Honoring Tribal Elder Sharron Nelson

A tribal matriarch—master basket weaver, mother and legal pro


Puyallup Tribal Elder Sharron Nelson says her father always taught her to be proud to be an Indian. Her grandmother, aunts and mother showed her how to live.

Her grandmother, Hattie Cross, was strong and a member of the Puyallup Tribe. Her mother, Lucille Reed, was a good mother and housewife who lived a simple life cooking, sewing and canning. Nelson’s aunts served on the Tribal Council and helped shape today’s Puyallup Tribe.

“We were as poor as church mice, but never knew it,” Sharron says.

Like her foremothers, she came from humble beginnings and honest work to support her children. In all of them, she instilled a strong work ethic and pride in their Native roots. Her five children are her life’s greatest work and joy.

Sharron is the daughter of a father from the Quinault Nation. She is the mother of Puyallup Tribal Council member Annette Bryan. She grew up digging for clams and playing on Taholah Beach. “That was my reservation,” she says, awed by the success of the Puyallup Tribe.

Decades later, the nearly 70-year-old matriarch says she did anything and everything to provide for her children when she moved to Puyallup after marrying her husband Les Nelson.

“My kids were the most important part of my life,” Sharron says, choking up as she thinks of them.

In addition to Annette, Sharron is the mother of twin daughters and teachers Denise and Dr. Danelle (Denise Reed works for the Culture Department as a culture teacher, and Dr. Danelle Reed is the Director of Kwawatchee Counseling); daughter and Tribal security officer Rocky Reed Rockwell; and son, Les Nelson, Jr., who is a sherman and crabber.

Sharron graduated with honors from Franklin High School in Seattle in 1967. She attended the University of Washington for several years before launching a successful career as a legal secretary for law firms in Seattle and Tacoma.

Sharron adds that she has always been busy with a variety of jobs: business ventures while working with the Puyallup Tribe on cultural affairs and the Lands Claims Settlement Act.

“I helped run my mom’s smoke shop,” she said, remembering how those first shops sustained Tribal members through the tough years. “I did anything to support my family.”

A master basket weaver, Sharron leveraged her passion and talent to make hats for Tribal members on the early Canoe journeys. She shared this heritage and craft with fellow Tribal members whenever she had spare time.

She doesn’t weave these days; her weary hands have grown stiff. But she still takes pride in the double-wall baskets and 7 by 5 foot mat she wove for the health authority. The weaving itself took only a week, but she and her son. Les spent a month building the strips for the mat itself.

Friend and former co-worker Lauren Butler got to know Sharron when she began working under Sharron’s supervision as a legal secretary. Sharron’s work ethic and commitment to Puyallup’s cultural affairs inspired her, Butler said.

The two worked together on the Tribe’s Pow Wow committee. Lauren said she’s still in awe of Sharron’s work ethic: battling Seattle traffic to work at a law firm each day while still finding time to be a mother to her children and preserving the cultural legacy of the Tribe. When Sharron wasn’t working or parenting, she fought to regain the Tribe’s land, planned Pow Wows, taught basket weaving and canned in her kitchen.

“She has a super passion for canning vegetables, fruits and salmon. That’s part of her life therapy and she just loves it,” says Lauren.

“She’s just as passionate about her culture and her different tribal affiliations. That was a priority right along with raising her children,” Lauren added.

“She was always at soccer games for Les. She supports all of them in their endeavors. She’s behind them 100 percent—the grandkids 200 percent. She’s a very strong lady, but if you get her talking, she’ll start crying because she loves everyone so much.”

It’s easy to see what Lauren means. Ask Sharron about her children or her work for the Tribe, and her voice shakes, revealing the depths of her devotion. She reflects on her life, the Tribe and how everything changed “when we got Cascadia back.”

“We’ve come so far. When I was a young mother, we would get a $25 check at Christmas and that was it. We met at different Tribal members’ houses,” Sharron says, noting the vast range of tribal programs that now help young members buy a house or support Tribal elders live with dignity and respect.

“The Tribe has just grown and grown since then. The Casino has changed everything. I appreciate everything the Tribe does for its members.”

Sharron said the Puyallup Tribe’s success reflects a long legacy of fighting for homelands and natural resources. She served on the Lands Settlement Claims Committee alongside Tribal Elder Ramona Bennett.

“We never quit fighting. We fought for our fishing rights. We fought for our land,” says Sharron. “We are one of the main tribes that helped other tribes get what they have today. Nisqually was there too. But we were the ones that helped succeed in the modern world.”

Sharron says strong women role models are embedded in the Tribe’s history and matriarchs. She sees a living legacy in her childrens’ work teaching, fishing and working for the Tribe.

Asked what it means to have a daughter serve on the Puyallup Tribal Council, Sharron chokes up again.

“I couldn’t be more proud if I tried, I’ll tell you that. It’s so wonderful. She’s such a beautiful girl and she loves helping people. She gives and she gives. I couldn’t be prouder.”

As a Tribal Elder, Sharron says she is proud of the Tribe’s work to stop the LNG plant. It’s a good lesson for the Tribe’s next generation of leaders.

“Stay strong, work hard and keep fighting,” she says.