On March 25, 1949, Donald Matheson and his wife Pauline received a great blessing from God with the arrival of their first-born, Paul Martin Matheson. From the very day that his parents heard their baby boy’s first cries, they knew that Paul would be someone special. Fate smiled and destiny laughed joyfully knowing that Paul would touch countless lives on his earthly journey, leaving magical, sweet memories in his wake as precious gifts for his loved ones to share when it came time for him to no longer be here in body. Paul passed away on June 2, 2017 yet his spirit remains as vibrant as ever as told by his loving family in the following look back on Paul’s life.
A TEENAGE REBEL
A member of the Puyallup Tribe, Paul grew up on the Puyallup reservation in Fife until he was a young man. Eventually he would move with the rest of the family to his mother’s reservation at Coeur d’Alene but his heart stayed with the Puyallups. He attended Fife Schools as a youngster, and didn’t fare well there in those times of open prejudice toward Native Americans.
“He didn’t do well in school – it was very racist at Fife (Schools) back in the day,” his sister Charlene Matheson said. “I pulled out our yearbook the other day and under the student photos it had all the clubs the students participated in and their grade point averages, and underneath Paul’s it said, ‘Aw, shucks, who cares?’ That still makes me angry when I think about it.”
Adding more to the harassment Paul received for being Indian, he was kicked out of school because his hair was “too long.” So he shaved it all off.
“Then he was kicked out for having it too short,” said his youngest brother Chuck. “The school said they wanted to make sure that more students didn’t follow suit and shave their heads.”
Paul ended up leaving Fife Schools and finished his coursework at Green River Community College where he earned good grades and his high school diploma.
Paul was always there for his tribe, and took part in historic events in Puyallup history including the Fish Wars of the late 1960s/early 70s. As music has run through the Matheson family for generations, he joined up with a band called The Renegades to raise bail money for tribal fishermen and fisherwomen arrested on the front lines. With his dad Don Matheson on lead guitar, Uncle Joe Matheson on rhythm guitar, Paul on bass, brother David on drums and cousin Charlie Cantrell as singer, the group went all around Indian Country to play at dances and send the money back home.
“They did popular songs of the day, like the Beatles and Buddy Holly… They were awesome,” sister Charlene said.
During his teenage years, Paul considered himself a rebel. In the eulogy he wrote for Paul’s funeral, Chuck told of his brother’s nonconformist ways with a humorous look back at his big brother’s shenanigans: “It was the 60s. Fast cars, cruising around, hanging out, slicked-back hair. Paul was the coolest. One problem with that, Mom and Dad were very religious at the time. We had to go to church three or four times a week. Needless to say, Paul routinely skipped out. He told me he would stand on the corner in full view of the church and smoke cigarettes. Rebel all the way.”
This led to run-ins with the law only because of how Paul looked, not because he was committing crimes. “In the 60s, police didn’t care much for cool guys, especially Native American cool guys. Especially the Fife police. He told stories of being blamed for numerous crimes he did not commit, even being interrogated for hours and beaten with a garden hose. I was very little back then, but I believe it was a common practice for police to beat a confession out of people,” Chuck wrote.
Over the next 10-and-a-half years from his birth, Paul’s six siblings joined the family, and he took his role of big brother very seriously. He gave them all unique nicknames too, as he did to most everyone who was around him for any length of time. He became famous for his nicknames among those who knew him, because if Paul granted you a nickname it meant he considered you family whether you were related to him or not. When he teased someone or reminded them for years about something funny they had done, it was Paul saying, “I love you” in his own, special way.
“He loved giving out nicknames,” said his sister Diane. “I’ve noticed that everybody had semi-cool nicknames but he called me ‘Nose,’” and she laughed as she recalled Paul’s wonderful sense of humor and the pranks he would pull on his little sisters.
“He was the classic big brother times a billion,” said Charlene.
A FAITHFUL HUSBAND AND FATHER
In 1996, Paul married Cathy Howard and they were blessed with Nick, their first born, then came Paula, Jessica and Dianna. Paul and Cathy were married for 47 years until Paul’s untimely death. Times were difficult back then on the Coeur d’Alene reservation – jobs were hard to find and money was tight – but there was plenty of love to go around such that happiness reigned in the Matheson household.
Naturally, Cathy has a wealth of fond memories of her late husband and those that she holds dear involve Paul’s impulses to do something fun that led them to many adventures together. For example, one day he up and said, “Let’s go to Vegas! Elvis is playing!”
