Hank Oliver was the last member of the Choinumni tribe to speak its native language fluently, his family says, and the death of the Choinumni patriarch on June 22 at the age of 91 has left them with the sorrow of knowing they’ve lost far more than a big and beautiful life.
He was just a gentle giant.
“I grew up knowing this: If there is no language being spoken, the tribe will die,” says Audrey Osborne, tribal historian and Mr. Oliver’s niece.
Mr. Oliver, who was Navajo on his father’s side and Choinumni on his mother’s, was not the last to know the Choinumni tribe’s words. At least one of his sisters can speak almost as well as he did, and he passed traditional words and phrases down to members of his large extended family.
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Rena Picaso, Mr. Oliver’s great-niece, learned many Choinumni words from her great-uncle that she has incorporated into her songs. She shared a love of music with her great-uncle.
“He gave us that culture, that history, that our elders tell us in hopes that we pass it on to the next generation,” Picaso says. “That’s why his stories and his songs are so important – so the Choinumni tribe and the Choinumni ways continue.”
Mr. Oliver’s body will be laid to rest Saturday in a grave dug by his family at the Choinumni Sacred Burial Grounds below Pine Flat Dam on the tribe’s ancestral land in Piedra, not far from where Mr. Oliver lived for more than 30 years before his health declined and he moved in with his niece, Michelle Lira, in Fresno.
The retired logger and ranch worker was also a musician, one of his greatest passions.
He recorded several songs in the 1960s and ’70s, including, “In the Snows of Wounded Knee,” which played on the radio until it was banned out of fear it was too “radical,” his family says. Mr. Oliver, also an avid traveler, recorded it shortly after returning from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation following the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, the site of an Indian massacre in 1890, to air grievances against the government regarding the treatment of Native Americans. But his family said he was discouraged by the violence that erupted there and advocated for a peaceful protest.
Some of the lyrics of his Wounded Knee song: “Discouraged hard and weary, they had nowhere to go. They sadly paced the heartbreak and the stories you all know. Driven from their homeland with nowhere else to stay, they’ll miss the moon and stars above that were witness on that day.”
Mr. Oliver would record another song around the same time about the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the 1830s.
The red man bears his soul with grief and pain. His dreams died long ago with the setting sun.
Lyrics in Hank Oliver’s song, “The Longest Walk,” about the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the 1830s
As a teenager, Mr. Oliver became like a father figure to many of his seven sisters and two brothers after their father was struck and killed by a car. To put food on the table, the family labored together in the fields of Reedley, picking grapes. As a young man, he moved to Oregon to work as a logger who also fought wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service before returning to his tribe’s ancestral land in Fresno County, where he helped his tribe by working to protect sacred sites and teach the native language while living and working on a ranch owned by United California Citrus.
The Choinumni tribe is not federally recognized, but Osborne says the Choinumni people have not given up hope that the long and slow application process may one day result in federal recognition. She says the tribe isn’t planning to file more paperwork with the government under the current administration.
Still, while the land Mr. Oliver lived many years on was not a reservation, he had the satisfaction of knowing he was home.
“He was just the salt of the Earth, you could say,” says Peter Andersson, manager of United California Citrus. “He was truly one with Mother Nature.”
Andersson recalls his friend’s love of nature, storytelling and fishing along the Kings River. Mr. Oliver was working on a new song about the river when he died.
One of his earlier songs, “Day by Day,” has been a comfort to his family through their grief. In it, he asks his loved ones, “When I’m dead, I don’t want you to cry or grieve for me.” And later, one of their favorite lines: “I only ask for you to be merciful and kind.”
Born: June 14, 1926
Died: June 22, 2017
Occupation: Patriarch of the Choinumni tribe, retired logger and ranch worker
Survivors: Sisters Virginia Castillo, Jean Ruth Oliver Sorondo, and Jennie Irene Oliver; son Ford Oliver; daughter Teresa Oliver; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Traditional burial service: 9 a.m. Saturday, July 1, Choinumni sacred burial grounds, followed by luncheon reception at Choinumni Park, both below Pine Flat Dam in Piedra.