In Memoriam: Larry Kinley — The Man, Not The Legend

Larry George Kinley, the longest-serving Chairman of the Lummi Nation, passed away in February 2018 after a battle with cancer. In the November “Entrepreneurship” issue of Native Business Magazine, we honored his legacy. We share his story below to shine a light on his substantial impact on the Lummi Nation and Indian Country.

Fisherman’s Prayer

I pray that I may live to fish
Until my dying day.
And when it comes to my last cast,
I then most humbly pray:
When in the Lord’s great landing net
And peacefully asleep
That in His mercy I be judged
Big enough to keep.
                                        –Unknown

Big enough to keep will not be Larry Kinley’s problem. Capturing his “fish story” in a few brief words might be, though. Click To Tweet

Kinley, who succumbed at the much too young age of 71 to lung cancer this past February, left behind a palpable void in Indian Country that now must be filled by those he mentored so well. But what a task when the words used to describe him are these:

Soldier. Chairman. Vice Chairman. General Manager. Senior Tribal Advisor. Member. Advocate. Negotiator. Relationship manager. Fisherman. Risk taker. Visionary. Coach. Instrumental. Dedicated. Humble. Passionate. Integral. Key. Golfer. Friend. Father. Soulmate. 

For most people a couple of words would suffice to describe their lifetime achievements. But not here, not for this man. And a list of Kinley’s accomplishments here simply won’t do him justice because ultimately it was Larry Kinley the philosopher fisherman that people who talked to Native Business Magazine remember best.

A soldier – scholar, Larry Kinley graduated from Chaminade University in 1970, the same year he mustered out of the Army and started back into commercial fishing. Within four years he ascended to the Lummi Council Chairmanship, serving in that position for 12 total years in the 1970s and 1980s while concurrently serving on the Lummi Indian Business Council from 1974 – 2001, much of that as its Chairman as well, and while still fishing. And though he burned out after being Chairman of the Lummi after 12 years, according to his wife Ellie Kinley, he was instrumental in shaping the success of other Tribes he worked for in downstate California during the off season, demonstrating and implementing best practices in economic development and entrepreneurship that many California Tribes have now adopted and which have made them self-sufficient.

Larry George Kinley, the longest-serving Chairman of the Lummi Nation, passed away in February 2018 after a battle with cancer. He also spent time in the Army, ending his service in 1970. (Photo Courtesy Ellie Kinley)

While many consider his instrumental role in ensuring Native fishing rights per the 1974 Boldt Decision, family and close friends point to his enticing leadership style and bold entrepreneurial spirit as his enduring legacies. Though fundamental to the development and expansion of the Lummi fishing fleet into the largest Tribal fishing fleet in the world, Larry saw fishing as a way to generate working capital for other Lummi commercial efforts that he captained. A born leader endowed with competitive spirit and the self-discipline required to take it to the bank, Kinley, who was always a fisherman first, looked beyond fishing as the Lummi grew from 1,000 in the 1970s to 7,000 today. 

But every upside has a downside, too, as his brother Steve Kinley put it, “The unintended consequences of Lummi success were both good and bad – good in the sense that fishing for herring was very lucrative at the time and provided significant capital to reinvest in vertical industries for fishing – public infrastructure, bigger boats, better harbors, cold storage, and transportation; bad in that the sheer number of people drawn back to the reservation due to its success but then competed for that capital to cover basic needs – housing, education, health and social services.” It wasn’t always pretty politically, Steve recalled. But Larry’s Socratic Method of governance, management, and problem solving in general proved effective in setting the Lummi and other Tribes he worked with on a true course over his nearly 50-year career. 

As luck would have it, just as the fishing rights were getting sorted out, “people problems” as Steve Kinley calls them, had an unexpected negative impact on the Tribe’s fishing income. “Warming water from El Niño degraded the habitat the fish ate and spawned in, and Japanese fisherman intercepted fish on their way to spawn,” Steve recounted, seriously cutting into the number of fish available in traditional Lummi fishing areas. The politics the problems spawned weren’t pretty either, often pitting Tribal members’ needs against the capital required for the economic development they needed to sustain their lives. 

Larry Kinley, however, was fearless, and applied his trademark problem solving style to encourage the Lummi to generate their own solutions that they then put into play. They ended up establishing Fisherman’s Cove – a convenience store serving the Lummi fishing community – along with several other mini-marts, a bingo hall and a black jack parlor that ultimately morphed into the Silver Reef Casino and Spa, a processing plant and other enterprises over the past 20 years. The take from the casino is now three times the take from fishing to put a point on how shrewd this move was.

Larry Kinley was instrumental in the expansion of the Lummi fishing fleet into the largest Tribal fishing fleet in the world. (Photo Courtesy Ellie Kinley)

But the Lummi never stopped fishing, and neither did Larry. Fishing was their identity as Larry astutely recognized. It was also the key to getting buy-in from Tribal members as they changed tacked toward more lucrative economic development projects.

