Laynee Reyna. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Laynee Reyna. Photo by Robert Eliason.

This is the first in an occasional series of portraits of notable and accomplished county residents who are truly San Benito Living Treasures

For thirty-five years, the central event of Elayne “Laynee” Reyna’s annual Indian Market in San Juan Bautista was a ceremony honoring local veterans. On July 15, Reyna herself will be recognized at Hollister’s first Native American Gathering for her decades of military and public service.

“Laynee is beautiful, gracious, talented, humble, and giving,” said community leader Elvira Zaragoza Robinson. “She may look like a fragile elder, but she’s a strong-willed, strong-minded, beautiful human and an advocate for peace and love.” 

Reyna was born in Waterford, Connecticut, at dawn on the Winter Solstice in 1934. Her mother already considered the day as significant.

“She was a nature woman and was always fascinated by the sky and stars,” she said. “She told me that the solstice is the beginning of winter, and people around the world have ceremonies welcoming the sunrise.”

Laynee Reyna leading a procession at the Indian Market, 2014. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Laynee Reyna leading a procession at the Indian Market, 2014. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Reyna’s parents lived on a farm, and her family depended on the land for their food. 

“We had a poultry farm and eight cows,” she said. “We never bought anything from anybody. We would go out netting scallops on the river—scoop them up, open them, put them in mason jars, and sell them in New London.” 

At 16, Reyna began working at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, where her mother was an anesthetist’s aide.

“It was very mind-boggling because 16 is quite young to face death and dying, which I did,” she said. “But I also had to empty out and clean out the bedpans, which was a big job.  But somebody had to do it.” 

Reyna joined the Air Force at 19. She had studied art, dance, and drama, appearing in the high school production of “Slaughter on 10 Avenue,” but felt her only chance of advancing herself was to leave her small town.

“I went to the Air Force and said, ‘Here I am, do something with me,’” she said. “They said, ‘You’re going to be a medic,’ and they trained me from the get-go, starting with feeding the guys who can’t feed themselves.”

Stationed at Lackland Air Force Base, Reyna rotated through all the wards. One of the first patients she encountered was a suicidal basic trainee who jumped off a tower.

Laynee Reyna honoring veterans at the Indian Market, 2015. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Laynee Reyna honoring veterans at the Indian Market, 2015. Photo by Robert Eliason.

“He only lasted a day or two,” she said. “I thought, ‘My God, why would anyone do that?’ But you don’t know until you start getting deeper into what war is. I did not know at the time, but I had immediate post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was wide-eyed all the time.”

Serving from 1954 to 1957, Reyna said the work became increasingly stressful.

“I put on my uniform and my brogans, and I would never know what was going to happen after that,” she said. “I had one pilot who came in all wrapped with gauze except for his eyes. The minute his wife saw him, she fainted in my arms. People just don’t know about the aftermath of war. You can’t know it unless you have seen it.”

Reyna was briefly married while in the Air Force, with her husband becoming another source of stress for her.

“He was a wonderful guy when I met him,” she said. “But he went over to serve in Korea and came back a batterer. I had three children with him, but I had to escape him.”

After three years in the service, she returned to Lawrence + Memorial to become an operating room surgical technician. “I was a really good scrub nurse,” she said. “I have always had a faculty to be observant, delve into it, and just do it.” 

Moving to Salinas to be with her daughter, Reyna began working at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital.

“It was a tiny hospital then,” she said. “There was only one operating room, and we would usually be done with our responsibilities in the surgery by noon.”

In 1974, Reyna learned to fly and later worked with Doctors Without Borders to bring medical care to remote parts of Mexico. In total, Reyna spent 35 years working in the healing profession.

Even though Reyna was, on the surface, leading a very successful life, privately she still unknowingly suffered from severe PTSD.

“I went to see a doctor at the Veterans Hospital,” she said, “and for some reason, I just sat there and cried and cried. The doctor said they were going to send me to the Menlo Park Treatment Center for three months to fix me. I was an angry woman because I hated war.”

In 1984, Reyna met and married Sonne Reyna. She left Hazel Hawkins and they opened an art gallery together in San Juan Bautista.

“I decided I wanted to pursue Native American culture,” she said. “We had all kinds of paintings, jewelry, and artworks—anything that was native. We would go to native events, and I was when we went to a Sun Dance in South Dakota adopted by a Lakota chief and given the name ‘Bluebird.’”

Laynee Reyna and one of her paintings. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Laynee Reyna and one of her paintings. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Her drive to start the Indian Market began with a vision she had during a visit to Mission San Juan Bautista. 

“I saw a flash of all of these Native American people gathered where they used to have the rodeo,” she said. “I told Sonne we should go to Santa Fe to see how they do markets and we met all these people there and brought them back.”

Reyna also helped popularize the Winter Solstice event at the Mission when, on the morning of the solstice, the sun rises at a perfect angle to come through the window in the choir loft and strike the altar at sunrise.

In 2014, Renya started a new career, that of an author.  Her first book, “Wolf Dreamer of the Longest Night Moon” was inspired by wolves that lived behind her property in San Juan Bautista.

“Qualo was a white wolf, and Datsalalee was a brown wolf,” she said.  “Sonne and I would load them up in our Ram Charger every day, then take them up to near the St. Francis Retreat and run with them. I loved those wolves, and I wanted to write a story so that people could know them.” 

This book was followed by a sequel, Full Moon Over Grizzly Bear Island and then Reyna collaborated with Sonne on an anthology of Native American essays called Native American Prophecy For World Peace: Healing and Wiping Away Tears. Her fourth book, a loosely autobiographical novel about addiction and flying, A Brief Interlude: Somewhere In Salinas, is in the first stage of becoming a feature film.

Reyna says that she would like to be remembered as someone who did some good for her community. In her essay in “Native American Prophecy,” she writes:

“My dream now is to write about and paint the light I see glowing in the eyes of the innocent children, new lovers, forgotten homeless, designated mentally ill, sick, and dying, wise elders, and all who are here to experience life, amidst its sweetness and sorrow. The gift of life is precious.  Celebrate it! The circle of life has no end.”  

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