“He said we could go down and get a flight back as soon as possible so we did it just spur of the moment,” Cathy recalls. “We got our seats and Paul was disappointed so he gave the waiter $100 for better seats. We were on the edge of the balcony just above Elvis. It was so cool. That was the year Elvis died so I was really glad we did it.”
Another time they took off for Cancun complete with first-class airline tickets. “He arranged for us to go to the Mayan pyramid and he knew everything about it. The next night he said we were going to go on a boat on the bay by the ocean. Turned out it was a lovers’ ride with a six-course dinner, drinks, songs and dancing. It was the coolest. He was the love of my life. He was always doing things like that.”
For Paul’s niece Hozoji Matheson-Margullis, even as a child she knew that her uncle was larger than life. "He seemed like a superhero to me as a little kid because he was so fun and had so much cool stuff all the time,” she said. “And as an adult, once I knew he was a human (not a superhero) he became one of the sweetest and most unique people I have ever known."
A CRITTER’S BEST FRIEND
There was always something happening at the Matheson homestead, and a lot of times it had to do with the menagerie of dogs, cats and domesticated wild animals that lived there. There were several cougars, a black leopard, buffalo, bear, deer, elk, moose, a few other exotic cats and more. Chewie the cougar was the first the Matheson’s had and he holds a special place in the family’s hearts.
“When Paul laid down he would call him and Chewie would come running and jump in the bed with him, go under the covers then back up to lay by him. But Chewie always had a habit of head-butting – not to be mean, just for attention,” Cathy said.
Paul loved animals of all shapes and sizes and was an unabashed cat lover with a special fondness for newborn kittens, which brought out all the love in him that there was to give.
“He had dogs and countless amounts of cats,” brother Chuck said. “Kittens he referred to as ‘eews.’ He loved each and every eew, but there was always a good eew. Every time one of his cats would give birth to eews people would come around wanting one. He would give them away but it was very obvious that he was a little heartbroken every time, especially if he let you get away with a good eew.”
Wife Cathy remembers when their black leopard Caesar got out of the cage and pandemonium ensued. “She was having a fit so I grabbed the portable kennel that was always outside. Paul ran and got his gun in case the leopard decided to be bad because he was free to do whatever he wanted. But I thought Caesar was scared. I called him to me and grabbed his front feet, trying to pull him down to me so he could get in the kennel. I finally got him in the kennel, locked it and we took a breath. Then Paul was checking his gun and found out it wasn’t even loaded!” She laughed out loud at this memory. “We sure thought we were safe!”
Paul’s daughter Jessica Matheson grew up in the Matheson zoo and it instilled in her a lifelong love for all animals. Now an award-winning miniature horse trainer at Spirit Thunder Miniature Horses and Training Center in Coeur d’Alene, she recalled a funny story from when she was in kindergarten and wanted her first horse of her own. She wasn’t even old enough to read but it became clear that horses would be her destiny.
It seems that she and her dad were out driving near their homestead one day and little Jessica spotted a sign that caught her attention. “There was a sign that had a horse on it – that’s all I knew – and I thought it said horses for sale because it was a horse sign. But my dad said, ‘It says free horses to girls who can read.’”
She figured out what the sign really said after she entered first grade and learned to read – and her daddy got her that pony.
“Paul loved having family close by,” Chuck said. “Almost every night of the week there were nephews and/or nieces staying the night. When he would go to a movie, he would take all of us. None of us ever paid for anything.”
AN ASTUTE BUSINESSMAN
Even though Paul was really shy in school and struggled to make it through, he grew and developed into a visionary businessman without going to college but by relying on his own intelligence and way with people.
His cousin, Puyallup Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud, calls Paul “the Barnum and Bailey of Indian Country” for his showmanship and ingenuity in bringing new and exciting things to Indian Country. He was a pioneer in Indian gaming and partnered with various machine manufacturers that wanted to get their equipment onto Indian reservations everywhere. He went to tribes and introduced them to gaming machines, and Paul had samples of these machines on his property for potential buyers to examine.
“In the very beginning Paul saw the money before anyone figured out what it was going to become yet,” Chuck said. “If he got an idea and got into creativity mode, he wouldn’t sleep for more than an hour or two at night. He was all about business and obsessed with it. He didn’t want to go work for somebody. He wanted his own piece of the pie.”
Chuck said that Paul opened up the first fireworks stands on the Coeur d’Alene reservation and in Puyallup on River Road, partnering with his brother Dave and cousin Ruben Wright, Jr. It was a big success.
