ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – In passing the body of law from the mid-1970s that codified tribal self-determination as federal policy, tribes and Native communities were always the main players – raising the issues, bringing them to Congress and advocating for their translation into policy. But the skills central to raising issues and moving them to a larger forum are seldom the same as the translating skills.
Once the Indian issues of the 1970s got to the point of congressional consideration, according to a strong consensus of participants at the time, Forrest Gerard played an indispensable low-profile role in crafting legislation and moving it along. A gift for synthesizing varied viewpoints, a grasp of congressional processes and personalities, a profound experience of Indian country, a commitment to its issues, an encyclopedic familiarity with the relationship between tribes and the government, character traits of tact and diplomacy and firmness, friends in high places and contacts throughout Indian country and Capitol Hill – these qualities stood him in good stead during six years as the only Indian staff member on the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.
The last bill he worked on was the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, providing for the training of health care professionals in a reservation setting, disease prevention, facilities construction, mental health care and urban Indian health care. His professional career had its beginnings in health care; perhaps the symmetry struck him when he left the committee after seeing the IHCIA through to finalization, in 1976.
“What I think I got in my long career at lower levels of government, and different levels from there on, was a pretty good understanding of the structure of government, how decisions are made up and down the line. Certainly the six years on the congressional committee gave me a much sharper insight into the legislative process and how it works.”
He went to work as Washington’s first registered lobbyist of Indian descent, and within a month he had all the clients he could handle. But with the election of Jimmy Carter as president, he was again in demand with the government. Within the Interior Department, Indian issues had always been buried in land management channels. Carter and his team had agreed with Indian country that an assistant secretary for Indian affairs was in order, and Gerard became the first. He brought Tom Fredericks, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara attorney associated with the early years of the Native American Rights Fund, on board as an assistant solicitor. Old-line bureaucrats resented them, but together they made headway on Indian water claims, proved useful in protecting tribal rights to the fish catch in the Northwest and helped to formulate Carter’s national water policy.
Gerard went back to lobbying in 1980, taking up water rights, tribal recognition, the Navajo/Hopi lands dispute and gaming issues, among others, but never chasing federal funds. He had seen enough of that in Indian affairs around Washington. “It was a principle with us – no federal dollars. If we couldn’t make it on our own, pack up and go home, do something else, because I saw too much of that.”
Many war stories and good times later, in 1992, he went into retirement.
“If you’re going to specialize in lobbying in Indian affairs, it’s absolutely critical that you know the history of federal Indian relations and the policies that are in existence and the new policies that are needed. And the other critical ingredient is that you have to have some understanding of the legislative process. You just can’t go to D.C. and set up a shingle and say, ‘I’m going to be a lobbyist.’ That’s a distinct process.
“You’ve got to know when to intervene, got to have a good sense of timing. You’ve got to understand that much of that work in the legislative process is conducted by staff, and it’s important that you be able to develop rapport with key staffers. In fact, I used to tell my clients, ‘It doesn’t bother me if I never see a member of Congress as long as we have the staffer who has the word on our issue.’ ... Those are the kinds of fundamentals that I’ve tried to convey to people; and having a good understanding of governmental structure, how policy decisions are made, the relationships between the secretariats, say, of Interior, OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and the Congress – you know that cuts both ways. Be able to mobilize broader groups when it’s [a] critical national issue ... Indians need to know how to mobilize broader coalitions when it’s a national issue as opposed to a discreet Indian bill.”
Finally, the value of a thick skin and a philosophical grounding shouldn’t be underestimated. “If someone is going to be a lobbyist, you’ll be asked to take on some issues, work against certain legislation, and if it’s something that you can’t do philosophically, then you’d best tell the client right away and let them find someone who will. ... You can have differences of opinion with a lot of people and then go on to the next issue. I think that’s basically how the system works. But there are these very controversial things in our field, where if you’re going to play a role and want to be a player as a lobbyist, then you’d better recognize that there might be these circumstances.”