Howard Duane “Louie” McConnell, a former Yurok Tribal chairman known for the love and loyalty he had for his tribe and family, died last week. He was 76.
“His wife (Norma McConnell) was his first love, but the tribe ran a close second,” said Susan Masten, the Yurok Tribe’s vice chairperson, who served on the tribal council with McConnell. “He truly was committed to the tribe and wanted to reacquire lands for the tribe.”
Ever since the Yurok Tribe’s formation in 1993, McConnell had been an active participant, attending many tribal meetings even before he was first elected as the East District representative in 1998. He held that position until 2000 before being elected to serve as vice chairman from 2000 to 2003 and then chairman from 2003 to 2006.
McConnell was described as a man “convinced of his path” — no matter what path he chose, he stuck to it, said Howard’s brother, Robert McConnell, the Yurok Tribe Heritage Preservation Officer. “Most of the time he got to the end of his chosen path too.”
One of McConnell’s chosen paths was an strenuous 85-mile journey to Orleans from Junction City — mostly on foot — to check on his family during the Christmas Flood of 1964. McConnell had been heading to Oakland for a placement test after recently finishing appliance repair trade school, but the fierce weather and impending floods convinced him to turn around and head back home. Flooded roads and failed bridges prevented him from driving his car any farther than Junction City, but it didn’t stop him from pressing forward. Navigating destroyed bridges often took him off the road, including a three-day venture to the headwater of Bluff Creek to traverse the raging stream.
During the 18-day trek, McConnell and some others he was traveling with at the time, witnessed a man stuck in a mudslide who was unable to pull himself from the debris.
“They saved this man’s life,” said Robert McConnell.
As chairman, McConnell worked to save his tribe.
Under his leadership, the tribe hired “high-caliber attorneys” to secure over $90 million from the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement,” said current tribal chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr.
“He was able to utilize his knowledge to move this tribe forward,” O’Rourke said.
After decades of legal disputes between the Yurok and Hoopa tribes, the attorneys hired under McConnell secured the funds in 2007, within two years of being hired, O’Rourke said.
“He’s part of why we’re at the place we are today with what he did with the rest of the council,” said Troy Fletcher, McConnell’s close friend and current Yurok Tribe executive director.
“It was under his leadership that we secured our first gaming compact,” said O’Rourke. Now the tribe is using that gaming pact to build a hotel/casino across from the tribe’s headquarters in Klamath, but just as Howard described in a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the casino is second in importance to eco-tourism along the Klamath River.
“We could build a river trail from the river mouth up Blue Creek. Hook up with Karuk land, also enter wilderness areas and network with the Pacific Coast trail,” McConnell was quoted in the 2005 Chronicle article. “We could make money with a guide service, and lodges. We could take visitors on boats and out to fish. Sell the products of traditional crafts. Hold salmon dinners. A huge sum of dollars may not be made that way, but everyone will get to survive.”
To restore the river, McConnell also worked tirelessly on the Klamath Settlement agreements that would remove four dams on the Klamath and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars towards river restoration.
Fletcher called McConnell “instrumental” in the initial discussions that led to the Klamath settlements.
“Fish and water issues were very important to him,” Masten said.
“Howard McConnell fulfilled a vital role as leader of his people during an important time in the Yurok Tribe’s history,” said Assembly member Wesley Chesbro (D-North Coast). “Under his leadership the Tribe signed the 2006 Klamath pact that has improved conditions on the river. He will be sorely missed.”
McConnell’s love for the region showed in a 1988 Los Angeles Times article where he was quoted as saying: “This is my home. It ain’t much, but it’s mine. I’ll shed my blood for this land.”
McConnell’s governing style was described as resourceful, drawing wisdom far and wide from all parties before making decisions. He was also pragmatic, willing to change his mind on issues if he was convinced it made sense. He once said: “I am not a terribly smart man, but I am smart enough to surround myself with people who are.”
McConnell was born in the Old Indian Hospital in Hoopa on May 1, 1937, and he spent most of his life doing traditional native activities, like hunting and fishing. He loved to smoke the fish he caught and share it with friends and family. He also shared vegetables from his large garden that he tended until the day he died.
“He just enjoyed being able to provide for his family and everyone else that happened to need it,” Masten said.
“He was always there for you,” said brother Robert McConnell. “He was a big brother and was indeed a big brother — six-foot-three and 218 pounds when he got out of the service. You never looked at him and thought of him as someone who was weak or could be weak.”
“He was a very respected person amongst his people,” O’Rourke said.
“We’re going to miss him,” said Robert McConnell.
All are invited to attend services that will begin at 10 a.m. on Thursday at the Klamath Office of the Yurok Tribe. A boat ride upriver will precede a separate service at the Weitchpec Tribal Office, for those who cannot make it to Klamath, followed by a potluck dinner.
Howard’s wish was to be cremated and buried alongside his brother and ancestors at Wah Sek in a private family gathering.