RONAN – Evelyn “Evie” Stevenson passed away peacefully at St. Luke Hospital in Ronan, with family by her side, on Thursday, March 12, 2015, after dealing with various health problems over the years. She was born March 24, 1939, to Bill and Eva Matt Case in Blue Bay, where her folks were living at the time. Evie grew up hiking, fishing and picking huckleberries in the mountains.
At age 4, Evie experienced an unusual illness that kept her in and out of the Spokane hospital for more than a year. She fully recovered and her family moved to a farm that she loved. She attended a one-room schoolhouse with eight students. When she was 12, her father became ill for several months, and she had to run the farm while her mother cooked. She had to drive the big truck to the grain elevator after obtaining an emergency license, and organized the threshing crews and farm hands.
In 1960, she married Dan Stevenson while working at Boeing in Seattle, and they traveled extensively with the aircraft industry. She still managed to go home to the reservation almost every summer. They had two children, Tisa and Craig, whom they adored. Although they divorced after 17 years, they remained great friends always.
While raising a young family in San Francisco, Evelyn was very active in the civil rights movement and American Indian causes. She was involved in the Alcatraz occupation in the early 1970s and went to the island in a rowboat for six months. She decided to become an attorney, finished her undergraduate degree and attended Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco. She began working with the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Court System in the summer of 1974 after tribal sovereignty became more of a goal upon enactment of the Indian Education and Self-Determination Act. Together with Judges Donny Dupuis and Louise Burke – and other pioneering warriors of that time – they began building a modern, sophisticated Tribal Court system. They provided the first prosecutor, the first tribal advocate program and court adviser. Everyone wore many hats and the system worked on integrity.
Evelyn and her dear friend, Kathleen Fleury, were the first Indian women to pass the Montana Bar, and Evelyn became the first in-house legal counsel. During her first year with the tribes, she spent the winter in Washington, D.C., learning of the past litigation and Court of Claim cases that large firms had previously handled. The tribes were becoming prepared to stand on their own, supporting their ancestors’ wishes in becoming a sovereign nation. She flew back and forth. People joked that she could have lunch with the president, have afternoon pie and coffee with a homeless person, and then tuck her kids into bed late that night across the country.
Evelyn, along with several other very dedicated individuals, was instrumental in the effort to help win the eight-year legal battle to prevent a hydroelectric project at Kootenai Falls. This was a sacred site for the Kootenai people, off the reservation. Evelyn always said, “This was a great victory." In fact, it was unprecedented. At no other time in U.S. history had a large-scale construction project been halted through litigation. She was always humble about things, and this was probably the first time that her children realized that their mom was pretty amazing, as they watched her on TV refusing to back down to her adversaries.
Evelyn worked with other attorneys back East in developing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. She fiercely defended the law with an unrivaled devotion and dedication. She rarely lost in court. One day, she stated her advantage. “My opponents were fighting for a paycheck, and I was fighting for my family.” That federal law became her lifelong passion, designed to hopefully avoid further destruction of the American Indian family. She became a nationally recognized expert on the subject.
In 1979, she was severely burned in a gasoline explosion while burning brush for her small log home on Finley Point. Although they tried to airlift her to a burn center, she refused to leave the reservation. She wanted to be close to traditional healers and her friends and family. They set up a makeshift burn unit in the Polson hospital and she recovered beautifully. The traditional healers visited her daily. She had extensive superficial and inhalation burns, but did not have much scarring, which surprised all of the specialists. She conducted business from her hospital bed, covered in bandages.
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One of Evelyn’s greatest experiences was a sabbatical in New Zealand, where Evelyn was invited to speak at seminars with the Maori people in order to assist them in developing something similar to the Indian Child Welfare Act as they, too, faced the destruction of their families. She said the cultural exchanges were invaluable. She later went back with her attorney-friend, Virginia, to visit the many wonderful people she had met.
Her second sabbatical was a trip around the country visiting with other tribal nations. She toured the U.S. in her “one-woman-and-a-dog camper.” Everything in life was another adventure for Evie.
Evelyn was active in several organizations and received more awards than we can even name. For years, she has been involved with the Native American Rights Fund on the board of directors, Tribal Law and Policy board of directors, the Montana ACLU and the Mission Valley Animal Shelter board. She also served on the advisory board for the CASA program, as well as the National Indian Justice Center. She was appointed by two governors for the Montana Human Rights Commission for 12 years. She also helped with the local stock car race track for many years.
Before she died, Evelyn’s family asked her about the messages she wished to convey upon her death. She wrote much of this obituary, although she left out the compliments to herself. It was very important to her that others know how much she truly enjoyed working with so many wonderful people over the years. She seemed to see the best in everyone. Evie has kept track of the children and families long after the cases she handled were completed. She has driven or flown across the country to check on families, and still conducted unofficial business at the kitchen table until recently.
Whenever she was asked about her greatest accomplishment, she always said, “No accomplishment in life could ever be as meaningful as raising my two children.” She was a mother to many others as well. She loved her extended family dearly, and had the kinds of friendships in life that many only dream of having. She will be greatly missed.
She was preceded in death by her parents and her infant daughter, Renee, as well as many dear relatives and friends.
She is survived by her daughter, Tisa Newton (Patrick) and grandsons Thomas Pablo and Braiden Newton; son, Craig Stevenson (Kara Sharai) and grandson Finley Stevenson; her brother, George Case (Jean) and their daughters Rebecca Woodbury (Brian) and baby Levi and Rachelle Case; former husband, Dan Stevenson (Pam) and their son Tyler; along with many other relatives and wonderful friends. Special thanks to the entire Hardy family, especially her cousin and Scrabble buddy Linda Hardy; cousin, Rene Dubay; and the St. Luke Hospital in Ronan with Lake County Hospice.
Traditional wake services will begin Sunday, March 15, at noon at the Elmo Community Center with Rosary there at 8 p.m. Funeral Mass will be Monday, March 16, at 11 a.m. in Elmo. Burial to follow at the Ronan Cemetery. Memories of condolences may be sent to thelakefuneralhomeandcrematory.com.