Wyandotte chief raised tribe to new heights
BY TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2012
11/15/12 at 4:41 AM
WYANDOTTE - As the pilot of a B-24 bomber called "Big Chief," Leaford Bearskin completed 46 combat missions during World War II.
Through it all, he never lost a crew member.
In a way, it was a preview of things to come.
The only difference: It would be Bearskin whom they called chief and the members of his tribe whom he would be charged to protect.
Elected chief of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma in 1983 and serving until his retirement last year, Bearskin is credited with helping improve the tribe in just about every area, from social services to diversifying its business interests to preservation of its history and culture.
Chief Billy Friend, who succeeded him, said it was no secret how Bearskin felt about the tribe.
"He always said his first career, in the military, was out of service to his country," Friend said.
"His second, in the civil service, was out of need, to provide for his family. But his third career, as chief - that was out of love."
A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and veteran of WWII and Korea, Leaford Bearskin - who, at the time he retired, was believed to be the oldest and longest-serving chief among all of Oklahoma's Indian tribes - died Friday. He was 91.
A service is set for 10 a.m. Thursday at the Bearskin Fitness Center gymnasium under the direction of Paul Thomas Funeral Home in Miami, Okla.
Born and raised in Wyandotte, Bearskin graduated from high school in 1939 and during WWII flew with the Army Air Forces' 90th Bombardment Group in New Guinea.
He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and other decorations.
After the war, he made a career of the Air Force.
Among the highlights were flying 29 missions in the Berlin Airlift in 1949, participating in the first flight of jet fighters across the Pacific, and leading a squadron in Korea.
Although Bearskin retired from the Air Force in 1960, he continued as a civilian Air Force administrator, supervising, among other things, missile weapons systems.
He retired from that position in 1979 and moved back to Wyandotte.
Friend said it's hard to imagine where the tribe, which has 5,000 members, 1,100 of them in Oklahoma, would be without Bearskin.
"We'd be at least 15 years behind where we are now, governmentally, economically - in everything," he said.
Two parts of Bearskin's overall vision were that the tribe would become self-sufficient and that it would be able to offer services to all members, not just those in Oklahoma.
With government subsidies now just supplements to the tribe's thriving enterprises, practical self-sufficiency has been achieved, Friend said.
"And beginning Jan. 1, we will be offering a $1,000 health benefit to all of our members nationwide," he added.
During his tenure, Bearskin rewrote the tribe's constitution, revived regular powwows and traveled extensively to speak about Wyandotte issues and culture.
He also led efforts to preserve the Wyandotte language, said Sally Andrews, a member of the tribe's cultural committee.
"He would speak it at ceremonies and events," she said, adding that now, thanks largely to the chief's efforts, the language is taught in Wyandotte schools.
"We were blessed to have had Chief Bearskin for as long as we did," Andrews said.
Among several education initiatives, Bearskin also instituted a tribal preschool program that received national recognition.
Friend said Bearskin's biggest contribution might have been pushing the tribe to achieve self-governance, which it did in 1994.
Among Bearskin's many honors was the Indian Achievement Award, presented by the Center for the History of the American Indian in Chicago.
Bearskin's survivors include his wife, Barbara Bearskin; two children, Nancy Murphy and Ron Bearskin; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
Original Print Headline: Wyandotte chief's vision raised tribe to new heights
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
Leaford Bearskin, pictured here conducting a smoke purification ceremony, was chief of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma for nearly 30 years before he retired last year. Bearskin, 91, died Friday. Tulsa World file