For decades, Joey BigBear lifted spirits with his smiles, kind deeds and the chili, fry bread and grilled fare he showered on Minneapolis’ homeless, recovering addicts, family and friends.
BigBear died Feb. 7 during a nap, following years of troublesome diabetes. He was 41 years old. The disease that first surfaced 15 years ago (and once shattered a hospital blood glucose record) is suspected of causing the heart attack that took his life, said his father, Joseph BigBear. An autopsy is pending.
“But no matter what it says, it won’t bring him back. Losing my son is the hardest thing in my life,” said the elder BigBear. “Joe was gentle-hearted — very loving and very caring. … Whenever there was a chance, he would volunteer to do stuff. It was just his nature.”
He cooked Thanksgiving dinners for the entire American Indian Center in south Minneapolis. He served the homeless, watched the kids at the center and organized its annual Christmas program.
And he loved being the chef for Sober House in Minneapolis, a program his dad ran for a decade. He went to school to study cooking, and for years “put his whole heart in his cooking. He could cook anything,” said his stepmother, Sheila BigBear.
Those touched by years of kindnesses came in droves to Joey BigBear’s all-night wake Friday at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis. On Sunday, friends and family packed a sweat lodge in Ogilvie, Minn., to pay final homage to the man who touched many with quiet unpretentious deeds.
“He was always smiling. Everybody loved his smiled. His eyes just glittered,” his stepmother said. “And he was always a very good-natured kid.”
Sheila BigBear met Joey when he was a 7-year-old powwow grass dancer and in her daughter Lisa’s second grade class at Sheridan Elementary in St. Paul’s East Side. The two kids were buddies, born just three weeks apart.
When Joey was a teen, she married his father. “He was kind of a rocker guy. He loved Iron Maiden,” she said chuckling. “You don’t find too many Native Americans liking that heavy metal music.”
Joey’s musical tastes were hard, but his attitude wasn’t. “He has always been very helpful to me. He was just good-natured,” his stepmother said. “He’d ask what do you want for dinner and he’d just make it. And he was kind of a handy man. If I needed something fixed, he would fix it. He’d fix anything.”
He warmed her heart when he started calling her mom, she said. Joey, the oldest of five, loved hanging out with his dad, brothers and stepsister. When Lisa was hurt in a car accident a few years ago, it was Joey who took it the hardest. He couldn’t shake the tears.
Joey was as in love with the woods as he was with his girlfriend of 10 years, family members say. He would catch northern pike at Rush Lake on the White Earth Indian Reservation and grill goodies for the family. He loved teaching nephews to forage for wild sage and identify poison oak and poison ivy.
His father admired Joey’s quiet strength. “He was struggling. Even with his sickness, and you could see he was in obvious pain, he never complained,” he said.
In recent years, Joey endured six insulin shots a day and chronic back pain that kept him from his beloved cooking job and the 1979 BMW 733i he was fixing up after finding it at a police auction.
“Personally, I think that just wore out his body,” his father said. “He went peacefully. He went to take nap at 11 a.m. When his girlfriend went to check on him at 11:30, he was gone. No sound. No complaint. No noise.”