Caleb Shields, past Chairman of the Sioux/Assiniboine Nation on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and longtime Indian rights activist, has recently been awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by the University of Montana. He’s a long time friend from back in my NCAI days, and I sent him a congratulatory e-mail telling him in all sincerity that I know of no one more deserving of the honor for his life of dedication to the cause of Tribal sovereignty, and the welfare of tribal people.
But I also mentioned to him that in his acceptance he should refrain from any jokes because they are invariably cornball – awful stuff. Which is not really true, actually; Caleb is a true humorist, and like all Heyokas, his humor belies his dedication and his power in dealing with unfairness and injustice.
I do recall back in 1968 riding with Caleb, his sister Shirley, and newly-elected NCAI President Veronica Murdock, on our way to the Crow Fair in Hardin, MT. We were not on the road very long when Caleb said to his sister, “Veronica is the first woman President of the National Congress of American Indians.” Shirley said not a word, and things were quiet for several minutes. Finally she said to Caleb, “OK, what’s the punch line?” Like all his friends, she was used to his humor, and always expected a punch line after any serious fact he told her.
Through much of my tenure with the NCAI, Caleb served on the Executive Committee, which is the organization’s operating board. To me, it was a truly great honor serving as NCAI Executive Director with so many leaders from all across Indian Country on the Board, especially when I look back and see what those heroes had done for Indian Country in the intervening years. And, like Caleb, most of them were unsung heroes, never demanding the spotlight, and never even expecting thanks. They saw their work as their duty.
And that’s the way it was with Veronica Murdock of the Mohave tribe of Arizona. She is from a family of tribal and national leaders starting with their father Pete Homer, Sr., and she carried on the family tradition with great honor. I first met her at the 1971 NCAI Convention in Anchorage, at a time when the organization was torn apart by dissention.
Over a single year of a profligate administration and an arrogant executive director and staff, the financial condition of the organization was near bankruptcy, and the organization’s future was in peril. A rather quiet and classy young woman, Veronica ran on a reform ticket and handily won the office of Treasurer, which was the greatest challenge of all, considering the almost insurmountable debt in which NCAI found itself.
With leaders of the new radical Indian movements disrupting NCAI meetings and conventions, and the organization struggling with its finances, and the new National Tribal Chairmen’s Association pulling tribal leaders away from it, the organization was on the ropes, and many gave it little chance of surviving.
These were the challenges that she faced and, with other great leaders like Dr. Shields, Mel Tonasket of Colville, Lee Cook of the Red Lake Chippewa, and others, carried NCAI through its darkest era. Leo Vocu, Oglala Lakota, was drafted to the position and with infinite patience, carried the day as Executive Director. Later, in 1978, Veronica ran for President of the organization, and was elected at the convention in Dallas – the first woman, ever, to serve in that office.
Back to Caleb and his wicked sense of humor and mischief.
At NCAI, I was often the target of his mischief, which always gave much glee to the other Board members. For instance, in 1976 the NCAI Board met in Billings, MT, and decided to attend Crow Fair in Hardin. At the powwow I was asked to go to the announcer’s box above the arena, and to introduce the NCAI Executive Committee members in attendance. This I did, and the host drum was asked by the announcer to sing an honoring song. As the head man and woman dancers proceeded around the arena, followed by the NCAI officers, people rose in respect, and other dancers fell in behind the officers. With the hundreds of dancers in the arena, it was most impressive, as it invariably is.
However, after the honoring dance, the announcer suggested to me that I should present the host drum with a gift of money in appreciation for the honoring song. I asked what he thought was an appropriate amount, and he responded with an amount that cleaned out my billfold, including all my per diem. As we drove back to Billings later, I complained that I had no more per diem cash and had two more days left on the travel schedule. Besides, I thought it was unfair that I pay the drum, since I had not requested the honoring song in the first place. I wondered if I should include that on my voucher for refund when I get back to the office, but commented that I would need a receipt in order to justify it.
Later on I heard a story that, when I presented the money to the drum, I had asked them for a receipt. Still later on, I had gotten the story that I had asked the drum if they would take a credit card. The stories gave many people much laughter, at my expense, literally and figuratively, and I knew exactly who it was that spread the stories. It was the person who liked to give people laughter – Caleb Shields.
So, among all the famous legends that have come out of Crow Fair, Caleb Shield’s story of my actions in the arena, although it was completely fabricated, probably still brings laughter.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, 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
firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com.
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