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NCAI's Average Savages fought policy with comedy

MAKE YOUR OWN: The Ross Swimmer Mask, circa 1986.
Oh, the budget has no money / If you're not pearly white / And, someone's sneakin' 'round the corner / Could that someone be Ross the Knife?
-- sung to the tune of "Ross the Knife"

When most people in Indian Country hear the name Ross Swimmer, they don't think former banker, former tribal chief or former assistant secretary. Unlike Gale Norton, who has championed those qualities in the man going before a Senate confirmation hearing today, they remember someone who cut their programs, ignored their views and tried to send their trust funds to a private bank.

"When he was assistant secretary, he didn't provide any consultation on some of the ideas on moving the money out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs," recalled National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Tex Hall of Swimmer's late-1980s reign.

The Reagan administration was a tough time for American Indians and Alaska Natives. The White House slashed the Indian budget by a third, sought to hand over Indian education to the states and convened a commission, co-chaired by Swimmer and whose membership included the recent assistant secretary Neal McCaleb, that recommended the BIA be dismantled.

Indian Country needed a way to fight back against these and other changes. NCAI, which at the time was headed by the late Reuben Snake, a Winnebago leader, did it the best way it knew how: Indian humor.

Hey, Mister Lemon Bank Man / Stash me cash for me / I'm a trustee, but I got no place I'm goin' to / . . . / I see this empire as part of a vast plan / 1.7 billion can / Assure my future in banking land
-- to the tune of "Hey, Mister Tambourine Man"

It was called, aptly, the Average Savage Review, a traveling troupe of NCAI staff, associated attorneys and friends of Indian Country who handled the stress and frustration of the Reagan years with song, dance and a whole lot of laughter.

"It was a break for us," said Suzan Harjo, who served as NCAI's executive director at the time. "It's very hard work doing the NCAI work. It was sort a staff retreat kind of thing."

The Average Savage Players, as they were known, included a who's who of Indian Country names. Attorney Sue Williams, JoAnn Chase (Harjo's successor) and (eventually) assistant secretary Kevin Gover were a few.

"We had t-shirts and everything. That was a fun time," he said. "It's true but I deny it anyway," he jokingly added.

Where have all the Indians gone / In the BIA / Where has Indian preference gone / When did it fade away
-- to the tune of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"

The Average Savages got rave reviews, including a write-up in The Albuquerque Journal, which called them a "talented group of Indian satirists." They performed at conferences, conventions and other gatherings.

A test of the group's mettle came at one of NCAI's banquets, where a special award went out to none other than Ross Swimmer. After some introductory numbers like "B-I-N-G-O" (There was a tribe that had a game and Bingo was its name-o) and "On The Dole Again" (Without our federal money, we don't have no friends), they got to some meaty tunes about Swimmer.

The action prompted Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to don a Swimmer mask, made out of paper, and exclaim -- in true Nixonian fashion -- "I am not Ross Swimmer."

According to Harjo, the honoree didn't take the attention too kindly. "It was the sort of the thing that could have been dismissed very easily by Ross if he had only had some sense of himself," she recalled.

"But he didn't understand. He has no sense of humor," she said. "How can you really trust a guy who has no sense of humor and can't take a joke?"

There won't be much joking at today's hearing, which is stacked with Swimmer supporters from his home state of Oklahoma. Some tribal leaders there have supported his nomination for a post that they also want to eliminate at the Department of Interior.

But in the audience, and all over Indian Country, there will be those who remember the man with a few simple words...

So, the budget has no money / If you're not pearly white / And, there'll be someone cutting corners / But, please don't call him Ross the Knife.

More Ancient History:
The BIA reorganization that wasn't (12/11)
Reagan returns with new administration (4/18)

Related Stories:
Swimmer slow to recall Reagan era 'fallout' (01/17)
Swimmer was promised BITAM job (1/16)
Tribes moving to oppose Swimmer nomination (01/06)
Unfit officials stick it to Indians again (12/09)
A super assistant secretary, in all but name (05/03)
Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA (02/12)
Reagan's Indian chief is back (11/20)