Sunday, September 22, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Taking Charge -- Local Tribes Evoke The Spirit Of The Past To Shape A New Vision Of Independence

A rare reprieve, this night. There are no storms or rages or curled fists of sea water pounding Earth. Along the fringes of the village of Taholah, the shore sighs with each soft wave reaching to smooth rough stones. Usually quarrelsome, Ocean is peaceful this evening.

In the ancient code of Quinault, Ocean is revered as father of life, and Earth as mother. Mountains and Forests are made from the bodies of those who lived in The Time Before Everything Changed - before the white man conquered them and took their land.

Still, the Indians hold fast to their belief that they cannot be alienated from the land. Certainly though, they have become estranged. And the distance, imposed more than a century ago by an expanding United States, has done them none too well. The loss of identity, self-esteem, their ravaged culture, is of course nothing new. What is new is an unshakeable determination to reconnect with the land, to retrieve their heritage and rights. Across the country, tribal leaders are employing several bold strategies, including a congressionally-sanctioned experiment shifting power from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to tribal governments. Struggling under the weight of 19th-century stereotypes, Native Americans are intent on redefining their lives in 20th-century terms.

Along the horizon, the twins, Night and Day, meet. Their thin silhouettes reflect pink and gold in the ripples of the Quinault River where it spills into the sea. Once the river was the highway. Now there is an asphalt road through the village. Nearly 2,500 people are enrolled members of the Quinault Indian Nation. About 300 reside here, in neat ramblers and split-level houses, double- and single-wide trailers, government-issue HUD homes and shacks shrouded by overgrown brush.

The road leads east past the hexagon-shaped tribal headquarters building, past the new community center where a sinewy teenage boy bobs and weaves inside a ring, a shadow boxing against green fluorescent light. Next door is Taholah's new General Store & Mercantile, complete with luncheonette and daily specials.

Taholah is justly proud of its Merc. The building is less than a year old, two stories, and built of Western red cedar cut from Quinault reservation lands. Once red cedar dominated the landscape. Coastal tribes fashioned canoes and baskets and even clothes from it; now those things are mostly synthetic and mostly bought.

Neon plastic thongs, brown rubber boots, and the kind of thick yellow gloves worn by fishermen are for sale at the Merc, second floor. The Quinaults are accomplished fishermen still. Salmon remains the staff of life. Across the street is a fish-processing plant - one of the few tribal enterprises - named, appropriately enough, Quinault Pride. Within sight of the receiving dock, chinook, coho, steelhead and the famous Quinault blueback salmon are hauled from the cold river water by tribal fishermen in small skiffs. The prized fish is flown fresh, frozen and smoked to retailers and restaurateurs in California, Arizona, Illinois and New York.

North of Ocean Shores, Pacific Beach and Moclips, Taholah is an abrupt dead end marking the southern tip of the Quinault Indian Nation. Retirees in motor homes, families in camper-vans and couples in convertibles wanting to drive the length of Washington's coast must detour around the reservation through 44 miles of ragged clearcut. It is an ugly drive through a landscape abused and wasted by Bureau of Indian Affairs policy that allowed non-Native-American companies to take the timber and leave the mess. The Quinaults are now attempting to reclaim the land and replant the forest but it will be decades before the damage is undone.

Two blocks east of the Merc, the road curves into darkness. Boys on bikes swoop by like bats in the night, long-legged, collarless mutts running after them, in a race against curfew. A police cruiser, headlights swinging, rolls down the road searching for errant children and trespassers. A sovereign territory, the Quinault Nation has the right to refuse access, to close its roads, its beaches, its very borders to any but tribal members. And it has done just that, at times, to assert its right of self-determination.

A right guaranteed by treaty, it has never been fully respected. Until, perhaps, now.

Careening across back yards, the boys on bikes disappear, leaving the street empty of all but faint echoes and a glimmer of moonlight. A new moon is rising, its light distant and slight, but promising. The Quinaults say a new moon signals a time of change, a time when destiny is determined.