“Nobody in the Western states ever imagined what fireworks would become, but he did,” Chuck said. “Once we all moved to the Coeur d’Alene reservation, Paul opened a smoke shop and fireworks stand on our property there. Back then he was the only employer around and just about everybody on the Coeur d’Alene reservation worked for him at some point. It was way off the beaten path but Paul made it successful enough so that he could afford to rent a better location just south of Worley.”
To attract customers, and give the tribal community a fun place to hang out, Paul did it big. He would bring in barbecues and invite all the Coeur d’Alene elders and feed them and they’d light off big fireworks too. He gave out free Pepsi and hot dogs to attract business, hot air balloon and helicopter rides; he organized events like boxing matches and concerts, he had powwows there and usually two or three radio stations broadcasting live… Paul knew how to create excitement and everyone on the rez had a great time when Paul was being the “ringmaster” that he was.
He opened Renegade Smoke Shop, which was very successful, and Indian Country Smoke Shop and Fireworks, which was another resounding success and became Fightin’ Creek Market now owned and operated by son Nick. Baby Zack’s Smoke Shop in Milton is another of Paul’s business creations.
The onset of Indian gaming caught Paul’s business mind like wildfire. As Chuck told it, “You couldn’t have a conversation with Paul without him talking about Class 2 machines and Class 3 machines, what he wanted to do, what he needed to do and what he was going to do. He worked endlessly to get his foot in the Indian gaming door. He traveled throughout the country to reservations everywhere getting to know tribal officials and people in charge of gaming on those reservations. He attended every gaming conference ever held over the span of many years.”
When gaming companies would try to recruit him, Paul told all of them flat out, ‘no!’ He wanted to be his own man who relied on no one else for his and his family’s livelihood, and he did this beautifully.
And Paul didn’t stop with smoke shops, fireworks and gaming. Fast cars, low riders, monster trucks, Harley Davidsons – Paul loved all of it. He opened Matheson Racing, a low rider/4x4 shop, in Coeur d’Alene. “He had the business growing, but apparently the city of Coeur d’Alene wasn’t ready for a Native American entrepreneur so they made it so he wasn’t able to purchase the insurance he needed to remain in business,” Chuck said.
But that didn’t stop Paul from getting behind the wheel or mounting that motorcycle. He built cars and won first place at shows all around the country. Paul was the first Indian to win World Nationals at Spokane Raceway Park in the 1990s. He thrived amid the camaraderie among the racing community and was always out and about in the crowds at racing events thoroughly enjoying car and bike talk with like-minded folks.
“Without a doubt, Paul was a total badass biker, and the best riding partner I’ve ever had,” Chuck said – even when Paul had his Pomeranian dog Polar Bear stuffed inside his black leather jacket to go along for the ride and a regular stop for a huckleberry slushy.
THE MOST GENEROUS MAN
Paul’s generosity was mentioned a lot over the days of his wake and funeral, as his loved ones remembered this man with a heart of gold and a giving soul. No matter what he was focused on – his family, his businesses, his many furry friends – he always had time, and an open hand, for people.
“For us family members, at one time or another he not only helped us, he took care of us,” Chuck said. “If any of us were going through a tough time and needed a place to stay, without hesitation we could go stay with Paul. It wasn’t just his door that was always open; his refrigerator too, whatever we needed. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times he helped me financially. He never said no.”
Honoring Paul after his passing, Coeur d’Alene Tribal Vice Chairman Ernie Stensgar spoke on Paul’s generosity in helping the community. Paul’s son Nick thanked his father for his giving ways by putting it on the Fightin’ Creek Market’s billboard: “The most generous man I ever knew. RIP Paul Matheson.”
In closing his eulogy, Chuck sent up a prayer of thanksgiving to the Creator for Paul and for his having found such an amazing woman as Cathy to share his life with.
“You are, and always have been, a beautiful and amazing woman – a godsend for all of us, but especially for our brother Paul. We love you. I can’t say it any more clearly than that. God bless you! Thank you so much for taking care of our brother for the past half century. Cathy, Nick, Paula, Jessica, all of Paul’s and Cathy’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we all mourn with you. We all celebrate his life with you. Heavenly Father God, thank you for blessing us all with Paul Martin Matheson.”
With heartfelt thanks to Puyallup Chairman Bill Sterud, Charlene, Chuck, Cathy, Diane Allen, Jessica and Hozoji Matheson-Margullis for their generosity in providing the information that made writing this story possible.
The family of Paul Matheson sends big, big thank you's for all of the love and support we received from so many relatives and friends during this heartbreaking time.
Elsie Thomas, there aren't enough words to express how thankful we are for your help, along with Merilee and Daniel. You came to Coeur d'Alene right away to help us get Paul home in the most respectful, loving manner. And you walked us through all of the most difficult decisions when our brains weren't working. The Matheson family, and our Tribe, are so blessed to have your assistance.
