Avery Dennis Sr., a former trustee of the Shinnecock Indian Nation known as "Chief Eagle Eye," died Saturday of heart failure, his family said. He was 86.
Dennis fought and won strategic land-claim battles for the tribe over outside challenges in his nearly two decades as tribal trustee -- the top tribal office.
He was an advocate for the tribal sovereignty and the Shinnecock's successful federal recognition effort in 2010.More coverageComplete coverage: Shinnecock Indian Nation
Dennis was also a substance abuse counselor and introduced a recovery program on the Southampton reservation that remains in place.
"He was a wonderful man," said tribal spokeswoman Beverly Jensen, speaking for the current tribal trustees. She also grew up with Dennis, and remembered him as "a big brother."
Dennis' daughter Diane Smith remembered her father's love of family, travel, swimming and boating, along with his important contributions to tribal culture and government.
"He loved his family very much, especially his wife," Dorothy, said Smith. "He was a loving and caring dad. He loved the beach. He always had cookouts."
Former trustee Randy King, who was chairman during the tribe's federal recognition in 2010, recalled Dennis' vital counsel during the decades-long effort.
"We had to confer with him many times on issues that needed clarity from the past," King said. "He was a special person, full of life, and a great man."
Dennis was born to William Penn and Pauline Dennis on April 4, 1929, and attended the Shinnecock One-Room School House. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and rose to the rank of sergeant.
Dennis returned to live on the reservation and work for the U.S. Postal Service, from which he retired after 20 years. He received his high school diploma in his 50s, Smith said, and went on to study and work as a substance-abuse counselor, creating the tribe's first substance-abuse program more than 30 years ago.
While he spent nearly all his 86 years on the reservation, Dennis loved to travel, and logged miles with his wife in Hawaii, California, Florida and Mexico, among other places, Smith said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Dennis is survived by another daughter, Doreen Dennis-Pepe; sons Avery Dennis Jr., Andre Dennis, Alton Dennis and Danny Collins Sr., all of the Shinnecock reservation; 18 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren.
Dennis was predeceased by his sister, Yvonne Penn Farmer, and a daughter, Darlene Dennis.
Dennis was an elder at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, where a memorial service was held Tuesday, followed by burial with military honors at the Shinnecock tribal cemetery.