It may be just such a time - for all Native Americans.

FOR MANY NATIVE AMERICANS, destiny is a dusty road to unemployment, addiction and early death. A weak reservation school system makes it exceedingly difficult to succeed in competitive jobs. With the lowest per capita income of any ethnic group in the United States, health and ambition often fail. In some tribes, life expectancy is 45 years. Suicide, alcohol and drugs are the leading killers; escape is a constant temptation where so many live on the untidy edges of despair.

The crusade for self-determination is an urgent attempt to relieve the pain of daily reservation life. To end the aimlessness, the drift.

"We are hurting," says Florence Kinley of the Lummi Indian Tribe, near Bellingham. "We must begin down a road of recovery. We have a very long way to go. But if we do not begin, we will never arrive."

Leading the way are the Quinault Indian Nation, the Lummi Indian Tribe and the Jamestown Klallam Tribe, east of Sequim. Participants in a historic experiment, the Self-Governance Demonstration Project, the tribes are placing new signposts for all those in Indian Country who seek a better future.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California, the Mille Lacs of Minnesota and the Cherokee and Absentee-Shawnee tribes of Oklahoma are also in the forefront of this movement.

By demanding responsibility for their own welfare, the tribes hope to end a pattern of paternalism born of forced dependency on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the chronically troubled agency that has governed reservation life since 1824.

By treaty, the United States has an obligation to assist tribes - much in the same way it is obligated to assist trust territories such as Guam or Puerto Rico. But Congress supports the self-governance project for reasons both moral and economic. "It is unconscionable for us to allow the kind of conditions found on Indian reservations to fester within this country's borders," Arizona Sen. John McCain told his Washington, D.C. colleagues last month during a Select Committee on Indian Affairs hearing. Equally untenable, McCain said, is the gross mismanagement of public money by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Barely 11 cents of every dollar appropriated for the nation's 310 tribes is paid out to Indian Country. The rest is spent in bureau offices on wages, contract reviews, compliance reports, triplicate forms - or worse, is "lost."

Recent investigations by the Interior Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget describe an accounting system rife with error and riddled with holes. After one audit, investigators said the agency could not account for one-tenth of its last budget. A hefty $95 million.

So monolithic is its trouble, the agency does not even command respect among Washington's other bureaucracies. A survey of government executives ranked the bureau the least respected of 90 federal agencies, with Indian Health Service a close second.

Bureau officials admit there are "some problems" but argue those troubles have been overstated by investigators and overblown by the press. Eddie Brown, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, says what failings the bureau has will be corrected. A strong advocate of self-determination, Brown also promises his agency will assist self-governance tribes in all ways possible. "This may be a turning point for the tribes," he says. "This effort, this vision of independence, may create a new partnership that will carry us into the 21st century."

Brown is no doubt sincere, and if there is a man to put the agency to rights and promote Native American well-being, he's it. He has the commitment, education, experience, political savvy - and he's Native American. But Brown will need more than a little cooperation from his staff and it's unlikely he's going to get it. Entrenched bureaucrats, many staffers are more concerned about protecting their jobs than aiding Indian Country. "Altruism is rare enough and to expect it from an entrenched bureaucracy would be absurd," says Quinault Tribal President Joe DeLaCruz. "I mean, a lot of people thrive on the ills of Indian Country." The fact that bureau staff is 88 percent Native American only complicates the situation.

Congress has tried several times to improve the agency, but all attempts fail. Why? The answer generally has two parts: The first is an uncomfortable silence; the second is a mumbled admission that paternalism and prejudice have probably made for sloppy oversight and undue tolerance.

Once again, Congress is demanding change. But this time Congress insists Indian Country must be involved. Several tribal leaders are, but their confidence is thin. "We remain hopeful," says Ron Allen, Jamestown Klallam executive director, "But sometimes it feels like all we're doing is rotating four worn-out tires."

