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Meskwaki Leader Donald Wanatee Dies At Age 88

People light candles during a prayer and candle vigil organized by the city, after the recent shooting at a WalMart in El Paso, Texas.
Mark Ralston
AFP/Getty Images
Donald Wanatee is being remembered as a dedicated advocate for the Meskwaki and for Native people more broadly.

The Meskwaki Nation has announced the death of tribal leader and Native American rights activist Donald Wanatee who passed away peacefully at his home Wednesday at the age of 88. Wanatee is being remembered as a dedicated advocate for not only the Meskwaki Nation but for Native people more broadly.

According to a statement released by the Meskwaki Nation, during the course of his activism, “Wanatee was often one of the few Native Americans in the room, whether it was a classroom, meeting room or a Rotunda, and he did not take the responsibility lightly."

Wanatee had been a member of the Meskwaki Tribal Council and was a longtime member of the Office of the State Archaeologist’s Indian Advisory Council. According to the tribe, he also helped shape a number of landmark policies, including the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act as well as Iowa Code Chapter 263B, which established protections for Native American remains in Iowa.

In a remembrance posted to Facebook, Lance Foster, Vice Chair of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, mourned the loss of Wanatee, calling him a “tireless advocate of Native American rights."

Wanatee was also a proud Navy veteran and an engaged citizen active in local, state and national politics, serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, according to the Meskwaki Nation. He also served as the precinct chair at the first caucus ever held on the Settlement in 2000, according to Indian Country Today.

Iowa State University emeritus professor of archeology David Gradwohl was a professor of Wanatee’s who built a lifelong friendship with him. He remembers Wanatee as a passionate human rights advocate.

“He was interested in human rights for all people, not just Native Americans. But he certainly was a strong voice for the reburial and repatriation of materials for American Indians,” Gradwohl said. “He was involved with human rights issues for other groups around the United States and for Indigenous people around the world.”

Gradwohl fondly remembered inviting Wanatee to give a talk to one of his classes decades ago. Gradwohl said the students were so riveted that when the class period was up a number of students and faculty members relocated to the student union to hear Wanatee speak for another hour and a half. A message that stuck with Gradwohl from that day is that Native people and Native cultures are fully alive, vibrant and evolving.

“He stood up and made the point, ‘the American Indians are still here. Don’t talk about us in the past tense’,” Gradwohl said. “The Meskwaki are still here.”

According to Gradwohl, Wanatee cofounded the United Native American Student Association at ISU and was instrumental in the establishment of the school’s American Indian Studies Program.

In an interview with the National Museum of the American Indian in 2013, Wanatee was asked who inspired him in his work.

“I found true inspiration in my parents,” Wanatee said. “I was inspired by the Meskwaki people.”

Wanatee is survived by his wife Priscilla Lasley Wanatee, his children, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. He will be honored at a traditional funeral on Friday at the Meskwaki Indian Settlement.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter