He was known as “Boy Blue,” growing up on the Hoopa Indian Reservation and
along the Klamath River in northern California. David Risling Jr. came to
be my elder brother as we worked together for almost 40 years, fighting
many battles together to advance the cause of American Indians. Dave was
one of eight children, the son of David Risling Sr. (Chief Su-Wohrom) and
Mary Geneva Orcutt. He was born near Weitchpec on the Klamath River, near
its junction with the Trinity.
Although a member of the Hoopa tribe, Dave was of Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa
ancestry. As “Boy Blue” he was inducted early into the life of northwestern
Indians, participating in a cycle of river fishing, hunting, ceremonies,
agriculture and forestry. Dave was a great fisherman, not only bringing in
salmon of huge size, but enjoying a magic touch with trout. He also had a
magic touch with his fellow human beings.
Boy Blue was born April 10, 1921. He was a person of absolute personal
integrity, honesty and courage. He embodied in his life all of the
attributes of an American Indian leader: warrior, compassionate father,
host, pathfinder, caretaker, facilitator, friend and counselor. He was
physically active and very athletic as a youth, excelling at every sport
offered by Hoopa High School and going into boxing with great success.
During World War II he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, becoming the lieutenant
commander of a PC-1139 (patrol craft) and escorting larger ships full of
supplies to war zones in the South Pacific.
With the help of his artist wife Barbara, Dave graduated from California
Polytechnic College, San Luis Obispo, going on to become an outstanding
teacher of Agriculture at Modesto Junior College, a much-desired judge of
livestock and the father of four children: Kathy, Ken, Peggy and Lyn.
During the 1950s and early 1960s Dave helped his father travel throughout
the state, reviving Native dances and bringing people together on key
California Indian issues. Dave loved to talk to me about his Golden Gloves
boxing days; and he was a fighter, a fighter for all that was good. He was
a man without the least tincture of self-promotion or self-aggrandizement.
In fact, he gave of his own resources and life-blood to help Indian people
of all tribes, always with Barbara’s help.
In 1966 Dave’s sisters Vivian and Viola attended an education conference in
Berkeley in which I spoke on California Indian history. They became very
enthusiastic when at long last, they heard a Native perspective and told
Dave, “You will have to meet this man.” Not long after that, Dave invited
me to a conference on California Indian education at Stanislaus State
College and we became collaborators ever after.
Boy Blue proved to be a mighty organizer, a brilliant facilitator and a
bulldog-like fighter for a brighter future for Native people. His father
told him when he went away to school: “If you forget who you are, don’t
bother to come home!” He never forgot. He founded or co-founded the Ad Hoc
Committee on California Indian Education, the California Indian Education
Association (prototype for the National Indian Education Association),
California Indian Legal Services, the Native American Rights Fund and many
He contributed greatly to the development of Native American Studies as an
academic discipline, and was the very first person I turned to at
University of California at Davis in 1969. In fact, he was the key reason
that I decided to launch the discipline at Davis instead of Berkeley, where
I had been offered a senior position. (Dave believed that Davis would be a
better spot for Indians, so I turned Berkeley down and came to Davis.)
More recently, Dave has been known as the co-founder of D-Q University. It
was a dream that the late Carl Gorman and I worked on from 1961 – ’62, but
it was his organizing skill and patience that came to the fore in 1971 when
DQU finally acquired flesh and bones. He became the chair of the Board of
Trustees which, incidentally, has never ceased to function.
For all these many years, Dave served as chair of the DQU board, weathering
many a rough sea or, one could say, many a South Pacific typhoon. The
ex-boxer and ex-commander never stood in awe of any opponent, whether a
hostile government bureaucrat or the plotter of a hostile takeover. A true
Indian, David Risling Jr. continued to sacrifice himself for Native people
all through his 70s and into his 80s. He continued as a faithful member of
the Native Elder’s Circle (of North and South America) and of the
Association for the Advancement of Indian Affairs. Dave loved to fly, it
seems, and he was a frequent visitor to reservations across this land,
seeking often to help traditional elders in their struggle to preserve
sovereignty and values.
Dave hoped that one day he would be able to surrender leadership of the DQU
board to younger Indians, but somehow he had become “Mister Indispensable”
and was always being called back into service, in spite of aging and
tiredness. Always with him were Barbara and his family, including
grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Still, the latest threat to DQU and
the legal board he continued to head caused him considerable anxiety, pain
and, at times, exhaustion.
Boy Blue has now gone on to join six of his brothers and sisters, and so
many other great Indians of the past. He walked on March 13, in the
evening, with loved ones at his side. His memory will be strong among all
Native people, in South America (where he had visited other Indians) as
well as in North America. Yes, we are still producing heroes to rank with
the best of the past: Tecumseh, Sarah Winnemucca, Sitting Bull … and now
David Risling Jr.
We became brothers, bound together in so many ways. He will always be with
me and whenever adversity strikes, I will recall him and feel his strength,
Jack D. Forbes is professor emeritus and former chair of Native American
Studies at the University of California at Davis, where he has served since
1969. He is of Powhatan-Renape, Delaware-Lenape and other backgrounds, and
is the author of “Only Approved Indians,” a collection of stories published
by University of Oklahoma Press, and other books, including “Red Blood,”
“Apache,” “Navaho and Spaniard,” and “Native Americans of California and