WASHINGTON - With a background that spanned five tribal cultures and a taste in art that would one day account for the furnishings of magnolia-shaded Pushmataha House on Capitol Hill, the young Charles Blackwell was all ears to the advice of his first mentor, then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert LaFollette Bennett: '''Plow a new furrow with your law degree.'''
Even back in 1972, Blackwell had begun to sense that beyond the essential modern assertion of sovereignty lay realms of persuasion and statesmanship that were every bit as traditional. ''What Mr. Bennett made me aware of was that traditionally, tribes treated each other with a great deal of diplomacy. If the Creeks went into Chickasaw country, they knew that it would be taken as a hostile act unless they had sent emissaries ahead, saying, 'We're going to come and we want to visit, or we're coming for trade purposes,' or this or this or this.''
But though tribal leaders had a right under the Constitution to present diplomatic credentials in Washington, few of them had the financial wherewithal to maintain a diplomatic presence there. It wasn't until 1987, with the election of Bill Anoatubby as governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, that Blackwell got a chance to pioneer a permanent tribal diplomatic presence in Washington.
His legal work on the federal recognition process for tribes had already led him to relocate from New Mexico to Washington. He had grown up with Anoatubby in Tishomingo, Okla., and they had kept up with one another over the years. Blackwell got in touch with Anoatubby in 1988 and asked if he could represent the nation's Washington interests not as an employee, but as an appointed official of the tribe - a diplomat.
''Governor Anoatubby is quick. He saw it immediately, the value of it. And he's decisive. ... My first appointment was as delegate: Chickasaw Nation delegate to the United States of America. And then, in commemoration, the governor and the lieutenant governor, and the Chickasaw Legislature came here in the mid-'90s to commemorate a visit. A Chickasaw tribal delegation had come a hundred years before, and it was a commemorative visit to commemorate that hundredth anniversary of that tribal delegation being here. And while they were here, they created the title of Ambassador to the United States of America. Stood on the steps of the Capitol, the United States Capitol, voted on it, and Governor Anoatubby swore me in on the steps of the United States Capitol.''
Diplomacy rests on respect that generates comity among different interests, Blackwell said.
''If you're going to get something done, you have to know and have the respect of the people who are in office. They have to know that Ambassador Blackwell, on behalf of Governor Anoatubby, is worthy of trust. That I'm not going to lie - lying serves no purpose - that I'm not going to push an issue for partisan reasons, that I am not going to choose sides. That's not what diplomats do. You don't get involved in those sorts of things. We support our friends. We try to educate our enemies - and I shouldn't say enemies. That's a harsh word. We educate those who don't understand, the ones who have never been around Indians. And sometimes you have to re-educate those who have been around Indians ... from states and places where they still see the color brown, and that you know the racism is a bigger issue than it is in other places.''
Anoatubby's focus has been on stabilizing the economic future of the Chickasaw Nation, ''not just for the moment, but forever.'' Accordingly, Blackwell's diplomacy has had a particular focus on encouraging business relationships between the tribal and private sectors.
In 1995, Blackwell founded Pushmataha House, named for the Choctaw chief who died on a diplomatic mission to Washington in 1824. Much like an embassy, it serves as a center of tribal diplomacy and governmental and trade affairs in the nation's capital. Along with the Chickasaw Nation, the Mohegan Tribe and Picuris Pueblo maintain a diplomatic presence at Pushmataha House.
With a voice that is big and warm and full of stories, Blackwell is in his element there as another spring comes around. ''It's just amazing to me that as a Chickasaw, a mixed-blood Chickasaw/Choctaw and my daddy was a white man, I can sit here and look on this place, this street, as the ambassador, speaking for my people. With a magnolia tree that blooms. Because you know that touch of the South never hurts.''