As lifelong friend and former Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire noted, “Larry did a lot of great things for our people by creating a sense of family.” Now Executive Director of The Children of the Setting Suns Productions, Hillaire elaborated. “He always tried to create “we” moments, not “I” moments,” so that the Tribe owned its solutions.  

And he was politically savvy, “able to convince the Lummi that they were self-determining, self-governing, and self-sufficient” and able to solve their own problems instead of relying on the government for a handout even as they were only developing these capacities. Larry Kinley sincerely credited others even if he was captaining the discussion, according to Hillaire, and that afforded him a lot of political capital when it came to discussing new business projects that required capital some might have preferred to see applied to Tribal social services. 

Larry’s gift was getting people to come to consensus by “getting the best out of you – helping people find the answer while weighing the consequences of each of the options on everybody left people ultimately satisfied with their accomplishments,” Daniel Tucker, another of Larry’s long time friends and Indian Country gaming dignitary from the Sycuan Band. “Larry’s very unique process unified all 109 California Tribes – with 60 of them sitting around the table – on Proposition 5 and Proposition 1A. He kept them under control, and did it well.  It’s the best thing we’ve ever done for Natives and especially California Tribes. He would get the best out of you – help you find the answer and weigh the consequences of the options on everybody.” His impact of Tribal sovereignty was monumental as well. “Keeping our status as nations in this country was close to Larry’s heart. He was always preaching about how important sovereignty was and that we would lose everything if we didn’t maintain it.” 

“His favorite saying was, ‘Sovereignty without works is dead,’” Tucker reminisced. “He worked hard fighting for Native rights and making sure they were protected for the seven generations. It was key to global Native understanding and for all of us staying on the same page because the threats to sovereignty seem to be greater than ever and we need to protect it at all costs.”

“There was no wrong answer for him, Hillaire added. “He guided people through thought processes to make decisions for themselves.  He turned the light on for a lot of Tribes in California so that they could make their own decisions, too.” 

More importantly, “Larry always injected Lummi philosophy into his reasoning. Larry would tell people to look into their culture when looking for an answer. His philosophy was that our Lummi philosophy always gives us the answer. But Larry also asked people what their own philosophy was, too. Kids learn philosophy at school that clashes with the Tribe’s, and Larry was very aware of that. Larry got a white man’s education, but looked at it through a Lummi lens. It was one of his greatest gifts.”  

Hillaire summed Larry up, “Larry was spot on when he said, ‘We have everything we need to solve some of our problems as Indian People or Lummi people. Do we have the will to do what needs to be done?’ And he believed that was true for all Tribes.”

Larry Kinley was also pragmatic and highly disciplined, having grown up in a commercial fishing family and having spent time in the Army, Steve Kinley noted. “Fishing is like the military in that it involved being away from family most of the time, it was mail dominated, and very competitive.” As a young man, Larry love sports, especially football. Although “kind of a small guy,” according to his brother, he played cornerback – a speed position. “Larry was fiercely competitive with anything he did, including politics,” Steve recalled, and always about the crew and teamwork” whether on the boat or on the football field.

But, as wife Ellie Kinley, there was a man behind the legend. Besides, what memorial would be complete without a love story?

Ellie Kinley, Larry’s wife of 24 years and 17 years his junior, grew up with Larry as Chairman of the Tribe. As fishing crew leads, they “spent a lot of time sitting in coffee houses – kind of like  designated drivers – keeping a sober eye on their crews while they were off duty,” Ellie recounted. And, well, we all know where coffee leads, and in this case it was a meeting of the souls that culminated in a much too short a time for Ellie. 

As anyone who has every fished commercially knows, it takes a toll on the family. Though the Kinleys kept their home base in Bellingham, WA, where they raised their sons Luke and Kyle, Larry spent some 20 years working in downstate California in the off season, spreading his message and methods to the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Tribe, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, and others while Ellie held down home base. But there is no tinge of resentment in Ellie’s voice as she exudes the great respect she had for the man she called her soulmate, “as the man, not the legend,” as she jokingly put it.

Larry Kinley was instrumental in the expansion of the Lummi fishing fleet into the largest Tribal fishing fleet in the world. (Photo Courtesy Ellie Kinley)

“What set Larry apart was his wonderful ability when working with the Tribe. It was never about Larry. It was always about helping people maker sure they got things. He would never take credit for anything. If someone came to him with a question, he would turn it around to bring their own ability to answer their own question. He had a natural appeal and charisma which is hard to describe. He was always one to sit back in the corner and think about it and get everyone to come around to the right decision calmly,” she recounted from the deck of her fishing boat one night in mid-October. 

The unfairness of the lung cancer that took his life of this nonsmoker so young still lingers. He was concerned to the end that “the fights aren’t done….it always feels like our rights are at risk with all these people trying to whittle away at our rights,” Ellie told Native Business Magazine. 

“The Kinleys were taught to be very proud Lummis, and the work that we did should never be done for the greed of it, but making the Lummis better. And that work is never easy. We never backed down from that challenge,” brother Steve summed up.

And that fish is big enough to keep.

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