Suzan Harjo: Appreciation for Sen. Ted Kennedy
What a friend Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was to Native peoples. During a congressional career that spanned five decades, Kennedy never turned his back on Native people or issues, especially when many of his colleagues would not take time to address Indian problems.

When an assassin cut down his older brother in 1968, the younger Kennedy picked up many responsibilities, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s chairmanship of the Senate’s Special Subcommittee on Indian Education.

In his Oct. 30, 1969 Foreword to “Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge,” Kennedy wrote that the Subcommittee’s findings and recommendations “are a call for excellence, a reversal of past failures, and a commitment to a national program and priority for the American Indian equal in importance to the Marshall Plan following World War II.” The groundbreaking study led to sorely needed reforms and advances in Indian education, health and other programs. Some of its sweeping recommendations should be revisited today.

I met the Senator in 1971, when I accompanied a group of Indian Vietnam Vets Against the War to Washington, DC. My father and two other combat veterans of World War II joined the group of younger Oklahoma Indian veterans in urging Kennedy to bring the war to an end. The Senator, who had publicly opposed the war for four years, needed no persuasion, but he wanted to hear of their experiences and their reasons for serving.

At what we thought was the end of the meeting, the Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) veterans sang an honor song for him and he asked if they would teach it to him. They taught him a “stomp” song and he was very good at the call and response, which requires his kind of big, vigorous voice. Much to our surprise, he took us to lunch and introduced us to other senators, getting most of our names right and gesturing at the people we should buttonhole. He taught us many lessons that day, including the meaning of “buttonhole,” and we left the Capitol as lifelong Kennedy fans.

I later learned that it was not unusual for him to bring such enthusiasm and generosity to his meetings with Native people. His staff members sometimes seemed a bit concerned that he was a bit too spontaneous, but I never heard of anyone who thought he was off-putting or anything less than genuine.

The Kennedy staffers were known for their dedication, drive and intelligence. Many transferred to the office of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota in their beloved boss’s waning days. As with the Senator and prominent Kennedy family members, many former staffers worked on the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama and now serve in high-level positions in the Obama Administration. The early staff in the 1960s was nearly all white males – often sons of privilege who worked for little or no pay – and became more diverse with the changing times.

Myriad Native people reported that they received the most cordial and respectful assistance from his office during meetings on the Hill, notably from Adrian L. Parmeter, General Counsel to the Special Subcommittee on Indian Education; Thomas M. Susman, Counsel to the Judiciary Committee; and Gregory B. Craig, Senior Advisor to Kennedy on defense and civil rights issues and now White House Legal Counsel. They and scores of others shaped and staffed Kennedy’s work to uphold treaty and sovereign rights; to protect Indian water and land rights; and to secure civil and human rights for Native women, children, workers, artists, voters and those with disabilities.

He championed efforts to meet the health emergencies facing Native Americans. He supported the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, and co-sponsored legislation to reauthorize it. And he never missed an opportunity to provide jobs and other means for Native people to escape suffocating poverty in Indian country and urban Indian areas. He was a prime sponsor of the Volunteers in Service to America Act of 1965; jobs and service programs in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; AmeriCorps programs of the 1990s; and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009.

The Senator knew the power of lending his good name to a piece of legislation or pointing out the potential harm in a proposed action. He agreed to be the liberal bookend to conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater in their sponsorship of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Other senators appreciated the range of support for the bill represented by the original sponsors Kennedy and Goldwater, and knew they could safely back the measure, which passed without objection.

Like a knight of old, Kennedy was willing to suit up, if not to slay the dragon of the moment, at least to shake a sword in its direction. During the Carter Administration, Attorney General Griffin B. Bell got the notion to file an unsolicited memo on parameters of the federal Indian trust with the judge who had ruled that the U.S. had a trust duty to investigate the land claims of the Indian tribes in Maine. Judge Bell had numerous meetings with those of us who disagreed and tried to dissuade him from this course of action, and Pres. Jimmy Carter finally had to overrule him.

Not trusting that the matter was fully put to rest, Kennedy questioned Bell about trust law during a Judiciary hearing on Indian water rights. Under Kennedy’s expert questioning, Bell admitted, to his credit, that the Indians, his staff and his president all told him he was wrong, and he guessed he just didn’t understand federal Indian law.

Kennedy helped block the taxing of Indian tribes in the Crude Oil Windfall Profit Tax Act of 1980. Tribes were not subject to the excise tax in any proposed bill, but were drafted into a House-Senate conference mark for a 40 percent tax, which would have been the first tax on a tribal resource in federal Indian history. Some leaders of energy tribes thought it was okay, because others entities were slated for higher tax percentages. Kennedy added his strong voice to the outrage expressed to the House-Senate conferees, and the tribal tax was eliminated.

He played an important role in securing passage of legislation that gave an economic boost to Indian businesses and economies, but which some legislators considered too insignificant or too much work to bother with. Two of these were the Tribal Government Tax Status Act of 1983 and the early 1980s’ discretionary authority for the Defense Secretary to give priority to the purchase of Native products, which was expanded as the Buy Indian Act of 1991. When those of us in the Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, Kampleman law firm hit a stone wall on these measures, Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver opened doors and his home for relaxed conversation about things that made others’ eyes glaze over.

Kennedy always liked to understand both the details and the big picture of matters carrying his name and imprimatur. His support was unwavering for legal protections for Native American sacred places. He advocated return of public lands in the Black Hills to the Sioux Nation tribes and opposed attempts by developers to injure sacred lands and site-specific ceremonies. After the Bush Administration sided with a foreign gold mining company to threaten the sacred Quechan Indian Pass, Kennedy was instrumental in 2004 in preventing the Interior official most responsible from becoming a federal judge.

There are some people who do so much in their lifetime that it seems their day must be longer than 24 hours. The Senator was one of those people. His note and call to our family when my husband died made us feel stronger and less lonely because he and an anonymous wonderful staff member had acknowledged the passing of a fine person and our deep sorrow. I wonder how many people he lifted up and encouraged, and how he found the time. I shall miss Sen. Ted, in all his humanity, gusto, compassion and grace.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), is a poet, writer, curator and advocate, who has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of lands, including sacred places. A founder of the National Museum of the American Indian and a former Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, she is President of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, DC.

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