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Former WA state Senator and tribal policy champion John McCoy dies at 79

Office of Sen. John McCoy
Former Washington state Senator John McCoy retired from the legislature in 2020.

Former Washington state Senator John McCoy died Tuesday. He was known as a key policy leader and champion for Indigenous communities.

McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, was one of the state's longest serving Native American lawmakers. He retired in 2020 due to health reasons after 17 years as a state legislator, writing in his resignation letter that it was "the honor of a lifetime."

McCoy was also a military veteran and helped drive new economic opportunities for the Tulalip Tribes. His eldest daughter, Angela McCoy, told the Everett Herald Wednesday that she is "immensely proud" of everything he did throughout his multiple careers.

Colleagues who worked with him are also praising his visionary leadership, saying he often used his voice on behalf of overlooked communities.

Michael Vendiola, the education director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, says McCoy advocated for tribes across the region.

"In terms of his legacy, it's definitely one of resiliency and one of empowering our communities," Vendiola said.

Vendiola calls McCoy the "architect" who reshaped the way schools teach about tribal sovereignty. He was instrumental in the creation and the state's adoption of the Since Time Immemorial curriculum, now required in Washington schools. McCoy also led efforts to improve local tribes' access to voting rights, expand access to dental care on reservations. He was known as a passionate leader on environmental issues as well.

Others who worked with McCoy have shared statements mourning his passing.

"His list of accomplishments is long," said Washington State Commerce Director Mike Fong in a statement. "But we argue his true impact is his legacy; a legacy of strong yet gentle leadership and embracing the value of partnership."

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.