I met Hank Adams in New York City in the '60s, and we've been friends and
confidants from that turbulent time to this one.
Leaders of all movements in the day seemed to be on testosterone overdrive,
knocking each other off the charisma meter and elbowing each other out of
the picture. So many were full of themselves and various other toxic
substances, shouting orders for foot soldiers to do the dangerous and dirty
work while they talked in sound bites and slogans coined by worker bees
they never acknowledged.
Adams was different. Gentle and respectful, he didn't talk all the time and
he spoke in complete sentences, with long pauses for actual thought and
reflection. He scripted others, made them look good and dragged them into
available spotlights with him. His primary occupation was explaining Indian
history and treaty rights to Indian people and anyone else who'd listen.
He had a reputation as a smart, committed Indian rights organizer with the
National Indian Youth Council and Clyde Warrior -- a Ponca hero who
energized and motivated some Indian people of my generation in Oklahoma,
while scaring others into backlash mode.
Adams also worked at the National Congress of American Indians with Vine
Deloria Jr., a national Indian leader from Standing Rock Sioux territory in
South Dakota. Adams, like Deloria, was an intellectual who never set
himself above the people. Unlike Deloria, who was highly educated and
credentialed, Adams has a high school diploma and is largely self-taught.
I knew that Adams was a trusted advocate and strategist. I did not know
then that he was a genius.
When the fishing rights struggle in the Pacific Northwest was intensifying
and in need of support, Adams mapped out a brilliant legal and
communications strategy. He dispatched himself and others to meet with
reporters and editors, celebrities, politicians, lawyers and any interested
minority or majority folks.
He was able to explain to large and small audiences the similarities and
differences between civil rights and treaty rights, and how the laudable
goal of "equal rights" for women and people of color was a catch phrase
used against Indians by treaty abrogationists to candy coat their objective
of ending Indian rights and resources.
He served with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the Poor People's Campaign
steering committee. He involved other tribal people and they made treaty
rights part of the broad civil rights movement.
Fully cognizant of the inherent dangers of movement work, he recalls
meeting with King and the steering committee in April 1968, and returning
later the same week for his funeral. Photos of the cortege show Adams
walking in the second row of mourners with luminaries of the political and
Adams was in heady company, but kept a self-deprecating view of it all. He
tells of visiting Marlon Brando in the actor's Mulholland Drive home in Los
Angeles to ask him to lend his celebrity to the fishing rights struggle.
Adams recalls that Brando stared at him intently and appeared to hang on
his every word. When he finished his tutorial, Brando leaned forward and
asked, "Would you mind if I fixed your teeth?"
Over the decades, Adams has provided for the health and well-being of
Indian individuals and groups, but he never used what little money he had
on himself, and he never got the kind of Hollywood smile that Brando
Adams is Assiniboine-Sioux from Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian
Reservation in Montana and was raised at Quinault Nation in Washington.
This background equipped him to explain to other "buffalo Indians" about
the needs and priorities of the "fish Indians."
He was able to articulate to people like me, who envisioned catfish or bass
when we thought of fish, that salmon were like buffalo -- not just good
food, but an integral part of Native peoples' culture, economy and
For some reason I still don't fully understand, Adams is considered in
certain quarters to be radical and threatening, perhaps because of his
ability to empower other Native people with knowledge and awareness of
His "20 Points" policy document is an example of this. It became a
consensus paper and organizing tool for those who traveled to D.C. in 1972
on the Trail of Broken Treaties. Like most of the things he's written, the
"20 Points" does not carry his name. I asked him once if he minded other
people taking credit for his stuff and he said, "But that's really not the
point of it all, is it?"
When the TBT resulted in a six-day occupation of the BIA building, Adams
was the main person who negotiated an end to it, as he did with the Wounded
Knee takeover the next year. Adams also was the primary person who returned
BIA documents, after making certain that the juicy ones were reported in
hundreds of newspapers. He was arrested for possessing stolen federal
papers, but the charges were too ludicrous to stick.
That's the way Adams' life goes.
When he chaired the treaties task force for the mid-1970s congressional
study, the American Indian Policy Review Commission, he helped other task
forces, such as the one on non-federally recognized Indians, and lent
valuable research and insights to their final products. His research helped
others with jurisdiction and treaty rights cases that were later decided in
the Indians' favor.
He researched the Indian Claims Commission settlements and reported the
percentage amounts taken by the tribal lawyers, many of which were more
than 60 percent of the awards, with some higher than 90 percent. This woke
up some Native leaders about unnecessary costs of representation, and made
him a target of high rollers in the Indian bar.
Some opposition to Adams came from inside the AIPRC, especially from the
white lawyer "experts." One of these debated Adams on his language,
advising him to avoid using the words "sovereignty" and "nations" because
their use could make non-Indians angry or uncomfortable.
In his quiet, precise way, Adams asked, "But what about those tribes whose
duly-constituted names are nation?" He was cut off as he began to name
them: "Yakama Nation..."
While he was with the AIPRC, two federal spy activities came to light. One
showed a high level of FBI surveillance of and disinformation about Indian
people, and made the absurd claim that there were over 3,000 armed "Sioux
dog soldiers" training in the deserts of Nevada. The other was a report of
CIA spying on Indians in the south at a time when the CIA was prohibited by
law from engaging in any domestic surveillance.
Others in Washington were issuing press statements and grandstanding about
the communications, but Adams quietly organized a meeting at the Justice
Department to try to curb federal spying on Indian people in the future.
At the same time, he was being tailed around D.C. and the clicks on his
phone lines were so numerous as to be musical. He used to drop by NCAI,
where I worked, and we would take a break in the piano joint downstairs.
Whenever anyone was too interested in our conversation, we would break into
the Rodgers and Hart standards and show tunes that were the piano player's
favorites. I hope there are spy notes in our files saying we didn't appear
threatening and had surprisingly good voices.
Someone at the FBI still thought Adams should be watched in 1978 during the
"Longest Walk." Tom Fredericks, a Mandan lawyer, and I, who were political
appointees in the Carter administration, were returning from a White House
meeting and noticed 5-by-7 glossies of three Indian men on an Interior
Department guard's stand. One of the photos was of Adams; all were from the
BIA takeover six years earlier.
The guard told us he was under orders to detain and question the men in the
photos. We told the guard that they weren't part of the "Longest Walk," but
there were people who looked like the pictures who were in town and there
was every potential for a mix-up and violation of rights. We got the photos
removed, but never received an answer to our question about why these
people were targeted; and we later saw the same photos at a guard's station
at the Justice Department.
Adams has been called mysterious and enigmatic, but I think that's because
he's multi-dimensional and both an out-front and behind-the-scenes guy.
He's an amazing sleuth, whether he's finding the paper trail of federal
actions or documenting such pseudo-Indians as Ward Churchill, Jamake
Highwater and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.
He's always thinking and planning ahead -- way ahead -- and he remembers
almost everything, including the important people and events in his
Adams responds to everyone's call for help and he's known for working
himself to the point of exhaustion and heart attacks. He is a rarity --
someone who grasps details and the big picture, and a most kind and
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian