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Honoring Hank Adams

2006 American Indian Visionary Award ceremony

WASHINGTON -- Years ago, the late Vine Deloria Jr. called him in print "the
most important Indian." And in 2005, after accepting his own American
Indian Visionary Award, Deloria took leave of the dinner party afterward
with these words: "Now folks, promise me you won't forget Hank Adams."

On March 1, at the National Press Club in Washington, Adams took his place
as the third recipient of the American Indian Visionary Award, presented
annually by Indian Country Today in recognition of a range of achievements,
among them "displaying the highest qualities and attributes of leadership
... incorporating cultural values and integrity in their work, and
defending the foundations of American Indian freedom." Adams joined Deloria
and Billy Frank Jr., the award's inaugural recipient in 2004.

There's something about the number three. The number of pattern or
synthesis in some cultures, it is the number of something great still to be
done in other cultures that emphasize, for instance, the four directions.
In any traditional Eurocentric telling, Adams, Deloria and Frank would be a
triumvirate of titans, giants who walked the earth to set people an example
for centuries to come. In the contemporary West, one can imagine a telling
focused on organizational effectiveness and the skill-sets, neatly divided
between practical activist (that would be Frank), intellectual strategist
(Deloria) and far-sighted visionary (enter Hank Adams), that are required
to accomplish the most complex and difficult tasks.

But in the Native telling, the most important people are never reducible to
the historic and exemplary modes. Instead, they're part of defined tribal
communities and kinship systems; here, their public example is spent and
their personal history stored in memory. Despite a lifetime of activism and
scholarship that couldn't help but draw attention, the unanimous view of
his admirers on a night of honors was that Hank Adams continues to embody
the quiet virtues of the unapparent ones who function as leaders in many
Indian communities. Almost every one of a dozen speakers at the ceremony,
from Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state to Oneida Indian Nation of New
York Rep. Ray Halbritter (publisher and CEO of Four Directions Media,
parent company of Indian Country Today), and Adams' family members, sounded
the themes of humility, quiet strength and conceptual power in summoning
words to sum up Adams.

In his acceptance speech, Adams himself spent 10 minutes at a time
testifying to the contributions of Indian women who are wholly unknown to a
larger public. They had their visions for their own future, and he
described these in detail. But he added that sometimes community needs get
in the way of individual vision: "They gave their lives to the efforts of
Indian people locally, nationally, hemispherically, and they had to
postpone their dreams ... It's not the person who holds the office."

He extolled the human qualities of Deloria, who on the eve of his greatest
fame took in a troubled teenaged boy from Frank's family and tutored him on
through to a high school diploma. Adams acknowledged many family members in
the audience, but went especially far out of his way to credit the Quinault
Indian Nation in Washington, not an obvious influence on a Northern
Plainsman of Assiniboine-Sioux bloodlines; yet he made it a point to say
that without the encouragement he found there as a boy, he wouldn't have
been getting any award.

Frank related that unbeknownst to anyone outside his communities, Adams is
a regular presence at the funerals of his people, and there his teaching
is, in essence: "Celebrate the life, the life of our people."

Mark Trahant, the well-known Shoshone Bannock and Assiniboine-Sioux
reporter (now an editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), wrote an essay
on the award ceremony that emphasized the sustaining power of oral history
in Indian families and their generations. He recommended Adams as a source
of future "kitchen" stories, "dished out meal by meal and consumed slowly"
to last the course of lifetimes. Tim Johnson, former executive editor of
ICT, described Adams as "Indian country's behind-the-scenes hero," a man
who sought to change history without being recorded by history.

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In that, at least, he has failed. History was taking names the day Adams
lunged in front of a fishing rights activist, back in the 1960s, who had
confirmed for a reporter that Indians have a right to the last salmon
because Indians "were here first." No one has that right, Adams corrected:
The first right is with salmon to live. Then and there, Nisqually elder
Billy Frank Jr. enlisted Adams as spokesman for Northwest Indians who were
confronting state regulatory regimes that denied their ancestral,
treaty-protected right to fish.

