Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Lakota honor song wasn't out of place in Senate

President Richard Nixon signs H.R.71, a bill to return the sacred Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, on December 15, 1970. Tribal leaders stand with him at the White House. Photo from National Archives

The story of Greg Grey Cloud's honor song in the Senate (and his removal from that chamber) reminded me of a story.

On December 2, 1970, the Senate was debating the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo. In the gallery, on the front row was the Cacique, Juan de Jesus Romero, Gov. Querino Romero, James Mirabal, and Paul Bernal.

Sen. Henry Jackson was trying to get enough votes for a substitute bill, one that had the backing of the Interior Committee and that had passed the House, but it would not have returned the sacred Blue Lake.

On the other side, Sen. Barry Goldwater gave a passionate defense of the Taos' cause. He dismissed the House bill. "To me, it is like someone telling me, 'You can continue to go to your church, but it is no longer your church.' "

When the votes were counted the House bill was defeated and soon after the Senate by a margin of 70-12 voted to return Blue Lake to the Taos.

After the vote, the Cacique stood up quietly and in a gesture of triumph he raised the Pueblo canes -- gifts from Spain, another from President Lincoln, and the last cane from President Nixon. He didn't say a word, and the Senate floor went silent.

Then the entire Senate looked up at the gallery and applauded loudly.

I have been looking for a picture of the Senate that day. I interviewed the secretary of the Senate a few years ago and he did not think one exists.

Before he died, I interviewed John Ehrlichman who told me his version of this story. He said it was the most remarkable day. Members of the Nixon White House, Republicans all, were lobbying alongside liberal Democrats such as Oklahoma's Sen. Fred Harris. Ehrlichman, like Nixon, considered this Senate vote a major triumph.

So when some say the Senate was just following its rules when they removed Grey Cloud after his honor song -- I suggest they look at the Senate's history.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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