Telling the Stories of our Lives: Constancio Bolima

Funded by a generous grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission in partnership with Puget Sound Book Artists, Anthea Karanasos Hubanks and Tacoma Seniors Write launched a series of creative writing workshops titled “Telling the Stories of Our Lives” at three Tacoma Senior Centers. The workshops consisted of a fun medley of classes for Elders interested in telling their stories through memoir, prose, letters, haiku, work collage, travelogues, and prose. In March 2020, as Washington State senior centers closed temporarily in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthea restructured the project. In place of the workshops, she conducted a series of phone interviews with five workshop participants — Myrtle Appling, Orv Harrelson, Barbara Jones, Constancio Bolima, and An Gates — and produced the following vignettes from the interviews. This is Constancio Bolima’s story.

On a recent autumn day, as gold and magenta leaves still blazed in Tacoma’s treetops, I called longtime Pacific Northwest resident Constancio Bolima for a chat. In answer to my first question about his place and date of birth, Constancio chuckled and offered a riddle. He set it up by explaining that he was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Oakland, California while his enlisted father was stationed there. Then, rather than revealing the exact year, he added: “I was born during World War II before the first atomic bomb was tested, let alone dropped, on Japan.” With a little research, you will discover the year was most likely 1945.

For much of Constancio’s early childhood, his father earned a living as an agricultural field worker on a dry packers crew cutting heads of lettuce in the field, then packing the lettuce into boxes for shipment. Constancio remembers that his father “always harvested lettuce and moved from field to field with the seasons, from Arizona to New Mexico to California, then round and round again.” Sometimes Constancio, his mother, and his siblings traveled along to wherever the lettuce harvest took them, but most often they stayed behind. Constancio recalls that his family “lived in the projects in different houses from San Jose to Santa Barbara, and sometimes as far south as Los Angeles.”

Alvarado, California

Moving to different houses and changing schools two or three times a year was difficult. This went on for quite a while until Constancio was 13 years old, when his mother decided the family needed to settle down. She moved the family to the small farming community of Alvarado (now called Union City) between Oakland and San Jose where they stayed through Constancio’s high school years. When he graduated in 1962, Constancio enrolled at Oakland Junior College, now called Oakland City College. He took a break from his studies to marry and start a family, then returned to college in 1971. This time he enrolled at San Jose State University to major in anthropology. The anthropology program there included Native American studies which was a major draw for Constancio. He discovered that U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis each had similar programs, but those schools were far more expensive and farther away. In 1975, after years of dedication and hard work, Constancio graduated from San Jose State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and was the first person in his family to earn a college degree.

With a degree in hand, Constancio devoted many years of his life to working at urban Indian centers up and down the Pacific Coast from California to Washington, including the San Jose Indian Center and the Seattle Indian Center. Eligibility for social services required that Native Americans first prove their Indian ancestry. Once that was established, Constancio helped people sign up for services and provided assistance as an education and employment counselor. He said working at the urban Indian centers was very gratifying: “It was really cool helping people find jobs and giving them the support they needed to make it through school.”

The desire to pursue Native American Studies in college and to work with Native people is rooted in Constancio’s ancestry, which is half Alaskan Klinkat Indian from both of his grandmothers’ sides of the family. Both of his grandfathers are Filipino. Even before attending college, Constancio dreamed of pursuing anthropology. His big picture plan was to learn as much as he could about Native Americans and United States history’s misinformation about these communities and cultures. At one point during his studies, Constancio believed he wanted to become an archaeologist and do field research. He took one field course at San Jose State which cured him of that desire. The course research took place in the Four Corners region of the United States, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. In Constancio’s own words, the work was “rough and hard and racist.” He said he was caught off guard when he discovered that “professors doing research in Indian country, in Navajo country, were continually bad-mouthing the Natives. Not the students though. The students were great.” He added, “I look brown. I look Asian. I look Filipino. But I’m not the stereotypical Native. So they just kept on bad-mouthing around me, and I just shut up. It was not a good introduction to archeology.” At that point, Constancio’s academic path turned toward anthropology.

With more work experience to recommend him, Constancio’s career with urban Indian centers brought his family north from California to Seattle. For a time, he worked at the Seattle Indian Center and participated in implementing tribal plans for a small Western Washington tribe. Constancio’s wife proposed moving their growing family of four children away from the city to the Nez Perce Reservation in Eastern Washington. The move east offered new opportunities for Constancio to work with Native people. The family settled on the Reservation for seven years, then briefly returned to Tacoma before moving much farther north to Juneau, Alaska where the family stayed for twenty years. 

Nez Perce National Historical Park

Upon arriving in Juneau, Constancio participated in a program that helped people prepare to return to work. Constancio’s instructor recommended him for a volunteer position with the Forest Service in Juneau. There, he became an expert naturalist and interpreter. He had a natural skill and enjoyed the volunteer work very much. When another employee left, Constancio was offered a paid position as a naturalist with the Forest Service working aboard Alaska State Ferries. He learned even more about the region’s natural and cultural history, as well as the history of cities and towns. He used this wealth of knowledge to help ferry passengers discover and appreciate the natural wonders and landmarks along each route.

Juneau, Alaska

During Constancio’s twenty years living in Alaska and working as a naturalist and interpreter, he applied for new opportunities with the Park Service on Glacier Bay during the summer season. He also worked for a Native organization that focused specifically on interpreting the natural history and culture of Glacier Bay through a Native American perspective.

Constancio reminisced that the best part of working for the Forest Service was the weeklong ferry run from Skagway, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington and back. He truly enjoyed serving as a Visitor Assistant, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with one week on and one week off. He was assigned a sleeping cabin and all of his meals were provided. When asked what made the work feel worthwhile, Constancio said, “What I loved most was that I helped people have their trip of a lifetime to Alaska. I did my best to answer questions no matter how large or how small. Providing a more complete and truthful history that included the Native perspective — that was so different from the perspectives in history books. This was a wonderful opportunity to educate passengers from all over the world. Helping people connect to these beautiful places. That was cool! That was so fun!” In retrospect, Constancio realized that his time working with the Forest Service and the Park Service allowed him to fulfill his original dream as a young student: to become an anthropologist.

During our conversation, Constancio recalled wonderful experiences and opportunities that helped him stay connected to his Native American roots. He shared that no matter where he lived, he attended powwows and made sure to go as often as possible: “I loved going to powwows! I’ve been doing that most of my life. A favorite one is in Stanford right around Mother’s Day and another is in Seattle in the springtime. It all depended on where we were. On the Nez Perce Reservation, there were powwows all the time — nearly every weekend — which was great!” As our conversation neared its end, I asked Constancio if he would be so kind to share one exceptionally beautiful natural wonder he encountered in his many years on the Skagway-to-Bellingham ferry run. He replied without hesitation: “Oh yes! It happened at the end of a really long day. I was walking outside, across the deck. It was unusual for me to be there because my work helping tourists kept me inside. I was really beat and the sun was setting and people were pointing out toward the water where the sun was going down. I looked to where they were pointing and I saw a pod of Orcas right there swimming parallel with the ship. They went up then down then up then down, all silhouetted against a wonderful setting sun. That was a spectacular sight!” 

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