Charles Trimble: Indian affairs rife for comedy
In Indian affairs, politics has always been rife for comedy. When he was covering the political scene in the Washington news bureau of the American Indian Press Association in the early 1970s, the late Dick LaCourse, grandfather of Indian journalism, especially enjoyed the humorous side of the history he was writing. His papers, wherever they are, must contain a collection of humor that would fill a book.

In the early 1970s, for example, there was much mischief over in the New Executive Office Building of the White House complex, where the new National Council on Indian Opportunity was housed. The NCIO was under the chairmanship of Vice President Spiro Agnew at the time, and his staff perceived the agency as not so much an advocate for Indians as it was a vehicle to make their boss look good. One plan they had concocted was to hold a Thanksgiving dinner with a staging on the White House lawn of a reenactment of the First Thanksgiving. There would be a group of Indians bringing turkeys, deer and other goodies to the feast. The tribal re-enactors (presumably members of NCIO’s favorites in the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association) would be dressed in buckskins and full feathers, of course. Nothing was mentioned about the possibility of President Nixon and his sidekick Spiro Agnew dressed in black coats and knickerbocker pants, with large white starched collars, and black hats and shoes, both with buckles on them. The story was leaked to the American Indian Press Association and got out to the American Indian public. With roars of laughter from all around, and especially in Washington, the plan was quickly abandoned, and the story denied by the NCIO staff.

I’m reminded too of the time, back in 1974, the late Quapaw leader Jake White Crow, in his Senate confirmation hearing for a seat on the American Indian Policy Review Commission, was being introduced by a senator from his home state of Oklahoma. Confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill are generally joyous occasions, unless, of course, you are up for a seat on any federal court. All confirmations are on the Senate side, and it is customary for a member of the congressional delegation of the nominee’s home state to introduce the person being confirmed, and that politician takes the opportunity to show off his oratorical skills and otherwise pander to his constituents in attendance.

So it was with this Senator (whose name I won’t mention) who introduced Mr. White Crow. In his finest voice, the Senator intoned something like this: “It gives me great pleasure, Mistah Chairman, to introduce to you a fiiiine man from the great state of Oklahoma. He is known and loved by all, and I am proud to call him a dear friend. He’s a fiiiiiine citizen, a true American, and, I might add, a credit to his race.

“Mistah Chairman, I present to you Jack White Cow.”

An aide rushed up and whispered in the Senator’s ear, whereupon he harrumphed and corrected himself, “Did I say Jack? The name is JAKE White Cow; my apologies, Jake.”

The aide rushed back again and whispered, apparently, that the name is White CROW, not COW. The senator, now clearly embarrassed, just looked at Jake and smiled as if to say, “Oh, what the hell, Jake, take it away.”

My dimming memory might not be on the mark with that story, but it’s my word against anyone who might dispute the facts. It will not be found in the Congressional Record of that hearing, because Senate staffs are allowed to correct or take out any embarrassing statements before the Record goes to print for history.

The late Helen Peterson, NCAI’s beloved Executive Director of the 1950s, tells of another laughable incident. It was at a time when the “termination” movement in Congress was imminent and the NCAI was gearing up to fight. An emergency meeting was called for the Tribes to meet in Washington DC to be apprised of the situation and to plan a strategy. It was in the days when tribes didn’t generally send delegations to Washington because of the costs and a lack of discretionary funds. However, the Capitol was suddenly awash with tribal leaders, sporting western hats, and with feathers resplendent. This didn’t set well with some Senators or bureaucrats who preferred to work in anonymity, especially with legislation that would terminate the special Federal-Tribal relationship and put the tribes at the mercy of the state governments.

Senator Arthur Watkins of Utah, Chair of the Indian Affairs subcommittee and champion of the termination movement, was heard to sputter in apoplectic rage about the “damn Flatfeet and Blackhead Indians” who were overrunning the place.

And political comedy on the Tribal level would fill tomes, with stories coming from all tribes across the country. NCAI’s history of its conventions could be recorded with a winter count of one comedic incident marking each year. In one convention in the 1960s, Ossie George of the Coeur d’Alene tribe nominated for NCAI President a person he described as “upstanding and square shouldered; one who gives courage, who puts people at ease; one who is found in each and every convention caucus, and brings happiness wherever he goes. Then he placed into nomination the name of Jim Beam. After the roar of laughter died down, the recording secretary asked soberly, “Would you spell that name, sir?”

But all the strange things in politics aren’t funny. In the days of termination policy, when there was little respect for or even tolerance of tribal rights, a delegation from a Nebraska tribe visited one of their State’s Congressmen. As they waited in his outer office, the Congressman entered and the tribal delegation all rose out of respect, with the exception of one young man. Ignoring the courtesies of the group, the Congressman stood over the younger man and berated him for his apparent lack of respect. It was pointed out to the Congressman that the young man couldn’t stand because he had just returned from the Korean War where he had been shot up serving his country. The Congressman harrumphed out of the room, embarrassed but without apology.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com or at iktomisweb.com

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