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In His Own Words: Book Showcases What Fuels the Activism of Hank Adams

Activist Hank Adams has written much over his lifetime, and ICTMN contributor David E. Wilkins took it upon himself to cull the best for The Hank Adams Reader, published by Fulcrum.

No less a figure than the legendary Vine Deloria Jr. has dubbed Assiniboine-Sioux activist Hank Adams the “most important Native American in the country.” Now, a copious collection of Adams’s stirring prose is available in The Hank Adams Reader: An Exemplary Native Activist and the Unleashing of Indigenous Sovereignty (Fulcrum, 2011).

Edited by David E. Wilkins, the McKnight Presidential Professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, this is an impressive compendium of Adams’s written work. It comprises essays, letters, memoranda, congressional testimony and other documents. The result is an homage to the man that also shines a light on the passions that fuel his activism and in turn inspires us, the readers.

Adams has a fine editor in Wilkins. He devotes considerable passion to a man whose intellect and command of the written word helped pave the way for such touchstones as the reaffirmation of treaty rights in 1974’s United States v. Washington (known as the Boldt decision) and the Native American movement.

“Adams has shown a nearly inexhaustible desire, leavened with an equal amount of sheer talent—five decades’ worth and counting—in an unrelenting effort to stabilize, strengthen, and improve the standing of indigenous groups, minority groups, and the larger society as well,” Wilkins writes at one point. “He is an exemplary Native activist, indeed.”

Assembling the collection was no easy task for Wilkins; he combed through hundreds of Adams’s documents from three universities (Princeton University, the University of New Mexico and the University of Washington) to select the most relevant. Not surprisingly, many that made it into the book are related to three 1970s issues in which Adams played key roles. The first was the treaty fishing rights battle in the Pacific Northwest. The second was Wounded Knee II. The last was the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan, which ended unforgettably with the siege of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.

In the foreword, Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, recalls his first encounter with his close friend, “the skinny Indian kid with black-rimmed glasses,” at an intertribal meeting in Washington state in the early 1960s. Adams “wasn’t much more than a teenager at the time, but you could tell he was smart,” Frank writes.

Frank recalls Adams’s role in the treaty fishing rights struggle in Washington, into which he threw himself with fervor. The fight began with the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Puyallup Tribe v. Department of Game and continued straight through the Boldt decision,in U.S. District Court.

“It was Hank who kept us going,” writes Frank, who was in the trenches with Adams during this volatile ­period.

Wilkins’s introduction gives special attention to Adams’s youth. Growing up on the Quinault Reservation, he graduated with honors from Moclips High School in Moclips, Washington. But he dropped out of the University of Washington in his second year. As Adams notes, he did so to “work full-time on Indian community problems and concerns, and their study.”

And work full-time he did, and then some. Much of that effort, though, took place not in the glare of television news cameras, but behind the scenes. Adams was constantly planning, strategizing and getting the message out. Much of his energy was devoted, eloquently, to the written word. “If there was a clear message coming from the early fish-ins, it was because Adams was able to gather sufficient resources together to get the protests under way,” Deloria writes in an article that Wilkins quotes in his introduction.

After making the decision to quit college, Adams immersed himself in treaty and statutory law. Such is the extent of his knowledge of various treaties that it would likely make today’s legal specialists envious. At several points in The Adams Reader, for instance, we find the activist eloquently interpreting the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Signed in 1854, it guaranteed to the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island and six other tribes the right to take fish and game from all “usual and accustomed” places.

We also see considerable evidence of such knowledge in letters written to local, state and federal officials, and in memoranda issued while Adams served as executive director of the Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA).

Adams’s understanding of federal policy is also profound. In a memorandum dated June 21, 1972, while he was executive director of SAIA, he provides an in-depth analysis of the actions and positions of the U.S. government in federal court and its agencies regarding the Nisqually and Puyallup and their treaty fishing rights.

The Adams Reader spotlights some of Adams’s most prolific writings regarding treaty fishing rights and the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan. But it also includes documents from his involvement with the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which was established by Congress in 1975 to address the Red Power movement. Such subjects as civil rights, media and trust land round out the collection.

In one of his most memorable interludes, Adams participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan, which was organized in 1972 in response to constant treaty violations and what Wilkins describes as a “sense of betrayal by both tribal governments and federal officials.”

The spectacle is worth recalling. Forty years ago, three caravans of protesters set out for Washington from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The 300 or so participants met up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they divided into small working groups and drafted their biggest concerns. The working groups then gave the results of their efforts—on a bevy of topics ranging from treaty rights and land rights to the federal courts—to Adams.

At that point, writes Wilkins, recalling the creation of the Twenty-Point Proposal, Adams “isolated himself in a hotel room.” And in that hotel room, “in the course of the next 48 hours, he drafted one of the most comprehensive indigenous policy proposals ever devised.”

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Choosing an Icon’s Words: ICTMN contributor David E. Wilkins perused thousands of pages of documents to gain insight into Hank Adams and his work

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network about putting together his new omnibus volume The Hank Adams Reader.

Why did you edit this ambitious book, and why now?

Most people who know anything about Indian activism from the 1960s and 1970s know that Hank had some involvement. But they don’t know how much of an involvement he had. As I began to read through all of these documents he had written or speeches he had given or testimony he had offered, I saw that he is really a gifted individual. I said, the United States—and the world—needs to learn who this man is, what he did and continues to do. He really is one of the indigenous luminaries, and I felt ethically, morally and spiritually obligated to get the word out.

And the timing was critical. I think we have always had leaders in Indian country, and yet we seem to not have the kind of national leaders we once had, in the form of Vine [Deloria] and in the form of Hank—Native leaders who can step outside their own tribal nation context and do things that pay dividends for all indigenous people.

How many documents did you have to work with?

You know, I never did an actual count of all the documents that I perused. But at one point I stacked them in a pile, and it was about two and a half feet tall. That’s a lot of documents. If I had to guess, I’d say it was between 800 and 1,000 that I had to winnow through.

What criteria did you use in selecting documents for the book?

I really looked for documents that displayed his genius in various and sundry matters, but also those that featured topics he had covered that people might know nothing about, like his outstanding exposé of the writer known as Jamake Highwater. Those and other little-known works display the breadth and depth of Hank’s convictions and knowledge in a wide variety of subjects.

How involved was Adams in the making of the book?

He takes his privacy very seriously and is not prone to lots of communication via the phone or Internet. I respect that very much. He gave me verbal permission to put the book together and was kind enough to forward several pictures when it came time to do the cover art.

He was content with that kind of engagement. He did not help with the selection of the documents. He left that to me.

What did you take away from putting this book together?

In learning about Hank and seeing how he operated—and he always avoided the spotlight until he couldn’t—he was just a vital leader. He never took himself seriously; he always took the issues seriously. I have tried to model that same kind of behavior in my own life, and I try to model that for my students, for my children. In -Indian country we need to rekindle that kind of spirit where the issues matter more than the individual ego.

The cover photo, what is it of exactly?

A Supreme Court protest on May 29, 1968. He was there as part of the National Poor People’s campaign.