Hank Adams is one of the bravest and finest men I have ever known. His
bravery is not foolhardy or mad, but that of one who totally recognizes the
dangers he faces and goes ahead anyway -- not once, but year after year.
When I say "finest," I think of his kindness, intelligence, humor, and his
persistence in good causes. These virtues are elevated by his ability to
put them together and accomplish benefits not just for himself, but for all
I have seen a soldier go out to his death for his comrades, a television
reporter venture into automatic weapons fire to get the best film for his
network. I have had a hospice patient who, as cancer fed on him, thought
mainly of the suffering of the person in the next bed. Brave? Absolutely,
all of them; and many of them admirable as humans. But did they necessarily
have those other qualities, as Hank has, that quite complete a person?
Let me cite an episode I shared with Hank that illustrates what I mean.
The American Indian Movement and its allies took over the BIA in November
1972. Hank Adams got in touch with a lawyer he knew at the White House and
negotiated a truce. The American Indians inside the BIA were escorted
peaceably from the building by federal and local law enforcement agents.
Unbeknownst to the officers, they were also escorting thousands of
liberated documents from BIA files hidden in sleeping bags and clothing and
car trunks. These proved beyond dispute how white America had tricked and
robbed them of their birthrights, violated treaties and otherwise abused
Every reporter who had written about American Indian affairs wanted to see
those documents. Hank had formed a bond with Jack Anderson and me. We three
had crusaded often in our then-powerful column for tribal rights.
One afternoon in January 1973, Hank called me and in his typically calm way
asked if I could leave in a few hours for Arizona. He said he would arrange
for me to get copies of many of those long-suppressed papers. I picked up a
few hundred in cash from Jack at his home, rushed to the airport and flew
Hank had set up a meeting for me with AIM leaders, who took me to a bowling
alley where the crash of pins would thwart any FBI electronic bugs. After
they were satisfied I would not betray them, they sent two of their number
with me to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
There, at one point under an armed guard, I was provided with copies of
explosive documents detailing how the federal government had treated
American Indians like slaves, confiscated their land and shattered sworn
treaties in ways that even today shock my sensibilities. These papers were
being sought by teams of FBI agents all over the country and possession of
them was a federal crime carrying 10 or more years in prison.
Jack and I, helped enormously by Hank every step of the way, did a long,
stunning series called "The Trail of Broken Treaties" which appeared in
hundreds of newspapers. The FBI was furious and inserted a young Latino
police recruit posing as a Southwestern tribal activist into the BIA
occupiers' ranks to report back on whatever he could learn of the papers.
Meanwhile, Hank arranged for more thousands of pages to be sent in large
cardboard boxes by commercial bus to Washington. He went through them in a
small Washington apartment, and in this batch there was nothing of
Still, Hank reasoned that the return of them to the BIA might give him a
good faith kick-start toward new negotiations with the White House on
behalf of the tribes. He and I and Anita Collins, a dauntless Paiute, were
loading up the documents in my small car to take them cross-town to the BIA
when FBI agents, tipped by their informant, swarmed out of nearby hiding
places and arrested all three of us.
Hank had been jailed so many times during protests that he actually
summoned up a smile. It is worth noting that while the agents handcuffed my
white wrists in front of me, they handcuffed Hank's uncomfortably behind
him. When I asked why the difference, one agent, somewhat abashed, claimed
it was all a matter of different arrest techniques. We didn't buy that.
Hank and I were locked in a cell with drug and what seemed to be violent
felony suspects. Hank quickly lay on a bench and went to sleep, while I
fended off streams of curses because I was a reporter and we put criminals'
names in the paper.
Then, while we were awaiting indictment, an honest FBI supervisor told me a
BIA employee had informed him that Hank had been on the way to the BIA. Why
else but to return the papers? Nevertheless, his FBI and Justice Department
superiors maintained the charges against us, which, as I said, carried 10
But when our tough lawyers convinced the government that their case was
bellying up, Justice struck a deal that would let the grand jury drop our
cases without our endangering our sources.
In the aftermath, the American Civil Liberties Union gave me a high award
for refusing to reveal the names of American Indians who helped me get the
papers. I am proud of it, of course, but why was Hank not also on the
podium that night? I was much more moved when the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)
made me a "blood brother" with the name Hia-wha-sho-nee (which refers to my
writing). The impressive formal ceremony was presided over by Chief Russell
Hill and other elders.
Why have I detailed this incident? True, it is only one of the many that
illustrate why I remain, over all the years, so impressed by Hank. But this
single episode contains all the elements I cited in the beginning of this
article to define him:
His courage, of course. But also his intelligence, his kindness, his humor,
his persistence in the good fight, his accomplishments.
A last personal note. When Hank reads this, his modesty is going to lead
him to say -- with that slow smile and half-chuckle of his -- "Oh, Les, you
Les Whitten is a prize-winning former investigative reporter for The
Washington Post, Jack Anderson and others. He has written 18 published
books, including 10 novels and four books of poems. Many of his
investigative articles involved American Indian rights and he is proud of
the honor bestowed upon him by the Haudenosaunee.