Native Americans lack MLK leader


PENDLETON - When I first met Alvina Huesties, it was a Saturday in November 2009 at Walla Walla Community College's Dietrich Dome.

My assignment was to cover the Waluulapum Warriors Pow-Wow. I observed as the grandmother in her 60s carefully led her 16-month-old granddaughter, Manaia, in a ceremonial dance that Huesties' own grandmother would not have been allowed to perform in similar public display.

"We ..." Huesties said in the plural form, emphasizing her connection to her ancestors, "weren't allowed to put on our outfits. So all of our outfits were put away and hidden. And we gathered in secret to dance."

Like most people, I had a basic understanding of the civil rights that had been denied Native Americans: the loss of territory, confinement to reservations, inequitable legal system that favored non-natives, lack of voting rights, unrecognized citizenship, broken treaties, boarding schools, poverty, illness and prejudice.

But to watch and listen to a dance that was once banned in an attempt to forcibly assimilate an indigenous people somehow brought a different understanding of the civil rights that were once denied to Indians.

As I watched grandmother and granddaughter perform the jingle dance - though in truth little Manaia soon lost interest and did more of an amble about the gym floor - I began to wonder more about Native Americans and civil rights.

Today, 25 years after the first federally recognized celebration of this country's greatest champion of civil rights - Martin Luther King Jr. - it seemed worthy to try to find the champion of Native American civil rights - a Martin Luther King Jr., a Cesar Chavez or a Susan B. Anthony type leader.

It was not so easy.

"I've wondered if the reason there doesn't seem to be a national figure like King or Chavez for Indians is that the issues are so much more complex," Kristin T. Ruppel wrote in an e-mail about the topic.

The assistant professor and graduate coordinator for the Native American Studies Department for Montana State University was one of several Native American scholars I asked to help me identify a nationally recognized Native American champion of civil rights similar to King.

While she and her colleagues could not offer such a leader, all were quick to point out that the experiences of Native Americans are quite different from those of African Americans, Latinos, Asians and even other Indians.

"Every tribe is different, with different cultural mores and languages, different histories of everything from colonization to creation, different contemporary realities, etc. The only things that really unite them have to do with the imposition of federal laws and policies that tend to treat them as if they were all alike," Ruppel wrote.

So the common thread, it would seem, is occupation or colonialism of their territory by immigrants from Europe, who eventually became the government of the United States.

Tom G. Colonnese of the University of Washington American Indian Studies Department notes they have had their champions of civil rights who have risen to national acclaim, just not in the same manner as King.

"There are certainly many native historical leaders who were examples of resistance - Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Quanah Parker, Inkpaduta, Geronimo. There are a number of people who resisted white dominance and were champions of sovereignty. If one looks for examples of non-violent resistance, of the MLK type - it is hard to find figures whose influence is parallel," Colonnese stated.

But what could be found was a Native American who could and was willing to describe what it was like two, three and even four generations ago. And I had already met her two years earlier.

Now in her late 60s, Huesties easily recalled some of the civil rights infringements her grandfather, Isaac Patrick, used to tell her about.

"My grandfather had relatives on ... the Spokane reservation, and they allowed him to travel to Spokane by stagecoach," Huesties said.

She described how her grandfather had told her how their people were confined to the reservations because they were not considered citizens.

Though travel wasn't impossible, doing so required the reservation superintendent, a non-native government employee, sign an authorization letter. And that letter had to travel with her grandfather.

"He had to keep this paper with him on this trip. And they told him it was very important that he had to keep this paper. They talked about people that were caught without their papers. The majority were killed right there," Huesties said.

Numerous historical references agree that Native Americans were generally denied the right to travel because they were not considered citizens of the United States. The exceptions were those who had served in the military or had been assimilated into American society, in other words had gained citizenship.

This policy continued until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which declared Native Americans to be U.S. citizens.

But confinement would seem a minor issue when compared to what was known as the policy of assimilation that pervaded the latter half of the 18th century through much of the 20th century.

The goal was to make Americans of Indians by denying them their language, culture, home and family. Children were the target. Boarding schools the weapon. The campaign slogan was often "kill the Indian, save the man."

It was in era that the next generation of Huesties' ancestors - her parents, uncles and aunts - were raised in boarding schools.

"Some of the stories from my mom and uncles, how cruel the helpers were, everything they did was like a military school. Every place they went they marched," she recalled of what she had been told.

