Indian Country mourns passing of S. Timothy Wapato
From the National Indian Gaming Association. Photo Courtesy NIGA

S. Timothy Wapato, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and noted tribal sovereignty advocate, passed away on April 19, 2009, of heart failure at his home in Rapid City, South Dakota. On Friday, a large gathering of friends, family members and Tribal leaders came together in an outpour of support for Wapato’s family to attend a beautifully coordinated Catholic mass and traditional burial held at the Mother Butler Center which included church leaders, traditional chiefs and prominent tribal leaders coming together to lay Wapato to rest.

At the service, National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. said, “Today, Indian Country has a heavy heart as we lay Tim Wapato to rest as we are deeply saddened at the passing of one of Indian Country’s most honorable warriors

Stevens continued, “Tim was a visionary who lived by the rule that Indian Country came first and foremost. He didn’t seek his role to promote himself and never took one day for granted. Tim was a tireless advocate for tribal sovereignty and native peoples all over the world.”

Chairman Stevens also announced that NIGA would honor the memory of Wapato each year with the Tim Wapato Protector of Sovereignty Award, to be given to those who work to continue the fight Wapato dedicated his life to

Wapato was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1935. His family then moved to Winthrop, Washington where Wapato graduated from Winthrop High School in 1953.

Wapato attended Washington State University and California State University, where he majored in political science, public administration, and police administration. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the United States Army and was honorably discharged in 1957 after working in communications.

In 1958, Wapato joined the Los Angeles Police Department and quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant, a feat that had not been achieved by anyone as young as he at that time. As an LAPD lieutenant, Wapato was the officer in charge of Detective Special Investigative Teams and oversaw crimes involving homicide, robbery, and drugs, as well as vice unit investigations, equal opportunity and development, and the Affirmative Action Unit/Discrimination Complaint Unit.

In his years with the LAPD, Wapato served as chairman of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission and American Indian Welcome House and also served as a member of many Indian rights organizations.

In 1979, Wapato retired from the LAPD after 21 tireless years of service. However, Wapato immediately began working with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission where he played an instrumental role in tribal interests in the areas of water rights, regulation and enforcement, treaty rights, hydropower fishing rights and resource management.

Wapato dedicated his career in Washington, D.C., to educating members of Congress and the Senate about tribal governments, sovereignty, tribal culture, and Indian gaming. As Tim once said, “Our purpose in life is to dispel ignorance, and it looks like we’ll never be out of a job.” He acknowledges that Indian gaming is an opportunity for tribal nations to control their own destinies. In his view, and the view of the tribal visionaries that brought us to this place today – Indian gaming can lead to true self-determination.

In 1989 Tim was accepted a political appointment to the senior executive service and became the commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans where he served until 1993.

In 1993, Wapato, his wife, and several tribal leaders were approached by tribal nations to work towards re-establishing NIGA in Washington D.C. They worked diligently to redefine the role of NIGA and because of these efforts; the organization has become a powerhouse Native organization in defending the sovereign rights of Indian Country. Wapato then served as the first executive director of NIGA for six years, and his wife Gay served in the capacity of public relations director.

In 1998, Wapato resigned from NIGA following a legacy that saw the creation of NIGA at his kitchen table to its rise as a national power with offices and property on Capitol Hill.

Up until his death, Wapato remained active in NIGA, the National Congress of American Indians and on issues affecting tribes and veterans. Wapato also served as a mentor and role model to the young generations of upcoming tribal sovereignty advocates and leaders.

Wapato is survived by his wife, Gay Kingman, of Rapid City; daughters Keana and Teresa, of California; son Steve of Wenatchee; his grandchildren and brothers Paul, Titus, and James.

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