An interview with Senate Committee on Indian Affairs staff member Patricia Zell


<b> Analysis - Part one</b>

WASHINGTON – As the results from Election Day 2006 rolled in and hard-line Republicans fell by the wayside in states and voting districts nationwide, the comprehension settled in that Democrats have achieved what the most audacious among them had dared to hope for – a governing majority in the House of Representatives and majority control of the U.S. Senate.

How much they’ll be able to accomplish is another question, and downstream of that one another surfaces: how much will they be able to accomplish for Indian country, especially with a stingy Republican presidential administration in office over the next two years?

Once upon a time, under similar circumstances, the Native-specific answer turned out to be ... more than anyone would have imagined at the outset. Enough to still impress and resonate, 20 years later. Enough to make even hard-nosed Washington politicos believe in the magic dust of empowerment. Beginning in 1986, when Democrats won a majority of congressional seats going into the final two years of the Ronald Reagan presidency, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs became the central player in a period of storied accomplishment on Native issues that hasn’t been equaled since. Reauthorization of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act; passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act; initiation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and, growing out of it, the National Museum of the American Indian; and a host of legislation not up to those landmark standards, but still of the first importance, all became law or got their start in the 100th Congress.

“To get just one of them done would be an accomplishment,” said Patricia Zell, then the committee’s general counsel for the majority Democrats. “And there were just scores and scores.”

Zell, who is Navajo/Arapahoe, had a hand in each of these developments, along with other top-drawer staff that made up a formidable team on Native legislation.

But the first among them to find empowerment was Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. He passed it along to the staff in full measure, but at first it seemed more likely they’d be fired. The new Democratic majority in Congress had given him the committee chairmanship, and he would become legendary in that post. But he wasn’t a familiar figure at the time. A previous committee chairman had set the precedent of mass dismissals, and there were rumors that Inouye would hire an all-Native Hawaiian staff. Instead, his first priorities were to reassure everyone they would still have a job, and to let them know he would need an education on Indian country and its issues. Zell rounded up his reading list.

She wasn’t with the committee at the time of the mass firing, but in a previous tenure she had impressed former Sen. James Abourezk, the South Dakota Democrat who served as the first chairman of the committee (known then as the Select Committee on Indian Affairs). She had been originally hired on Capitol Hill by former Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican of moderate views, at a time when tribal land claims in Maine were the leading issue of the day. Abourezk then hired her as core staff on the committee, impressed with a resume that included extensive work with the American Indian Policy Review Commission subcommittee on tribal law, one of 11 commission reports; later she graduated to the full commission, taking part in the drafting of a final report drawn from the work of all 11 subcommittees. Federal Indian policy had not been reviewed in full since the Miriam Report of the 1920s.

“It certainly was a great preparation, indeed,” Zell said.

By 1982, when she returned to the committee from taking a law degree, her resume had come to include a stint with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, investigating implementation of the celebrated “Boldt decision” (known formally as United States v. Washington) affirming tribal fishing rights in Washington state.

Inouye learned from Abourezk of her deep experience in Native affairs, and surprised her altogether by hiring her as Democratic general counsel on the committee. “I mean, he put enormous trust in people he didn’t know. And of course we had to prove ourselves.”

But that turned out to be the easy part. Inouye had taken fire from his readings, “appalled and sickened” by the historical and ongoing mistreatment of Indian people and tribes. “So he really got fired up from the very beginning,” telling the staff he wanted to accomplish as much as possible for Indians during his tenure as committee chairman.

That was all they needed to hear. “We were just like horses let out of the gate ... It was just unbelievable, and he meant it. ... You can imagine that for all of us who were sitting on the committee, wishing and hoping and praying that we could do more for Indian country, it was like carte blanche.”

In addition to moving the initiatives already mentioned, Inouye managed to nationalize the committee’s scope. Previously, senators had gone national with Indian concerns only if local issues took them there. In his first year on the committee Inouye, already a senior appropriator, put in an appropriations request for all of Indian country, asking more funds for all Indian boarding schools.

“He wasn’t tied to any particular region or set of issues, so he became every tribe’s senator.”

Simultaneously, Zell, having established a relationship of great trust with Inouye, became a kind of go-to adviser for almost any tribe with interests before Congress – a position of prominence she would maintain until 2005, when Republican-engineered changes in committee personnel structures across the board led her to retire from Capitol Hill. “I was definitely the last one of the original crew on the committee. So it definitely seemed, even to me, that a lot of institutional memory was walking out the door when I left.”

With her husband, Michael Cox, another veteran of the committee’s early days, she began a new firm, Zell and Cox Law, in Washington.

<i>(Continued in part two)