Two impassioned events in Washington, D.C., in the first week of March
blended a wonderful example of dedicated activism over two generations with
a renewed call to commitment to the causes that seek justice for Native
The honoring of Hank Adams, Assiniboine-Sioux, with this newspaper's
American Indian Visionary Award is one of them. Adams, once called "the
most important Indian" by Vine Deloria Jr., has been a dedicated fighter
for Indian treaty rights from the 1960s and was instrumental in a
Washington state movement that led to the U.S. v. Washington, or Boldt
decision, on fishing rights. The other is a gathering of American Indian
and other opinion-makers, under the auspices of the American Friends
Service Committee and at the urging of the American Indian Policy and Media
Initiative, to discern and give adequate response in the increasingly
hostile media climate.
Recently in these pages, Billy Frank Jr. retold the following story about
Adams. Frank's recollection, blending the commitment of activism with the
savvy of public perception strategy, makes it doubly meaningful.
Wrote Frank: "When Hank Adams first came to Frank's Landing in winter 1964
to support the treaty fishermen publicly branded as 'renegades,' we were
"But after a newsman asked our most prominent leader whether 'Indians
believe they have a right to destroy the last fish,' and she had answered,
'Yes! We were here first!' -- the fishermen's confidence shifted
immediately toward Adams.
"He had interjected to declare: 'No one has that right. The first right is
with the salmon resource. The issue is not 'the last fish,' but the state's
allowing non-Indians to catch 13 million salmon last year while throwing
Indians into jail for catching any -- and prohibiting some treaty tribes
from harvesting any salmon or steelhead at all.'
"Al Bridges and I quickly asked Hank if he would be our spokesman. He
agreed, but told us, 'You can be the best spokesmen yourselves.'"
In that one short anecdote, Frank captured the essence of the advocacy of
Hank Adams, as well as the three main principles of successful public
Lesson 1: Take the high road. Did the Indian fishermen have the right to
destroy the resource? The right answer was, of course, "no." As Adams
corrected the earlier spokesperson's position: "No one has that right. The
first right is with the salmon resource." This is the high road. The
principle of the matter, in that case, was the protection of a fellow
species, the salmon itself.
Lesson 2: Focus on your own story. Don't let the media (or worse, your
opposition) define the issue, or define who you are. Said Adams, as retold
by Frank: "The issue is not 'the last fish,' but the state's allowing
non-Indians to catch 13 million salmon last year while throwing Indians
into jail for catching any -- and prohibiting some treaty tribes from
harvesting any salmon or steelhead at all."
This is crucial. Define the issue; define your public identity. Take
possession of the dominant media metaphor about your community and your
nation and about your issues. Make sure your message is true and clear.
Then state it a thousand times, or more. The fundamental media equation
must include your definition of the issue, and not be led by the latest
reporter's whimsical idea of what constitutes an interesting question.
Lesson 3: Adams "told us," reported Frank, "'You can be the best spokesmen
Self-representation is possible and it is achievable. "You can be," said
the honoree. This means it requires effort, likely training, the
acquisition of experience in preparing and making presentations, in
carrying the voice of communities. "The best spokesmen [is] yourselves."
In today's equation, this might teach: Don't just hire lobbyists and other
advocates; be your own best lobbyist. Be your own "best spokesman."
Frank captured a teaching moment rich with meaning and strategic
importance. It is precisely the mark of a leader to teach strategy in the
practice; and in the issue of how to represent and self-represent, Adams'
prescription was a nugget of wisdom the elders recognized and engaged.
And that's lesson 4: Seek the wise elders, and listen to what they have to
Our thanks to Frank: elder, activist and master communicator.