Cousin Bill Sterud, you officiated just the kind of service that Paul would have loved – a celebration of his life. I don't know how you got through it, with your heart hurting right along with us. You are the best!
Brother Chuck Matheson, the eulogy you gave for Paul was perfect. You honored his life and captured his spirit in the most outstanding way, and managed to stand up and give a profound delivery that touched our hearts with tears and laughter even though you also lost your big brother.
All the relatives and friends who sat with us at the hospital as we said goodbyes, and held us up, thank you.
My beautiful nieces Paula Matheson, Monique Bob Rounds, Cece Curtis Cook, Tami Curtis and Nikisa Arthur, wow! You dazzled us as you stepped up, listened to us elders, and then organized and followed through to make sure all elements of the service came together. You stayed by our side throughout, as questions and decisions kept popping up each moment. You are ready to carry on leading our next generation of the family.
Cousin Ed Curran, thank you for your beautiful music at the wake. You are a rock star, and you kept on singing through your tears. Niece Cece Cook, your beautiful song at the service truly soothed our souls.
Sam Lozeau, Cajetan Matheson, Alec Miller, Chiarpah Matheson, Michael Allen Jr., Marcus Bob, William Big Man, and Quanah Matheson, pallbearers, thank you for carrying Paul to his final resting place.
All the friends and family who offered stories, songs and prayers, thank you. Coeur d' Alene Tribal Council Vice-Chairman Ernie Stensgar, thank you for traveling and offering your kind words on the contribution Paul made to the CdA Tribal community during the time that he lived on the Rez. All the family and friends who traveled to Puyallup Rez to be with us for our send off of Paul, thank you. All the family and friends who stopped by the house to make sure we were eating and staying hydrated, helped us go through photos and make phone calls. All of the friends from over the years, from Fife and Tacoma, the Coeur d'Alene community, the auto racing friends, and of course, the Fife gang from the old days!
The cooks had a special request for our food, and they respected the picky eaters in our family and cooked and served the most delicious meal. Thank you Lisa Earl, Joylene Miller, Dorothy Earl, Nadine Dillon and all the others....
Cousin Maggie Edwards, the tables for the dinner were exquisite. Thank you for giving us your love and creating the beautiful table settings.
The cemetery guys, Don Finley, Ed Butler, and your crew, you are such beautiful spirits. Your presence in the cemetery as part of our services is so appreciated.
Thank you all at the Culture department and Youth Center for making cedar roses for our large family to remember this day. The roses were still wet at the services, so I know you must have stayed up all night getting them done for us. Bless your hearts! Janice Guiterrez, thank you for the special roses you made for us at Puyallup.
Puyallup Tribal Council, thank you for all of the assistance, for making the services available to us, for your generosity and flexibility in allowing family bereavement time.
Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council, thank you for helping our family travel to Puyallup for the services. My personal long distance thanks for watching over my blessed family at CdA.
Sylvia Miller, I asked to see if you could find someone to make sure the graves of our Dad and Lou were cleaned up and ready for company, and you went personally and pulled weeds. That will warm my heart forever.
Cousin Lauren Jo Butler-Thomas, you made memories for a lifetime and gave us stories that will get told to the next generation – what an awesome gift to bring fireworks to the wake and the funeral – you are a personal hero to the kids forever!
Roleen Hargrove, when I said that we were too stressed out to figure out a giveaway, you told me that I had to do that for Paul, and donated blankets to show our appreciation to those who helped.
To the staff of Elder's House of Respect, thank you for all of your kind assistance.
Matt Nagle, Puyallup Tribal News, thank you for your sensitivity and genuine interest in knowing Paul so that you could write a truly heartwarming article. Your article tells his story in a way that will help fellow tribal members who didn't know him understand his place in tribal history and will also help future generations of our family feel like they knew us better. You are a true pleasure to work with. Your beautiful writing is becoming an important part of our family history that will be passed on to our children and grandchildren.
And thank you to all of our co-workers and supervisors for your warm wishes and understanding that we are going through a healing process now.
Thank you all from the bottom, top, and all the way in between, of my heart. The spirit of family and community that we experienced through this time will forever add to the warm memories we have of our brother, husband, father, uncle, cousin or friend.
Charlene Matheson for the Paul Matheson family: Cathy, Nick, Jessica and Dianna Matheson; Charlene, David, Chuck and Donna Matheson, Marge Zarate, and Dianne Allen and many, many, many youngsters!