Immense and inert, the Bureau of Indian Affairs may be the greatest obstacle to Indian autonomy.

A YOUNG INDIAN MALE PADDLES a long canoe up the Quinault River. Carefully navigating a thicket of nets at the river's mouth, he glides in and out of early morning fog and opalescent light. Straining against the surge, he is thin but strong. The current is swift, the river unrestrained. From its headwaters in Anderson Glacier, the river plunges a stunning 2,000 feet to Enchanted Valley. Gathering vigor from 10,000 waterfalls, the river rushes westward to Quinault Lake, where it pauses only briefly before charging off again through dense forest and tangled clearcut.

For centuries, the Quinaults found their spiritual power alongside this river. Twenty years ago this month, they discovered their political power on a bridge suspended 30 feet above it.

On Aug. 1, 1971, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed to allow two logging companies cutting timber on the Quinault reservation to slash payments to tribal members by 30 percent. On Sept. 13, after a public vote of 100 to 1, the tribe barricaded the logging roads. Taking up position on the Chow Chow Bridge, young tribal activists declared the road would remain closed until the logging companies agreed to make payment in full. They also demanded the bureau recognize the tribe's right to manage its natural resources. After two decades of bureau-supervised logging, more than 20,000 acres of old-growth forest had been clearcut and less than 1 percent replanted; salmon streams were so choked with logging debris fish were not spawning.

The bureau and both logging companies challenged the tribe's authority to close the roads. An injunction ordering the tribe to reopen Chow Chow Bridge was issued, but the Quinault Nation would not back down. Finally, after three tense weeks, ITT Rayonier agreed to pay as promised, and improve its forest practices. Aloha/Evan followed suit a short time later.

Considered the single most important event since treaty signing, the confrontation at Chow Chow Bridge marked the beginning of an era of aggressive activism. Says tribal president DeLaCruz, "I grew up believing Quinaults have great strength, but I did not know until Chow Chow how much we had and how well we would use it."

Embarking on the self-governance demonstration project, the Quinault Nation is again testing its political power and judgment. Radicals who won, they are now moving toward the mainstream. "We're heading into uncharted waters and we're more than a little scared," DeLaCruz says. "We don't want to drown in our enthusiasm or our desperation; we're trying to be cautious."

The Quinaults, along with the six other project tribes, have begun setting their own priorities, writing their own budgets and managing their money. Responsibilities - privileges, really - that have been jealously controlled by the bureau. Despite its appalling record of waste, corruption and red tape, the agency has for 167 years dictated virtually every aspect of reservation life from tribal courts and schools to health care and law enforcement, even garbage collection and animal licensing.

Under self-governance, the agency's grip is loosened; tribes take control of services and the money to fulfill those contracts. Similar to the Model Cities Program of the '70s, local government is empowered. The idea, of course, is that local problems are better solved by local decision makers.

For example, now in charge of its tribal courts, police and child welfare services, the Quinault Nation is shifting money from paper pushers to people helpers: Two caseworkers have been hired to help families in crisis; a counselor has been added to the court's staff to work with juvenile offenders; and police officers' salaries have been bumped from a barely livable $14,000 a year to $20,000. In an attempt to create jobs and long-term economic stability, tribal leaders are putting additional dollars into land clearing, tree planting and timber-sales planning. Forestry staff has nearly doubled, with seven new hires this year.

Similarly, the Lummi Indian Tribe is making trade-offs to improve social services designed to strengthen the family, such as after-school activities, family counseling and law enforcement. The tribe is also putting more money into resource development, mainly fisheries.

Jamestown Klallam is using its new authority to unite the tribe. "Our people were scattered by the winds of change," says Allen, the tribe's executive director. "Now that the wind has shifted, we're trying to build a home they can return to."

