Honoring Rebecca Adamson: A life of many firsts

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Rebecca Adamson was my first mentor in American Indian economic
development, giving me a couple of gentle steers towards taking on work
that has changed my life. And as her First Nations Development Institute
gets ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary, it is time for me to
acknowledge a remarkable person, even if only from the perimeter of her
remarkable career.

First Nations, which is launching the Adamson Fund as part of its
quarter-century observance (a gala will be held in the National Museum of
the American Indian in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 22), has held a steady
course and adhered to an honorable philosophy since its inception in 1980
-- culturally-relevant economic development. Along the way it has been in
the forefront on such issues as education, land and trust reform, bank
discrimination, Native financial institutions and sustainable agriculture,
among others.

Becky has won a double fistful of awards personally, but I'm willing to bet
she values more the little victories that come along the way -- like
something I observed while waiting to meet her for the first time.

I first met Becky in Hawaii in 1994. We were at a community development
conference that, while not about Native issues per se, was bursting to the
seams with Native Hawaiian energy, self-determination and the desire for
sovereignty. Becky had spoken earlier in the day and told them (adding to
the enthusiasm): "Great, I know where groups like you can get funded. Get
out your pens and take down these names."

I decided to introduce myself to her, but stood back a few feet out of
politeness as she was speaking to someone else. I'll bet a lot of you who
know Becky have seen a version of this scene: A Native Hawaiian woman,
tall, with long straight hair, was talking excitedly down at her, waving
her arms around for emphasis. Becky listened, nodding and saying something
every once in a while. And she had this tiny smile on her face, the smile
someone might have when seeing a boat they helped sponsor get launched into
the water.

Since we were both from the East Coast, Becky invited me to visit her at
the FNDI Virginia office when we were back from Hawaii. Six weeks later, I
did. I was wondering about something I had learned at that Hawaii
conference: the fact that commercial banks just about never extended
mortgage loans to Indians living on reservations. I was the managing editor
of National Mortgage News; I'd covered mortgages for 10 years, and I never
knew this. Why not? I was wondering. (Congress was able to find less than
100 mortgages made on reservations in the years 1992 -- '96, in an area the
aggregate size of Utah. And those that were made, to members of the Tulalip
Tribe of Washington and the Wisconsin Oneida, were done only because of a
tribal relationship with the bank.)

Becky gave me just about a whole morning's worth of her time, a bigger gift
than I knew at the time from the busiest person on the planet. And she gave
me several good steers, including to the Indian Land Working Group, which
coalesced after FNDI published a land consolidation manual. After a little
digging around, I wrote an editorial for NMN saying the redlining of
reservations was a national disgrace. And while I take zero credit for it
except for keeping a national media flashlight on the subject, thousands of
mortgages have been made on Indian homelands since then.

I left Becky's office that morning with about five leads for stories on
land issues or more general Indian economic development. And after I
followed them up, they left five more leads rippling in the water. And then
I had 10 more leads. Ten years later, with some 500 published stories on
Indian housing and economic development published in Indian Country Today
and other publications, I have not run out of ripples yet.

I have been pleased to run into Becky from time to time at meetings over
the years, or to speak to her on the phone, but it hasn't been often. Once,
she spent an afternoon with me just after my sister died, a generous gift
of time I appreciated at the time and still do. And I have worked with her
indirectly, as we have both had opinion pieces published in these pages
while I wrote for Native Americas magazine during the couple of years it
was published by FNDI.

I have Becky partially to thank for the direction in which my work has gone
in the past 10 years. And while I am not American Indian, when I look at my
own ancestors I see that Becky and I share considerable history. Both her
Eastern Cherokee ancestors and my Irish forbears were invaded and oppressed
by the same arrogant imperialists, the British Empire. And the results for
my people would be familiar to just about any tribe of Indians in this
country -- our lands were confiscated, our clans thrown down, religious
faith oppressed, native language suppressed; we were discriminated against,
starved, and became prone to the alcoholism and despair that always follow
oppressive domination.

I am happy to report that my own particular Irish clan, the Dal Cais (I am
Dalcassian on both sides of my family), has reconstituted itself after a
gap of 400 years. And whether or not the Irish clans become more than Web
sites and annual reunions, I'd like Becky to know that working in Indian
country has been exquisitely valuable to me, shedding light both on what it
means for me to be an American and to know and honor the experiences of my
strong, stubborn, unconquerable ancestors.

I wish I could wish my mentor a more relaxing time ahead after her decades
of labor, but she has chosen a field where, like being a Catholic or a
poet, you're in it for life. I do, though, wish her a few more of those
little smiles when she sees one of the boats she has launched take the air,
fill up the sail and launch boldly forth on the water.

Mark Fogarty has written on American Indian housing and economic
development issues for Indian Country Today since 1994.