By Jon Bishop
DEVENS — To listen to Onkwe Tase, who turned 90 on Saturday, is to listen to wisdom.
After all, he’s had quite a life.
Tase is the founder of the United Native American Cultural Center in Devens; the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Massachusetts; a former police officer in Dracut; a poet; an environmental activist who helped restore the Nashua River in the ’60s, which led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1966 and to an appearance in the book “A River Ran Wild” by Lynne Cherry; and a World War II veteran who landed at Normandy during D-Day.
And he has provided guidance to countless family and friends.
“He has done a lot for this place. We’re very lucky to have him,” said Lorena Novak, a vice president at the UNACC. She said that, when Ft. Devens closed, Tase petitioned the government for a building. He got one, located at 29 Antietam St., Building P-5, that used to be a horse stable. He collected about 3,000 signatures in his effort.
“He’s led an amazing life,” she said.
Tase’s experiences in World War II took him from Normandy to Austria to Czechoslovakia. He hunted Adolf Hitler’s SS officers, the black-uniformed elite corps and self-described “political soldiers” of the Nazi Party.
And he is just as passionate about veterans as he is about Native American rights and history. After World War II, the government took good care of its veterans, he said. It needs to do more today.
Regarding the UNACC, he said there is a treaty that allows Native people to claim state property, once it is vacated. The building was considered to be in a historical area, he said.
The UNACC’s current chief, Roland Jerome, calls Tase his “elder and my instructor.”
“When Onkwe Tase speaks, everyone listens,” he said.
Tase’s son-in-law, Mark Fraser, agreed.
“It’s an honor to see somebody who fought for what he believed in live nearly a century,” he said. “He’s incredible,” adding that “he inspires even the youngest children today.”
He’s “one of a kind,” Fraser said.
His daughter, Anne Marie Fraser, called her dad her best friend.
“My mom died when I was 6. He raised me,” she said.
As Jerome said, when Tase speaks, everyone listens. During a speech, he reminded those in attendance that “culture is forever” and that “history is forever.”
“The past is our life,” he said.
On the center, the culture, the people — all of it — he said, “Without this, we have nothing.”
Earlier in the day, the UNACC celebrated its 19th annual fall festival, which featured drumming, dancing, food and a silent auction.