Denied recognition as a nation until 1981, Jamestown Klallam has made purchasing land, to be placed in trust for the tribe, a priority. Right now, the reservation is a 2 1/2-acre patch of well-manicured lawn on the edge of Discovery Bay near Sequim. It is graced with an impressive tribal headquarters. A second building has been purchased and is being renovated to accommodate a new health-care clinic, cultural-education office and expanded economic-development program.

Although self-governance tribes must still negotiate with the bureau to receive much-needed federal funds, they speak as governments-to-government. "For the first time in decades we don't have to ask permission to make life better," DeLaCruz says. "If we want to patch potholes in our roads, we can do it. If want to build a new road, we can. And we are. We're building a road to the future."

Construction of that road will be time-consuming and costly. Native Americans want to do more than administer a few contracts. They want to educate their children, practice their religion, enforce their laws without interference. Above all, they wish to be recognized as equals.

That goal, to be separate but equal, will be difficult to attain. Although passionate about personal liberty, America long has held that a common identity is critical to democracy. Nationalism of any other kind hurts feelings and arouses fear and suspicion. But Native Americans don't want their heritage reduced to St. Patrick's Day, Columbus Day or Cinco de Mayo Days at Safeway.

"We don't want to be thrown into the great American melting pot," says Tim Giago, editor of the Native American newspaper, Lakota Times, and a Neiman fellow at Harvard University. "So it's going to be very, very tough. Reconciliation is going to take a lot of creative dialogue where none has existed for 100 years."

But events have overtaken the status quo. A bridge must be built with the language of respect.

"JUSHNIS-ASHA AISH KATASH hishni-nash-ha."

"If you are strong, I am here; If you are not, move over."

Oliver Mason, descendant of Chief Taxolah, sings the family Power Song so the voices of his ancestors will be heard. He is at the beach, where the Quinault River spills into the Pacific. Over the years, River and Ocean have conspired to hide the graves of the ancients, but a stiff wind carries the voices of Mason's ancestors on its back, across the generations, across the chaos.

"Jushnis-asha aish katash hishni-nash-ha. If you are strong, I am here."

Stretching his arms wide, the hereditary chief of the Quinault tribe embraces the sea, the sky, his nation. Every evening when he was small, Mason's grandfather would bring him to this spot to share with him life's wonders. When his grandfather became blind, Mason would lead the old man down and describe to him a star. "Even when it was raining very hard, I would search the sky because my grandfather taught me I must always look for the light, for the good," he says.

These nights, Mason is tugged and pulled to this place by a rambunctious grandaughter. "I bring her, she brings me," he says. "Whatever, we find our way and that is what is important."

Turning from the sea, Mason takes a seat on a stump. Facing Taholah he says, "As modern life grows stronger in the village, we sometimes stray. We forget to take time for the teachings because we are lost in television. Or we are too busy listening to ourselves on the telephone to hear the elders speaking."

A long gray ponytail hangs down Mason's back, nearly to his waist. Sixty-three years old, he is one of the elders, but still Mason listens to those older and wiser, whether they walk in the village or in his memory.

"It was my grandfather who taught me the family Power Song. I listen to him sing it now and I am grateful. He reminds me, we will survive. We are still here, and still determined to take our place."

On July 1, 1855, the Quinault, Queets, Hoh and Quileute tribes signed the Quinault River Treaty, ceding nearly a third of the Olympic Peninsula to a young United States. In exchange, the tribes were to receive a "tract or tracts of land sufficient for their wants" and continued harvest of the region's natural resources. It was one of the last treaties to be negotiated. Mason's great-grandfather was one of the chiefs to put his mark on the treaty.

A story handed down father-to-son tells of the signing ceremony. Of how, when Chief Taholah carefully drew his X, one of the U.S. agents, a Capt. Charles Mason, took the pen from Taholah's hand and, scratching out the X, wrote in Mason. "I have given you my name," the captain is supposed to have said. "Now you have a real and proper name."

It was only the beginning of a process that would strip the identity from Native Americans.

