the reservation. In December 1979, The Bureau of Indian Affairs committed $7.2 million to construct a state-of-the-art hatchery. The funds were turned over to the tribe, which planned and directed the project, making the Tulalips the first tribe in the area to own and run a hatchery. The hatchery opened in April 1983. At the opening ceremony, Gobin noted the project's economic benefits for the tribe, but pointed out that the primary benefit was cultural -- providing jobs for younger members in the salmon fishery that had sustained their ancestors for generations:

"Most of our people want to be fishermen. ... That was handed down to us along with our ceremonies. ... This has always been our way" (May).

For Gobin, preserving and restoring salmon runs went hand in hand with preserving and restoring the Tulalip culture in which salmon played such a central role. Even before the new hatchery opened, he supported the efforts of Harriette Shelton Williams Dover (1904-1991) and other elders to revive the Tulalips' First Salmon Ceremony. Starting in 1979, the important ceremony was again performed annually, and Gobin participated as a member and leader for the rest of his life. Gobin also used his carving skills to create regalia such as masks, drums, and rattles that family members and others used in the First Salmon Ceremony and other cultural events.

Official and Unofficial Honors

Seventeen years after it opened, the Tulalip hatchery was renamed in 2000 as the Bernie Kai-Kai Gobin Fish Hatchery to honor Gobin's years of work for fishing rights and his major role in building the tribe's salmon rearing program. By then the hatchery, which releases five million chum salmon, one million coho, and close to two million chinook every year, had raised nearly 200 million salmon for release. Tribal leaders said that with wild salmon runs appearing on the endangered species list, the hatchery that Gobin worked to establish became increasingly important.

Although Gobin received the greatest recognition for his work as fisheries director, he served the Tulalip Tribes in other capacities as well. At various times he chaired both the Tulalip Utilities Commission and the Tulalip Gaming Commission. Gobin also enjoyed the completely unofficial title of "Mayor of Boom City" -- Boom City being the "city" of fireworks stands on the Tulalip Reservation each summer that began in the 1970s with a dozen stands along Tulalip Bay and grew to more than 150 stands at the current (2009) location behind Quil Ceda Village at Interstate 5. Gobin first set up a stand several years after Boom City started and, as he recounted it, became the "Mayor" almost immediately thereafter:

"[It] must have been in the '70s ... right after I first opened up my stand[.] ... [T]he photographers used to come out and the one from Marysville Globe came out. I was walking down the middle of Boom City and there was only two rows on each side and big headlines come out in the paper, I was on the front page, Mayor Bernie Gobin greeting his people. And so I've been the mayor ever since. That's how I got my name, he just called me a mayor, mayor of Boom City. That stuck, it's a good one" (TOBP, p. 32).

Traditions Continue

In the years before Gobin's death, the Tulalip Tribes' economic fortunes improved steadily. The advent of tribal casino gambling in the 1990s played a major role, but the groundwork had been laid much earlier by Gobin and other leaders on the Board of Directors when the Tribes began acquiring the land they would later develop. Even as he devoted himself to preserving fishing jobs, Gobin recognized that the tribe had to diversify economically. Along with other directors, Gobin pushed for commercial and recreational development on the valuable properties where the reservation adjoins I-5 near Marysville. By 2009, the Tulalip Tribes had opened two casinos and a major commercial development, Quil Ceda Village, which included a $125 million resort hotel and a major mall featuring large national retailers.

The development provided both space and financial support for Tulalip cultural activities. In 2007, Gobin's son Steve, who was deputy general manager of Quil Ceda Village, spearheaded the opening of an art studio where carvers and other Tulalip artists created artworks for the resort hotel that opened the following year. Joe Gobin, another of Bernie Gobin's sons, led the team of artists and carved one of the massive cedar house poles for the hotel. Although by then confined to a wheelchair due to complications from diabetes, Bernie Gobin visited the studio regularly, observing and encouraging the younger artists carrying on the traditions he had helped pass down.

Despite his declining health, Gobin pursued his passions until the end of his life. He was in the midst of preparing his boat for the upcoming fishing season when he died at his home on the Tulalip Reservation on May 4, 2009.


Sources: "Tulalip Oral Biography Project (TOBP): Bernie Gobin," transcript of interviews on June 3 and 10, 1991 (copy in possession of Tulalip Tribes Communications Dept.); Bev Hauptli, "Bernie 'Kai Kai' Gobin: A Lifetime of Service and Love," Tulalip See-Yaht-Sub, May 13, 2009, p. 1; "Bernard William Gobin 'Bernie' 'kai-kai,'" Ibid., p. 3; "Tulalip Salmon Hatchery Given Federal Approval," The Herald, December 13, 1979, p. 7-A; Leslie Anderson, "New Tribal Hatchery to Boost Salmon Stock," Ibid., March 2, 1982, p. 3-A; Allan May, "Chant Helps Tulalips Unveil New Hatchery," Ibid., April 3, 1983, p. 3-A; Mark Funk, "Preserving Tulalip Treasures," Ibid., October 20, 1985, p. 1; Krista J. Kapralos, "Copyrighting Culture: Tulalips Assert Rights to Stories," Ibid., April 15, 2007 (www.heraldnet.com); Kapralos, "Tulalip Elder Bernie Gobin Leaves Behind Legacy," Ibid., May 5, 2009; Kapralos, "Tulalips Mourn and Honor Tribal Elder Bernie Gobin," Ibid., May 9, 2009; Don Hannula,"The American Americans: Tulalip Leadership Has Stopped Whites' Swallowing Tribal Land," The Seattle Times, July 3, 1968, p. 35; "Former 'Backyard Hatchery' Renamed for Tulalip Founder," Ibid., February 14, 2000 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Lynn Thompson, "Tulalips Shape Cultural Revival," Ibid., May 2, 2007; Thompson, "Bernie Gobin, a Proud Leader of Tulalip Tribes," Ibid., May 7, 2009; Jack Vandermyn, "Tulalips Expanding Fishing Operations," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 8, 1974, p. A-6; Richard Walker, "Holy Road: 'He Was a True Chief,'" Indian Country Today website accessed June 23, 2009 (www.indiancountrytoday.com/national/northwest/45844757.html); Tulalip Tribes website accessed June 26, 2009 (www.tulaliptribes-nsn.gov/Home.aspx); Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission website accessed June 26, 2009 (www.nwifc.org); HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Tulalip Tribes" (by Margaret Riddle) and "Federal Judge George Boldt issues historic ruling affirming Native American treaty fishing rights on February 12, 1974" (by Walt Crowley and David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org (accessed May 13, 2009).

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