At first, the children of the Umatilla tribes would stay in boarding schools on weekdays. On weekends they were allowed to return to the reservation and to family. But Huesties said an epidemic was the reason her parents were given to move them permanently to a boarding school in Lapwai, Idaho.

In a way, it was life in the boarding school that kept Huesties from living the same experience as her parents.

"When we came into the world, they were never going to allow us to be sent away. That was what they didn't want to happen," Huesties said.

And so began Huesties' own personal history of civil rights activism. Her champions were her father and grandfather.

First it was the fight to attend grade school in Pendleton. That battle was won, but numerous others would follow.

Early on was the battle to be treated with respect by her peers.

"In second grade everything started. And I noticed I was different. And I would go home and ask my parents why the kids were calling me the different names. And my mom, she was very upset. And my dad went to the school and talked to the principal," Huesties said.

There were other battles with the teachers and principals, such as her brother's right to write an essay on the Whitman Mission from their people's perspective.

"When I went there, I had friends," Huesties recalled of the day she took a field trip to the mission site. "When I came back on the bus I didn't have friends because I was a killer.

"I never told my mom but said nothing other than ‘I never want to go to the place again.'"

There was also the time her grandfather had a talk with the principal after learning his grandchildren were scrounging for change to buy fries for lunch, which was all they could afford.

For the patriarch of the family, it was appalling that the government forced children to attend school and would not provide a meal, even to those who could not afford it.

"He said you should never do this to children. These are children. You cannot deny them a meal. And you are forcing them to be here in your school system. And you are denying them a meal. I don't know enough of what he told them, but he knew enough of the law to tell them what they were doing wasn't right," Huesties said, noting that free-lunch programs became available after that talk.

But of all the battles she saw her father and grandfather fight, it was her right to an education that seemed to matter most.

"Some teachers really didn't want to work with you. Other teachers, they were nice and they helped us with our studies. But a lot of the teachers, you were in the room and you could be invisible ...

"My father always said, ‘You have to make them teach you. That is their job. Don't let them not teach you,'" Huesties recalled.

Born in 1946, Huesties attended grade schools in Pendleton and Pilot Rock in the 1950s.

It was the period of the Cold War, and also a decade that saw a new threat for Native Americans: Termination policy.

It was believed by many government leaders that native people would be better off fully assimilated into the American culture, and this would be best achieved by ending the reservations.

Termination policy and the activism it helped form is not common history, and far from what comes to mind when most people think of Native Americans' civil rights, said Daniel Cobb, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Native American civil rights activism during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, Cobb wrote, when most Americans think of Indian civil rights activism, they think of the American Indian Movement. And they recall the notable occupation protests, where Indians took over and occupied public lands and facilities in protest. Some of the more notable of these occupations were Alcatraz Island, 1969; the Bureau of Indian Affairs office, 1972; and Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 1973.

But many of the protests of the 1970s are not generally seen as civil rights battles, but battles for sovereignty and self determination.

"People compare it (American Indian Movement) more to like a militant group like the Black Panther party and all. But they question if it was a civil rights movement? Some Native Americans will say no, because our issues were different," said Deirdra Almeida, director of American Indian Studies and associate professor at Eastern Washington University. She said the activism wasn't so much about civil rights, but about land and sovereignty.

Cobb noted that while the protests of the 1970s had their significance, it was the Cold War era of the 1950s that set into motion a fight for preservation and self determination that would be a foundation for future civil rights activism.

"The fact of the matter is that Native people have always engaged in political activism - whether or not it captured the imagination of the dominant society or penetrated the consciousness of the public policymakers. The survival of tribal languages and communities, the persistence of distinct identities, the protection of valuable resources and the preservation of homelands have necessitated as much," he wrote.

Perhaps the scholars are right: there is no King or Chavez or Anthony type figure who represents all Native Americans. And it would be hard to argue that their issues are not complex and different from other groups.

But I would have to argue that in my search for the champion of civil rights for Native Americans, that perhaps I have found three: a grandfather named Isaac Patrick, a father named Raymond Burke and a daughter known as Alvina Huesties.

"We had some major battles that we fought in school," Huesties said. "And some of them we won, and some we lost. But we made it through the education system and they were aware of us.

"And I always have a good feeling in my heart for my father and my grandfather and how they stood up for us."

Alfred Diaz can be reached at or 526-8325.

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