"We have not had the luxury of many things," Mason says. "Things such as thinking for ourselves, deciding how our money should be spent. Self-governance affords us those things."

INDECISION, MANIFESTED AS betrayal, defines United States policy on Native Americans. And 15 years of unwavering White House and congressional support for Indian autonomy has barely relieved decades of anxiety, for good reason. All minds are not made up. Only last month, Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, a former U.S. Interior Secretary, issued a statement opposing tribal sovereignty. "We are one country, one people," he said. "This administration is not going to stand by and wait for the balkanization of Alaska." Hickel's declaration can hardly be dismissed as irrelevant. States may not set federal policy, but certainly they can confound them.

The self-governance project does not change that. Neither does it guarantee lost lands will be restored or federal financial aid increased. "It's just not clear tribes will get the financial support they need to succeed," says A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "And if they fail, all of Indian Country will suffer."

Uncertain of the benefits, Indian Country is divided over the initiative. Ironically, the project's harshest critics are the same people who led the self-determination movement in the 1970s. "It's just another a put-up by Euro-centric capitalists," says Tony Gonzales, a longtime Indian rights activist with the International Treaty Council and American Indian Movement. "The tribal leaders buying into this thing are either ignorant or sell-outs, hang-around-the-fort kind of Indians who get off talking to Congressmen."

Less strident, but equally concerned, are those Native Americans who fear the project will sever ties with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although despised, the agency has been a constant through nearly two centuries of upheaval. "We have a love-hate relationship with the bureau," Kingman says. "We're always cussing it, but try and take it away and we'll put up a fight."

Objection comes even from within tribes participating in the project. "What are we doing? I mean, are we creating economic opportunity or simply changing the nature of our dependency?" asks Quinault Councilman Mike Mail. "We're still begging for those federal dollars."

DeLaCruz concedes economic independence is a long way off, but contends it will happen under self-governance. "The money we're taking from the feds right now is seed money," he says. "Believe me, I didn't come home to build a welfare state."

But Mail and a vocal number of others across the country remain unconvinced.

"I ask again: Beyond the happy talk, beyond the ego build-up, what is the benefit?" asks Mail. "There is no benefit. Oh sure, tribal big shots get to fly around the country, attending conferences, lobbying politicians. But what does that do for the guy sitting on his porch unemployed? Nothing."

A quarter mile from tribal headquarters and the self-governance project office, Wally Baumgarner sits on his front porch unemployed. He's not idle; he smokes, he drinks, he works on cars. In fact, he has just helped a friend haul an engine out of a battered pickup truck. He thinks he may have a future rebuilding engines. Only a few years ago, he thought he had a future rebuilding a nation.

"I helped get the self-governance project off the ground. I wrote the original proposal," he says, excited now with the memory of his work. "And I could see it, I could just see the future. Timber, tourism, a paycheck in every hand. I'll show you."

Inside the house, along a narrow hallway, a half-dozen newspaper clippings are tacked to the wall. Baumgarner is quoted frequently, and there is his photograph. Between 1983 and 1988 he was a tribal councilman, and a tribal planner.

"I got laid off a couple years ago," he says, the immensity of his frustration long ago faded from his voice, his face. "It happens. Anyway, I still have faith in self-governance. I mean, it hasn't done me any good yet, but what an opportunity. If we can just be patient."

Late in the 19th century, American Plains Indians began "ghost dancing" in the hope of driving away the white man. It may be that the self-governance project is nothing more than that. A phantom dance, incandescent but insubstantial.

Or it may be the project will rebuild nations.

It is simply too early to tell.

At this point, the only thing certain is Native Americans' determination. And that their destiny, like the Moon, will continue to wax and wane.

"Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it don't," Baumgarner says. "You just have to keep on trying."



