WASHINGTON - What is it about the senior generation of Indian leaders? Whether it's the Native code talkers, the elder statesmen, the female activists and advocates or the elected tribal leaders, they keep on stealing just about every show they attend in Washington. Keep that up, and they may not get invited back next year.
For Ambassador Charles Blackwell of the Chickasaw Nation and A. David Lester of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, that would be a problem. Though both men accepted the Department of Commerce National Director's Legacy Award for Lifetime Achievement in Minority Business Development at ceremonies in Washington Sept. 14, both said they were only about half-finished.
And they said more, placing their acceptance speeches among the distinct highlights of an evening that featured thumping music, spirited testimonials to old-fashioned American opportunity from immigrants who have achieved a once-unthinkable prosperity, and solemn memorials to the victims of Sept. 11, 2001 (only days past the sixth annual commemoration).
Geoffrey Blackwell, the ambassador's son, introduced him on a note of human decency drawn from that day of atrocities. With the Pentagon in flames and rumors abounding in Washington of other explosions, other attacks, the younger Blackwell took part in the evacuation of the Federal Communications Commission building, where he was working at the time. ''I could smell the jet fuel burning. The nervousness of the city was very palpable. People were crying and speeding down the wrong side of the street in the wrong direction. I called my father and I said, 'Dad, I can't get out of town, so I'm coming up to the Hill [Capitol Hill]. And he said, 'Okay ... my staff wanted to go home, so I sent them home to get their TVs, and change their clothes, and then to the supermarket.' And I said, 'To the supermarket, Dad?' And he said, 'Yes, to the supermarket.' And I thought, Oh man, the old man's losing it. Then he said, 'Son, folks are going to be scared, and they're going to be worried, and feeding them is going to help out. It's going to comfort them.'
''When I arrived at the house on East Capitol [Street], which is just three blocks east of the Capitol building, where droves of Hill office staffers were still evacuating out of their buildings, there were TVs on in every room [of the ambassadorial residence] and tables set out in the front yard with sandwiches. That day I met folks from Indiana and Iowa, other places, folks who had never been to my father's house but who needed a home in which to catch the news and to catch their breath.''
Together with a letter of congratulation from Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and mention of the elder Blackwell's considerable role in bringing telecommunications, energy and manufacturing projects to Indian country, the 9/11 memory made for an introduction that was hard to top, one might have thought. But having written words for three presidents from both political parties and gotten himself booed off the stage at an Indian conference years ago for preaching tribal self-reliance to the unconverted, Blackwell takes the extremes in stride. He rose to the occasion without breaking a sweat.
''Now for the next 65 years, besides keeping my own teeth, there's a couple of other things I'd like to do. ... I hope that the next 65 years brings an America that embraces its Native roots. My father was an immigrant; my mother was a Native. An America that reflects the richness of the racial diversity, both Native and immigrant, that is so wonderfully portrayed in this room tonight. And I hope that the next 65 years brings an America where our babies are safe, well-fed, unconditionally loved, and who have unlimited opportunities to fulfill their dreams. Now ladies and gentlemen, let's go make some money so we can help make those dreams come true.''
A long ovation did its best to drown out the music, and a few speakers later it was Lester's turn to impress. His skills as a speaker recommend him wherever he goes, so if an encore to the Blackwells were possible, this would be it.
''I remember as I was talking to Tom Bradley, [former] mayor of Los Angeles, 1970s,'' Lester began. ''We were asking him to help us start an Indian commission for the city and county of Los Angeles. And I was explaining to him that we were the minority with seniority. And he says, 'You mean you're the firstest with the worstest?'
''Well, he did help us get that commission started. ... We were pushing for equal rights since 1491, and we are gaining ground. It won't be long until minority business enterprise will have to include Anglos as well, because we soon won't have a majority. We'll all be minorities. And we're going to have to learn to work together, to strive together, as neighbors, as brothers and sisters of one father and one mother, to be sheltered by the goodness of the Creator and partake of the gifts ... that the Creator placed on earth for us to use, wisely.''
Lester recalled serving on the National Council for Minority Business Enterprise in 1969, helping to establish the blueprint for a minority enterprise platform during the Nixon presidency. ''And I remember us all gathering, and it was probably the most contracts the Commerce Department has ever awarded in one day. And the fruits of that tree are evident not just across America from shore to shore and from border to border, but worldwide. Why do people want to come here? Because we are a land of freedom. And we have been. And we've resisted tyranny. And we will continue to do so, whether it comes from over the seas or it's homegrown. America is the land of the free.''