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Mark Trahant: Forrest Gerard passes on after stellar career

Filed Under: Health | Opinion | Politics
More on: forrest gerard, ihs, mark trahant, self-determination, termination

Forrest Gerard while serving as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs during the late 1970s. (Mark Trahant photo).

What is “The Canon of Indian Country?”

Those stories that are recited in schools, the ones most young people know by heart, tales of valor, excellence and an optimistic future.

We do have great modern stories to tell.

How leaders like Joe Garry or Lucy Covington out maneuvered Congress and put an end to the nonsense called termination. Or how Taos leaders patiently pressed the United States for the return of the sacred Blue Lake, even though that effort that took nearly seven decades. Or how a summer program in New Mexico helped create an entire generation of American Indian and Alaska Native lawyers.

But there is no canon. So important stories drift about in individual memory, forgotten far too easily, instead of being told again and again.

The story of Forrest Joseph Gerard is one that ought to be required in any Indian Country canon. He died on December 28, 2013, in Albuquerque.

Forrest Gerard was born on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation on January 15, 1925, on a ranch near the Middle Fork of the Milk River. He told me that his “childhood I had there would have been the envy of any young boy in the United States. We had a horse of our own. We could walk maybe 15 or 20 yards have some of the best trout fishing in northern Montana. We had loving parents. We had love, support and discipline. And this was my universe, this was a world I knew.”

That world he knew changed many times in his early life. During the Great Depression his family moved into the “city” of Browning so his father could take a job. After his high school graduation, Gerard was eager to join the military and enter World War II. He was only 19 on his first bombing mission on a B-24 with the 15th Air Force. “We were forced to face life and death, bravery and fear at a relatively young age. That instilled a little bit of maturity into us that we might not under normal circumstances,” Gerard recalled. The military also opened up access to the G.I. Bill of Rights and a college education, the first in his family to have that opportunity.

After college, Gerard worked at jobs that built his personal portfolio at agencies in Montana and Wyoming until moving to Washington, D.C., in 1957 to work for the newly-created Indian Health Service. Over the next decade or so Gerard took a variety of posts, including a coveted Congressional Fellowship, a post at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Health and Human Services.

But our story picks up in 1971 when Gerard is hired by Senator Henry Jackson, chairman of the Interior and Insular Affairs, as a professional staff member for Indian affairs. Jackson had long been an advocate for termination and his staff assistant, James Gamble, had carried out that policy with a sense of mission. By hiring Gerard, Jackson was reversing course. (He did not fire Gamble, but moved him on other legislative issues, such as parks.)

To send a signal to Indian Country. Jackson issued a statement calling for a Senate resolution reversing House Concurrent Resolution 108 -- the termination proclamation -- and the message was delivered to Yakama Chairman Robert Jim while he was on the Hill. “He rushed out of the building, jumped in a cab, went over to where the NTCA was meeting, burst into the room, interrupted who ever was speaking, and told them Jackson was introducing legislation to reverse House Con. 108,” Gerard said. “In that one fell swoop, we did more to reverse Jackson’s image in Indian Country.”

The next step was more substantial. Turning Richard Nixon’s July 1970 message into legislation. That next step was the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, eventually signed into law on April 3, 1974.

But the legislative train was running. The self-determination act was followed by the Menominee Restoration Act, the Indian Finance Act, and, what Gerard considered his legislative capstone, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

It’s hard, even today, to imagine a string of legislative victories such as what happened during the partnership of Gerard and Jackson. The record speaks for itself.

After leaving the Senate, Gerard worked on Capitol Hill representing tribes until President Jimmy Carter nominated him as the first Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Interior Department. In that post, he set the standard for the job itself, making certain that policy included voices from Indian Country.

Gerard wrapped up his career in the private sector, again representing tribes in Washington.

So why should Forrest Gerard’s story be in The Canon? Simply this: He traveled from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and built a professional career. He was prepared for that moment in time where he was offered a job with enormous potential, shepherding legislation that not only ended termination as a policy, but promoted tribal self-determination as an alternative. Sure, there had been other American Indians working on Capitol Hill, probably just two or three before Gerard, but none were given the authority to act in the name of a full committee chairman and craft law. This was new -- and huge.

After he left the committee, Sen. Jackson asked Gerard if he thought the self-determination process would happen all at once, if tribes would contract for the BIA and IHS? “No,” Gerard answered. “There would be steady progress.”

Nearly forty years later that progress continues. Today more money is spent on tribally-operated health care than on Indian Health Service operations. It’s the same at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Steady progress by tribal governments. And a story to add to The Canon.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook at:

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