Modern Indian history has seen, to use the words of Dickens, "the best of
times and the worst of times." Arguably, the best of times was the decade
of the 1970s, which was the most prolific era of positive national Indian
policy and programs in the history of U.S./Indian relations in the 20th
century, notwithstanding the Indian New Deal of the 1930s.
The 1970s saw the enactment of the Indian Financing Act, the Indian
Self-determination and Educational Assistance Act, the Indian Health Care
Improvement Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Indian Religious Freedom
Act, and the Alaska Native Land Claims Act. The 1970s also saw
unprecedented return of land to the tribes, including the sacred lands
surrounding and including Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo, Mount Adams to the
Yakama Nation, and the long-awaited fulfillment of the Submarginal Lands
Act. In addition, there were many program improvements and policy changes
in the Administration, including the establishment of the office of
Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department.
Just as a dozen Washington insiders of that era have laid claim to sole
authorship of the famous Nixon Indian Message to Congress that presaged the
deluge of legislation, so too do many people and organizations make claim
to responsibility for the positive policy of that era.
But from what I have seen, as executive director of the National Congress
of American Indians through much of the 1970s, without unsung heroes like
Forrest Gerard in key positions on Capitol Hill, much of that would not
have come about in the fashion that it did. Gerard did great work - subtly,
without fanfare, and too often without recognition or even thanks. His
approach was honesty and directness in dealing with Indian country, and he
never wavered in his loyalty to the tribes. In the 1976 NCAI convention in
Salt Lake City, his excellent appraisal of growing anti-Indian opinion, and
prediction of the great white backlash, helped NCAI and all Indian country
prepare for it. These things are recorded in NCAI historical documents and
in the files of many offices, but need to be given some daylight for the
sake of modern Indian history and, importantly, out of pure gratitude.
Forrest Gerard is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. His
service to the country began early, with the U.S. Air Corps in World War
II, where he flew 35 combat missions as a member of a bomber crew over
Nazi-occupied Europe. Later he attended the University of Montana,
graduating in 1949 with a B.A. in Business Administration. Over a long,
productive tenure in government service, he worked for the state of
Montana, the newly-formed Indian Health Service in 1957, the BIA as
Congressional and Legislative Affairs officer, and the Health Education and
Welfare unit as director of one of the first "Indian desks."
In 1971 he was appointed as a staff member to the Senate Committee on
Interior and Insular Affairs, which handled legislative and oversight
responsibilities on Indian affairs. He left the committee in 1976 to
establish his own lobbying business. In 1977 he was appointed by President
Carter to the position of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the
Interior Department, the first person to serve in that newly-created
With all his federal service, Forrest never became a "bureaucrat," putting
the interests or convenience of the federal government ahead of that of the
Indian tribes. In 1976, along with another unsung hero, Franklin
Ducheneaux, he was honored by the National Congress of American Indians. In
the official honoring statement, this was said about him: "Mr. Gerard is
always available to meet with Indian tribal delegates and Indian
organizations to explain legislation affecting them, and to advise on the
legislative processes. His efforts have resulted in the Indian people's
ability to fully participate in the Governmental process."
Hat's off to Forrest Gerard, a real hero for Indian country.
Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press
Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National
Congress of American Indians from 1972 - 78. He is president of Red Willow
Institute in Omaha, Neb., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.