‘He was a leader that led with heart.’ Gaylen Lee remembered for sharing Native American culture

Gaylen Lee made sharing his Native American culture and helping indigenous people the focus of his life.

He did that as a cultural leader of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians and as an archaeologist, author, activist and former health care administrator.

The North Fork man could speak his tribe’s endangered language fluently. He loved teaching it, accompanied by the reminder that his tribe’s traditional name is Nim, not Mono.

“I’m Nim, ‘The people,’ ” his late wife, Judy Lee, recalled him saying in a column she wrote for The Bee in 1999. “That’s what we’ve always called ourselves.”

His intimate understanding of native culture was stolen from his family and tribe when he was shot and killed in North Fork on July 6, just days after the death of his mother, Ruby Pomona. A suspect was arrested in the homicide.

Lee was 70 years old.

Lee’s nephew, Mike Lee, said ceremonial dances and a memorial will be held for his uncle and grandma “at the same time, so that way they can hold hands as they walk home together.”

Gaylen Lee, right, with his mother, Ruby Pomona, center, and friend Tom Wheeler, a Madera County supervisor. TOM WHEELER Special to The Bee

Lee shared his culture, his nephew said, “so things don’t get lost – so people won’t forget who they are and where they come from and maybe why different cultures came to be.

“Every culture is tied together somehow or another. … He had a lot of patience and a lot of knowledge.”

Lee wrote a book in 1998 about his culture and family titled, “Walking Where We Lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family.”

Gaylen Lee photographed in November 1998 in a traditional Native American cedar bark house. TOMAS OVALLE Fresno Bee archive photo

As an archaeologist, Lee helped preserve and protect land throughout the Sierra Nevada and central San Joaquin Valley.

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Gaylen Lee on an archaeological dig site. JOHN PRYOR Special to The Bee

Some of his more recent work was as a contractor on the Railroad Fire south of Yosemite National Park in 2017, where his knowledge helped firefighters avoid bulldozing areas with more cultural significance to Native Americans, said Fresno State anthropology professor and friend John Pryor.

“While he was a wonderful student of mine, the Anthropology Department’s outstanding graduate,” Pryor said, “I learned way more from him than I could ever teach him.”

Lee was an “enthusiastic” student who saw archaeology as another way to learn about his culture. Pryor said Lee helped him see more of the archaeology of landscapes, and the importance of viewing indigenous artifacts “in terms of Native American space and time” to better understand their significance.

“He taught me a more spiritual side of archaeology,” Pryor said.

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Gaylen Lee, left, with friend John Pryor. AARON PRYOR Special to The Bee

Lee formerly served as executive director of Central Valley Indian Health, work he began in the 1970s. Under his leadership, the clinic moved from a “woefully inadequate” space in Clovis to a larger facility, said friend and former coworker Mike Smith. Central Valley Indian Health is now at a larger location near Clovis Community Medical Center. The clinic employs medical professionals who treat indigenous people from numerous tribes.

Lee served as its executive director, Smith said, because he was “tired of seeing our people die at very young ages because there aren’t places to be seen other than emergency rooms, and by then it’s too late. … The concept of prevention was virtually unknown because it wasn’t available. He said, ‘We’ve got to do something. We have to end this.’ ”

Lee additionally improved access to health care for native communities by bringing mobile health units to tribes, Smith said.

He was a catalyst for other changes. As a younger man, he was an activist who pushed for changes at Fresno State, insisting a Native American instructor be hired to teach Native American studies, and advocating for cultural activities on campus, which led to the university’s first pow wow, said friend Rick Heredia.

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Gaylen Lee, left, with friends Evan Norris, center, and Rick Heredia, in the mid-1970s at Indian Fair Days in North Fork. PROVIDED BY LAUGHING COYOTE Special to The Bee

And Lee was among a group that occupied an old Army communication site near Davis, Heredia said, with demands it be turned into a Native American college

That happened. It became D-Q University.

Friends recall Lee as strong and gentle – a soft-spoken man with a lot of conviction.

“He was always upbeat and ready for the challenge – he never backed down – but at the same time, he was very personable and inclusive,” Heredia said. “But he was also a strong spokesman for the rights of his people, and he held them and their culture very close. He was a leader that led with heart, and he was an elder who was young at heart.”

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Gaylen Lee points to a mushroom growing on the side of a tree in the Sierra National Forest while gathering black oak acorns for food during the fall of 1974. EVAN NORRIS Special to The Bee

That youthfulness included playful snowball and paintball fights with younger members of his family.

The Tribal Council of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians said in a statement that Lee’s passing “is a great loss and tragedy to the families involved, our Tribe, and our entire community.”

Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler said Lee never wanted to run for tribal council but that he served on numerous tribal committees and was regularly consulted.

Lee opened his own upholstery business in Oakhurst after working for Wheeler at an upholstery business on a large ranch Wheeler managed before becoming a county supervisor.

Wheeler said his friend Lee “cared about everybody” and had “the biggest smile in this world.”

Smith tearfully recalled the first time he shook Lee’s hand.

“That handshake told me all I needed to know about the man,” Smith said. “He took my hand and it was so gentle. In doing that he was telling me something about himself. He was telling me, ‘It’s my people that are important – I as an individual am not important.’ … He was so good.”

Lee’s nephew said his uncle was “proud and humble” – with a great sense of humor.

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Gaylen Lee making a traditional Native American dish from acorns. JOHN PRYOR Special to The Bee

Smith said “more than anything else he was a teacher, just a human treasure trove of native culture, Mono native culture, language, history. He could tell his people the stories of his people in their language.”

That knowledge included how to cook native foods. He could prepare manzanita cider, and an acorn dish using a traditional stone-boil technique.

Lee and his family used to join other native people in a traditional walk over the Sierra, where Mono would meet with Paiute from the Eastern Sierra to trade at a central location, as the tribes had done for centuries.

Lee was also an artist. Smith called his friend’s Native American beadwork “absolutely exquisite.”

Lee shared his knowledge with native and non-native people alike.

“All you needed to do was meet him once and you felt like you were a close friend,” Pryor said. “He had such a generous heart.”

Gaylen Lee

Born: May 9, 1949

Died: July 6, 2019

Residence: North Fork

Occupation: A cultural leader of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians and archaeologist

Survivors: Daughter Jacqueline Lee, sister Gloria Villanueva, two grandsons, two aunts, and many nieces and nephews.

Services: A memorial service will be held for Gaylen Lee and his mother Ruby Pomona at 11 a.m. July 22 at the North Fork Recreation Center, 33507 Road 230, North Fork. Ceremonial dances will be held at their family home in North Fork from dusk until around midnight July 19-21 and July 23.

Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.