WASHINGTON – “Long before Jack Abramoff discovered Indians and their deep pockets, a community – I call it a community of lobbyists – had evolved in Washington, D.C.”
Jerry Straus, Franklin Ducheneaux, Reid Chambers, Bobo Dean, a handful of others – these are strong names around Indian country, enough on their own to dismiss the convict ex-lobbyist Abramoff with his “inside game” prowess and his vast ignorance of the Indian communities he claimed to assist. Years before gaming gave some tribes a seat at the inside circle of Washington politics, they had been gathered to Washington on a mission ignited during the 1960s and ’70s. In the case of the first among them, the ignition twitched in the 1950s.
Forrest Gerard is generally regarded as the first registered lobbyist of Indian descent in Washington, a designation due him for the lobbying shop he opened there in 1976, between stints as the first Indian senior staff member at the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and as the first Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department. But as he tells it, he practically ran a lobbying shop out of the IHS in the late ’50s.
There is nothing like the career of Forrest Gerard to raise the question of where lobbying ends and the official shepherding of legislation begins.
Gerard grew up in Montana, a Blackfeet born and raised on the reservation. He gained some sense of federal/tribal relations from watching his parents deal with the BIA, at that time the sole channel of federal services for Indians. But mostly, he was like a lot of young people in the rural Midwest. “Unless your father owned a ranch or a farm, small business, there really wasn’t a helluva lot to keep young Montanans in the state. So I drifted into public service not from any burning desire to do well by my fellow man, but that’s where I was able to find a job. … Worked in a couple programs that were funded with federal monies. So I began to get a feel, you know, for the role of states and the role of the federal government, particularly the dollars, and then moved into the voluntary health field. In the ’50s we were rolling these big mobile X-rays around the state of Montana, doing screenings of course.” Stellar results in Montana brought Gerard a director’s post in Wyoming.
As good fortune had it, 1955 was the year Congress relieved the BIA of health care by creating the IHS. With his relatively high profile, a professional discipline instilled by World War II service as a combat pilot and a college education on the G.I. Bill of Rights, Gerard landed a fairly plum assignment in the “tribal relations” office of the early IHS.
“This would have been along about 1957. So Kay and I packed up our kids – little family that we had then – and off to D.C. we go. And I guess what happened to me from here on, I didn’t realize it, but I was becoming a student of government, and in the end learning a little bit about public administration. Something that was of importance to me in later years, when I was a lobbyist. Knowing how government functions and all that sort of thing, the decision-making process.
“And while in that position I handled all the congressional mail – nobody wanted to deal with that. And although the Public Health Service frowned on it, and we had to do this sort of sub rosa, we ran our own congressional relations office, and I headed that up. So I began getting sensitized by Congress at least – understood it, its main functions, met a few people there.”
Then in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson – “being the political animal that he was” – prevailed on the American Political Science Association to let select federal agency staff participate in a congressional fellowship program previously reserved for historians and media professionals. Gerard landed a fellowship and promptly racked up another probable first – “damned if we didn’t get a bill through Congress,” involving the partial flooding of a town by an Army Corps of Engineers dam. Between tending to constituent mail and performing case work on various veterans’ affairs issues, Gerard managed to ferret out the precedents that made compensation for the dam flooding possible. And that’s how a congressional fellow became the toast of one small town.
That was in the House of Representatives; fellows had to spend the other half of their year in Washington as Senate staff. Gerard knew people who knew Sen. George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat who became the party’s presidential nominee against Richard Nixon for the Republicans in 1972. Indians were a rarity on Capitol Hill in those days. When Gerard got a meeting, he decided to shoot for the moon.
“Well, he was on the Indian subcommittee and I knew nothing would ever come of it. I said, ‘How about if I carve out some work with your staff here, we’ll kick a few ideas around, but let me write an Indian policy statement for you.”
McGovern gave him carte blanche. With all the assistance he could ask from the Library of Congress and the different federal agencies, Gerard signed his name to an “Indian Policy 1966” that McGovern adopted.
“And we spoke of self-determination then, we trashed relocation as a failure, the importance of tribes taking control of these governmental programs – the same things Nixon did several years later” in the celebrated Special Message to Congress of 1970.
By that time, with the benefit of additional tenure at the BIA, working on the establishment of an Indian desk within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Gerard had connections on Capitol Hill going back a dozen years. Connections being the indispensable currency of lobbying, or of shepherding legislation for that matter, the stage was set for his stealth contributions to what old-school luminary Charles Trimble has termed “the best of times … 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.”
<i>(Continued in part two)