Like the miner's canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison air in our political atmosphere, and our treatment of Indians . . . reflects the rise and fall of our political faith. - Felix Cohen Native American law scholar

Unable to decide whether to conquer or protect Native Americans, the United States abruptly shifted its policy from one to the other for more than a century. Although methods and motives vacillated, Native Americans have been treated as less than equals - beginning with policies of relocation, followed by assimilation and termination.

From the first treaty with the Delawares in 1787 until the end of treaty-making in 1871, hundreds of agreements were entered into by the federal government and tribal governments.

In the early years of the republic, tribes negotiated from positions of relative strength. But the tribes never had equal footing. First, the concept of land ownership was foreign to Indians, and second, the treaties were written in English.

As the United States pressed westward, the tribes' bargaining position weakened rapidly. By 1850, many treaties included provisions for federal authority over the internal affairs of the tribe.

Although Native Americans were able to win protections through federal courts, it was not until the Nixon administration that federal policy would again formally recognize tribes' right and ability to self-determination.

1790 to 1824

Congress establishes basic Indian Law in a series of Trade and Intercourse Acts. Central to all policy is separation of Indians and non-Indians.

Indian agents, acting on behalf of the Department of War, serve as liaisons between tribes and federal government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is established within the Department of War in 1824.

1824 to 1850

The "Indian Problem" becomes acute.

Presidents James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson push for "removal" of Indians.

At the same time, the Supreme Court is shaping a very different doctrine, one recognizing tribes as separate nations. That doctrine would influence Indian law for the next century and a half.

Despite gains with the court, Indians suffered during this period under an aggressive policy of relocation. All but a few bands of Indians east of the Mississippi were torn from their homes, loaded in boxcars, on wagons or, most often, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren reservations.

In 1849, with the East nearly free of tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was moved to the Department of the Interior.

1850 to 1887

Now tribes in the West found themselves forced into ceding their lands and moving to reservations. As the policy advanced westward, reservations became smaller and smaller. But at least the tribes were recognized.

In 1865, the government adopted the goal of "Christianizing the savages," beginning with the children.

In 1871, Congress passed a law prohibiting any new treaty agreements.

In 1887, Indian agents began gathering up Native American children and shipping them off to boarding schools.

1887 to 1934

Reservations fell out of favor, with both those sympathetic to Native Americans and those not so friendly. It was decided that the reservations would be divided, and that small plots of land would be given to individual Indians.

The Allotment Act - or Dawes Act - was passed. Over the next 50 years, the amount of Indian-held land went from 138 million acres to 48 million. Of the remaining 48 million acres, roughly 20 million were desert or semidesert. Poverty, alcoholism and suicide accompanied the loss of homeland.

In 1924, Congress granted citizenship to all Indians born within the United States.

In 1928, the Meriam Report was issued documenting the failure of the Allotment Act.

1934 to 1953

The Indian Reorganization Act was passed, ending the practice of allotment. The new law extended indefinitely the United States' trust responsibilities to treaty tribes, and authorized the return of some lands lost during the allotment period. Most significant, it encouraged self-government.

1953 to 1968

By 1950, another radical policy shift had begun. In 1953, Congress formally adopted a policy of "termination" under which Indians were no longer recognized as members of separate nations, with distinct rights. What gains Indian Country made between 1934 and 1953 were all but lost.

1968 to present

The Indian Civil Rights Act, granting such basic protections as freedom of speech and religion, was passed in 1968.

Declaring termination a travesty, President Nixon issued a new policy statement stressing the federal government's responsibility to live up to its treaties with Indian tribes. He also urged Congress to allow Native Americans to manage their own affairs.

Considered a watershed in modern Native American history, that presidential proclamation laid the foundation for today's self-determination movement and the self-governance demonstration project.

Presidents Reagan, Carter and Bush have all repeated support for Native American autonomy.

In 1988, Congress passed the act authorizing the self-governance project and providing planning money.

Seven tribes have entered into the demonstration phase; another nine tribes are expected to join the experiment next year.


Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


Get home delivery today!