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Fresno State Professor Hosts Emotional Tribute to Gaylen Lee

FRESNO — Family, friends and former colleagues gathered Monday night (Sept. 9) at the Peters Auditorium on the Fresno State campus to remember Gaylen D. Lee, a prominent Mono Indian tribal elder who was killed July 6 in a shooting near his home in North Fork.

Longtime CSUF anthropology professor Dr. John Pryor organized the tribute to Lee. “Gaylen was one of my students — although I really learned more from him,” Pryor said. “We first met in 1992 and he so generously allowed me into his world — and helped me to learn and understand the Nim ways.”

Gaylen Lee speaks at a presentation he made several years ago at North Fork School  (photo courtesy Tom Wheeler)

Nim is the term North Fork Mono Indians use to describe themselves — and their language.

The two-hour-long tribute was titled “Remembering the Life of an Amazing Man: Nim Elder and North Fork Mono Tribal Archaeologist Gaylen Lee.”

During his presentation, the professor referred to Lee as “Aish.”

Noting that in many Native American traditions, it is taboo to speak the name of someone who has recently died, Pryor said, “Tonight, I’ll refer to my good friend Gaylen by the nickname I had for him, which was Aish — a Mono expression that roughly translates as ‘Don’t worry. It’ll be OK.’ It was one of his favorite things to say.”

“Aish danced between two worlds — and he did it effortlessly,” Pryor said. “He touched the lives of all of my students. We went on a lot of cultural and archaeological adventures together and I learned so much from my field work and friendship with Aish.”

Pryor recounted how Lee and his mother, Ruby Pomona, generously taught tribal outsiders the secrets of making acorn mush — a staple of the Mono diet for 15,000 years.

Dozens of people came to Fresno State Monday to attend the tribute to the widely respected Mono tribal elder

Pryor said one of his proudest moments was following Lee’s instructions and making a batch of mush that “got the stamp of approval from Ruby.”

Pryor also talked about Lee’s work in the field of “fire archaeology” and his tireless efforts to document and preserve important Nim cultural sites in and around North Fork — especially in light of the recent fires in the area.

Pryor spoke about Lee’s book — “Walking Where We Lived” — a personal memoir published in 2012 that documented six generations of Lee’s family. The professor also praised Lee’s dry sense of humor and honored his friend’s love of Hawaiian shirts by wearing one himself Monday night.

Others in the audience Monday night honored Lee for his work as director of the North Fork Indian Health Center and also recalled the successful upholstery business he operated in North Fork — and how he enjoyed coaching the local baseball team.

“Aish was a bridge builder. He built alliances within his tribe and in the wider world,” Pryor said. “He was someone who always valued education and really cared about mentoring tribal youth.”

CSUF Professor Dr. John Pryor organized Monday’s tribute to Gaylen Lee

“We can never replace Aish,” Pryor added. “But we can inspire a new generation of tribal youth to follow in his footsteps.”

At Monday night’s tribute to Lee, Professor Pryor announced he’s in the process of establishing the Gaylen Lee Memorial Fund at Fresno State.

Pryor said he hopes to raise at least $100,000 to seed the fund, which he said will be used to support outreach to tribal youth.

“Today, less than one percent of Native American youth graduate from college or universities,” Pryor said. “We’ve got to do better than that.”

Several of Lee’s relatives and Mono tribal elders also shared their memories at the tribute. And a local singer performed an original song in Lee’s honor called “Mono Wind.”

Earlier Monday, the man accused in Lee’s murder, 47-year-old Robert Eugene Moye Jr., made an appearance in Madera County Superior Court for a bail review hearing.

Moye has been held in the Madera County DOC on a $3.75 million bond since his arrest by Madera County Sheriff’s deputies in the hours immediately following the shooting.

In addition to the murder charge, Moye also currently faces two counts of attempted murder, being a felon/addict in possession of a firearm, and possession of marijuana/hashish for sale (over 2 ounces). He has entered a plea of not guilty and appeared Monday morning before Judge Dale Blea in Department 22 for less than two minutes.

During the brief appearance, Moye did not speak and his court-appointed lawyer asked for more time to prepare his case, arguing the investigation into the incident has yet to be concluded.

Judge Blea did not reduce Moye’s bail and set a date of Oct. 9 for his next court appearance.

A half dozen of Lee’s relatives attended Monday morning’s hearing and were also among the nearly one hundred people who came to Fresno State Monday night.

“It’s so wonderful to see all of the new faces here tonight,” Professor Pryor said. “Aish was truly one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. He so generously shared his culture and for that I will be forever grateful.”

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