History was taking names again in the 1970s, when Adams served as a brain
trust behind the famous Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington and
the subsequent Indian occupation of the BIA headquarters building, probably
the high tide of constructive Indian activism in a hyper-active decade. He
was the foremost Indian diplomat during the occupation of Wounded Knee
village in South Dakota, leading President Richard Nixon's right-hand man
in Indian affairs at that time, Leonard Garment, to send a written tribute:
"But for him, either crisis [the BIA occupation or Wounded Knee] might have
ended in violence. ... My hat is off to you, Hank Adams."

And again, history wasn't wearing a blindfold when Adams served as the last
expert witness in the court case that eventually upheld treaty fishing
rights for Northwest tribes. The so-called "Boldt decision" is in the same
league of importance for tribal survival as, for example, the Winters v.
United States decision at the turn of the last century, recognizing tribal
water rights on reservations. But at the time, U.S. District Judge George
Boldt was eager to wrap up a lengthy trial, and he stated in strong terms
that it was in its last day, that he would keep the court in session for as
long as it took to conclude, even if it meant late hours without a break.
That was before Adams, a formidable scholar, took the witness stand with
his stacks of paper and his store of technical knowledge.

Hours later, according to Frank, Boldt gave in: "'Adams, I hate to tell you
but the old Swede, you've tired him out. We've gotta continue this court
tomorrow.'" Frank, who drew squalls of laughter with his practical man's
slant on the visionary whose far-sighted plans kept getting the frontline
activists thrown in jail, concluded his remarks with some of the strongest
praise a practical man can offer: "The visionary, our strategist, was there
at the end."

Not by much, though. In 1971, a would-be assassin's bullet slowed Adams
down but didn't find vital organs. Knowing so lends gravitas to one of the
evening's most hilarious experiences, related by Adams and Frank as if for
laughs only. Frank told the story first, during his introductory speech,
and Adams corrected it during his acceptance speech, explaining that
Frank's first words to him were: "If we're going to win, we've got to tell
the truth. We've just gotta make sure we don't tell everyone the same

The truth of the episode in question goes something like this: Frank was
piloting a boat downriver, headed for Frank's Landing with a load of fish
the state considered illegally taken. Two state patrol boats showed up in
his wake, intent on making an arrest and seizing the catch. Approaching the
landing (a bend in the river, really), Frank yelled to the shore, "Get the
guns out, Hank." A line of Indians came over a hill with guns and the
situation resolved itself, in Frank's telling. "We never shot anybody. But
those were years when we would have shot someone."

But as Adams the scholar recalls it, he heard Frank shout, grabbed a rifle,
ran out into a clearing in the woods along the shore, and there faced a
dozen or so state lawmen, some of them also bearing big guns. Adams dove
toward an old junk car that had been sunk in the river as a bulwark against
flooding. He braced his fall with the rifle stock, and when it hit the
ground the gun went off. At the same time his hand slipped down the rifle
stock onto the shards of a broken Pepsi bottle. At the sound of the
gunshot, the state troopers hightailed it into the woods. The men in the
state patrol boat hit the deck, and Adams watched as Frank pulled up at the
landing and the patrol boats motored on by, "blindly on past Billy down the

A local lawman later sped up to the landing and started asking questions.
Adams wouldn't tell him about his bleeding hand, but it looked bad enough
that the sheriff insisted on wrapping it. Then he headed his car downriver,
where perhaps an Indian insurrection was under way. The papers next day
reported gunshots at Frank's Landing, as well as a hand wound. But until
now, only Hank Adams knew how it happened.

That would make for a good final comment on the career of this consummate
under-the-radar change agent. But Susan Hvalsoe Komori, an attorney who
gained invaluable experience working with Adams early in her career,
delivered a better one: "He doesn't just see the big picture. He sees the
bigger picture ... You've brought each of us into your vision, quietly."