He went from piloting a B-24 bomber named “Big Chief” to serving as the chief of the Wyandotte Nation for 28 years. His list of accomplishments on the nation’s website numbers 17; his list of civilian honors numbers 14. Chief Leaford Bearskin walked on November 9. He was 91.
“What a great man he was,” was the quote heard repeatedly at his funeral service on November 15 reported the Miami News Record.
“He worked hard for his people and brought to fruition a number of innovative and imaginative projects for the advancement of his tribe,” Rev. Danny Burleson said. “Today, he is recognized as one of the historic leaders of Native Americans anywhere in the country.”
Bearskin was elected chief in 1983 and served in that position until retiring in 2011. Among his accomplishments listed by the tribe are spearheading the settlement of Wyandotte claims with the federal government for $5.7 million, rewriting the tribal constitution and getting it passed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a record 18 months, obtaining a grant for a convenience store complex—the first economic development project for the nation, revived tribal pow wows, worked on reviving the Wyandotte language and spread the culture of the Wyandottes.
The current Wyandotte Nation chief, Billy Friend, told the Tulsa World he doesn’t know where the tribe would be without Bearskin’s work.
“We’d be at least 15 years behind where we are now, governmentally, economically—in everything,” he said.
Bearskin was born September 11, 1921 on his parents allotment land in northeast Oklahoma. He was raised in the Wyandotte, Oklahoma area and graduated high school in 1939. He entered the Army Air Corps—as it was called then—right after graduation and made it his career.
During World War II, he was a crew chief in Alaska before being sent to New Guinea to fly a B-24 as an aircraft commander. He flew 46 missions in “Big Chief” before being sent back to the United States.
In 1948, he flew 29 missions during the Berlin Airlift and later participated in the first flight of jet fighters across the Pacific. He also served as a squadron commander during the Korean War.
Bearskin retired from active military service in 1960. He began a career in federal civil service, still close to the military though, he worked at Vandenberg and March Air Force bases in California.
He returned to Wyandotte in 1979, the same year he retired from civil service. Over the years he’s garnered a number of awards including an Indian Achievement Award from the Center for the History of the American Indian in Chicago and was named Indian of the Year, also in Chicago.
As a gourd dancer, Bearskin would wear a red sash around his waist, knotted on the left, which according to the Wyandotte Nation’s website profile on him means he has taken the life of an enemy in battle.
“The chief lived more in one lifetime than we could in 10,” Friend told the Miami News Record.