New book recognizes the unsung hero who gave form to American Indian sovereignty
I have dodged the bullet this year. Columbus Day has come and gone and not a single editor asked me to write about the “Native American reaction” to a holiday honoring an Italian guy who got lost and hung that “Indian” tag on us so long ago.
For the record, the fact that the U. S. celebrates Columbus Day makes the top of my personal (and I suspect a lot of other Indian people’s) “so what” list. Given the rocky history between the U. S. government and the indigenous peoples of this continent, the United States decision to revere the guy who started it all is maddeningly predictable.
Therefore, it’s my great pleasure to review a book that honors an unsung American Indian hero, Forrest Gerard of the Blackfeet Tribe via former Washington State senator Henry M. Jackson.
In his book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, Henry M. Jackson, Forrest J. Gerard and the campaign for the self-determination of America’s Indian Tribes,” Mark Trahant gives us the skinny on the creation of the 1970’s “Golden Era” of American Indian legislation.
Jackson is widely credited with helping to reverse the dreadful Termination policies of the mid-1940’s to the mid-1960’s that sought to end the trust relationship between the United States and tribes, effectively dissolving tribal sovereignty for all time. Termination policies were, according to Trahant, the ultimate political expression for assimilation.
In his role as Chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, later named the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, “Scoop” Jackson is credited with authoring the Indian Self-Determination Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Indian Finance Act, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act among others.
Trahant, a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribe, tells us the rest of the story, providing us with what he describes as the missing historical voice about these events. Gerard, Jackson’s primary agent on Indian Affairs, in fact birthed and authored the legislation that has come to represent a sea change in U. S. and tribal relations. Trahant describes Gerard as the first American Indian to design, write, shepherd and do whatever was required to move American Indian legislation through Congress.
The seldom -discussed fact that congressional staffers are actually the real movers and shakers of public policy is interesting of itself. Gerard’s role in this milieu however is especially noteworthy. Trahant observes that Gerard changed the landscape for Indian affairs so much that virtually every member of the body politic today agrees with the premise that American Indians and Alaska Natives have the right to govern themselves.
Trahant told me about his motivation for writing The Last of the Great Indian Wars.
“I really want the next generation of Native Americans to know who Forrest Gerard is and what he did. We think of great Indian leaders from the 19th century-Chief Joseph, Washakie or Crazy Horse, for example—but people like those heroes live in our time, too. Forrest is such a person.”
Reading The Last of the Great Indian Wars rekindled my own fire in the belly that motivated me as a young Indian woman to enter the field of journalism. Trahant reminds us that we can, indeed, change the world.
Some of the pioneers in Indian journalism, many of whom influenced my own career, come to life in the recounting of this heady time in our country’s history. I was especially inspired by the description of a cartoon penned by Charles Trimble of the Oglala Lakota tribe, one of the founders of the American Indian Press Association and former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. In describing the intense debate among Indians of the day regarding the support of Termination in exchange for payment, he wrote, ““Money has its own death song. Money doesn’t’ last long. It only flies away. Only the land and mountains are forever.”
Initially, Jackson was a staunch supporter of Termination polices and deeply involved with their creation. He viewed these policies as the final answer to the “Indian problem,” and an end to all further Indian claims against the U. S. Remarkably, Jackson completely reversed his stand in 1971, becoming an equally staunch supporter for Indian self -determination. Many dismiss this change of heart as simple political exigency. Jackson was making a bid for the presidency and aides suggested that it might be a good time to refurbish his record on Indian issues.
Trahant suggests, however, that Jackson had a genuine come to Jesus moment inspiring him to change his stance. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really provide us with an actual example.
In the end, it doesn’t’ really matter. Termination heard its death song signaling the beginning of landmark legislative changes affecting Indian peoples.
Trahant shares some interesting personal history in his book’s acknowledgements. After firing off several hot blooded editorials during the 1980’s in the Sho-Ban News criticizing the then assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, the man asked to meet Trahant. The man, of course, was Forrest Gerard who became an important mentor for the young journalist.
“Because of my admiration for what Gerard has been able to do in public service-I wanted to tell the stories in this book.”
Mark Trahant’s journey from an eager young reporter working for his tribal paper, the Sho-Ban News to his position as well known journalist and Indian policy wonk is an interesting story in its own right. I predict his life may one day inspire a book from the next generation of American Indian journalists.
Mark Trahant is past president of the Native American Journalist’s Association and former editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial page. During his recently completed tenure as Kaiser Media Fellow, he wrote extensively about the Indian Health Service. He is a contributing writer for the Daily Yonder and writes a blog about Indian Country, federal policy and other issues, Trahant Reports.