The Puyallup Tribe of Indians is mourning the loss of tribal elder Judy Wright, who passed away quietly on Feb. 1. A wake was held Feb. 5 funeral on Feb. 6 at the Puyallup Tribal Youth Center. Wright was laid to rest at Willard Cemetery.
Active in the tribe for much of her adult life, Wright met and made friends with countless people across Western Washington and beyond. From her time on the Puyallup Tribal Council to her years as Puyallup Tribal historian, Wright seemed to make a warm and lasting impression on everyone she met.
Puyallup Tribal Councilmember Bill Sterud knew Wright his whole life. “She was a super, class act lady,” he said, “a courageous, moral Native woman who took her values and convictions to another level. Judy was a true warrior woman.”
Born July 11, 1939, to Alice and Frank Conway, Wright spent her childhood surrounded by her family in Firwood, Wash. “It was such a nice time,” she said in a recent interview. Much of her extended family lived on a 40-acre tribal allotment of land belonging to her great-grandfather. Her uncles spent time farming, along with her mother, who also picked berries. In the evenings, Wright and her family spent time canning on wood stoves. “This is how we got through our winters,” Wright said in that interview. “My grandmother had a smokehouse and was always smoking salmon. People would often knock on the door and say, 'I think your outhouse is on fire!'”
Wright attended Firwood School before moving to Tacoma and attending McCarver Elementary School, Jason Lee Middle School and Stadium High School. After graduating she continued on with her schooling and became a licensed practical nurse. She went back to school to become a legal secretary, and worked in the Puyallup Tribe's legal department, then moved on to work in the tribe’s planning office. After attending business school, she took positions at Pierce County, the gambling control board, and ultimately worked in several capacities for the tribe for the next 30 years.
Wright served on the Puyallup Tribal Council from 1991 - 1996. She once said that while it was a great honor to serve on the council, it really was not a good fit for her because it meant she had to say “no” to people. Sterud said that soon after her term on council, he met up with her one day and asked what she had been doing since then. “She said, ‘Whether I’m getting paid or not, I’m still working for the tribe,’” Sterud said. That was the level of her commitment to her people.
It was heading up the tribe’s Historic Preservation Department that led Wright to her true calling as tribal historian. She became a woman of vast intelligence about her tribe; her knowledge of Puyallup tribal history unparalleled among her people. Her office was filled wall-to-wall with rows of filing cabinets, stacks of books, old papers and photographs, audio and video recordings, and she knew where everything was at any time on any given tribal history subject. Wright’s passion for her work was undeniable. She was personally determined to not let the tribe’s ancestors, its struggles and victories be forgotten, which made her work much more than just a job.
“She was the backbone of the Historic Preservation Department…a very culturally significant person,” Sterud said. “She helped keep the culture alive during the tough times when she was growing up. Her hands were always in the clinic [due to her nursing background] and tribal economic development.”
One of her proudest achievements was forming the Puget Sound Indian Dance Club with her mother, uncle and longtime friend Ramona Bennett. Together, they would teach children traditional dance to help preserve and honor Puyallup tribal culture through the generations. “I don't think anything is more important than teaching your children these things while they're young," Wright once said. Wright loved the tribe’s annual pow wow, and her joy was evident while she danced in traditional regalia.
Another of Wright’s proud moments was her involvement in the tribe’s historic land claims settlement of 1988. This was when Wright’s research skills became invaluable to the tribe in winning its biggest land claim to date. Continuing the work her uncle Silas Cross began with former Tribal Council Chairman Frank Wright, Jr., she, along with Sterud, non-Indian historian Bob Waller and other experts provided the key evidence for the tribe to win the land claim. “She did a lot of research on what took place concerning the theft of our land,” Sterud said. Upon winning their land claims, this cleared the path for the tribe to open the Emerald Queen Casino on I-5 and to develop economically into one of the more influential and powerful Indian tribes in the nation. Sterud said Wright was an integral part of this battle and many others, “and all while she was raising her family.”
Above all else and through everything in her life, for Wright it was her tribe that she held most dear and that she had so much faith in becoming all it is destined to be. She mentioned this in her final interview several months ago when she said, “The tribe has made it possible for us to have a remarkably good life, and I will always be grateful."