Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about Oklahomans who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read the stories of other Oklahomans here. Have you lost a loved one to COVID-19? Help us tell their story.
Family and community were everything to William “Bill” Tall Bear Sr.
Before his death at age 85, Tall Bear spent his time giving people rides to health clinics, working and connecting with his five kids, 15 grandkids and 19 great-grandkids.
“My dad was a very, very generous man,” his son Chris Tall Bear said. “He lived a very humble life.”
Tall Bear, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, was born Jan. 27, 1935. He grew up outside of Hammon in western Oklahoma, where he was raised primarily by his grandfather, Black Wolf. Tall Bear began attending Concho Indian Boarding School when he was around 7 years old.
“He would try to run away, to go back home, and they’d bring him back,” Chris Tall Bear said. “He said there was no food at home, there wasn’t much to eat.”
Tall Bear left the boarding school when he was 17 and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in the Korean War and was honorably discharged in 1959. After leaving the Marines, Tall Bear married his first wife and mother to his children, Minnie “Lucille” Drunkard.
Tall Bear attended a welding trade school in California as part of a federal Indian relocation program that encouraged Native Americans to move to cities to break up reservations, but later moved back to his wife’s original land allotment in Deer Creek, Oklahoma. More than a decade after the death of his first wife, Tall Bear married Evelyn Chimburas in 1996 and later settled in El Reno.
Tall Bear was like a “local celebrity,” Chris Tall Bear said. Community members called him “Uncle Bill” or “Grandpa.”
“People would gravitate toward him,” Chris Tall Bear said. “Dad has his own interpretations of things, followed his own path, had his own twist on things. Sometimes it’d aggravate you. You’d think ‘You’re supposed to do it this way.’ But he’d say, ‘Says who?’”
Tall Bear was a master welder and founding member of the Oklahoma Indian Nation Gourd Clan, according to an obituary written by the family. He attended powwows, enjoyed going to the casino and was an “excellent beadworker.”
Chris Tall Bear is a strong believer in traditional Cheyenne ceremonies and practices. Those beliefs were supported by his parents and trips he and his dad took to pray at Bear Butte Mountain in South Dakota, a holy mountain for the Cheyenne tribe.
Tall Bear became ill in early August 2020 and checked into the hospital with pneumonia, where he soon tested positive for COVID-19 as well. He was held in isolation at the hospital and the family communicated through phone calls and video.
At one point, Chris Tall Bear was able to go into his dad’s hospital room. Outfitted in protective gear, he prayed and talked to his dad, but Tall Bear’s health continued to deteriorate.
On Sept. 1, 2020, Tall Bear’s family watched through a window as doctors and nurses unhooked their dad and grandfather from his ventilator.
“The nurses sat there and held his hand,” Chris Tall Bear said. “They waited with him until he went home.”
Chris Tall Bear had accompanied his dad several times to funeral homes when relatives died, learning how to dress them and paint their faces red to follow traditional Cheyenne beliefs. After his dad’s battle with COVID and pneumonia, Chris and his brothers did the same for their father.
“These culture-based practices that we have were given to us by our elders to help us get through difficult times,” he said. After getting their dad ready, they told him “Don’t worry about us. It’s time for you to go home.’”