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Indian advocate, humanitarian, leader, dead at 84

PORTLAND, Ore. - Even in an era of remarkable Indian activists and leaders, Helen Peterson stands out.

Executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1953 to 1962, special assistant to the commissioner of the BIA in Washington, D.C., government services officer for the BIA in Portland, executive director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations, chairman of the National Committee on Indian Work for the Episcopal Church ... the list of Peterson's credentials and accomplishments goes on and on.

The Oglala Lakota, born at Pine Ridge, S.D., Aug. 2, 1915, died in a nursing home in Vancouver, Wash., July 10 from complications related to Parkinson's disease.

In talking with the people who worked with her and knew her best, it becomes clear that no matter how many pages list her endeavors, her awards, the board memberships and her many ethnic interests, Peterson was bigger than all of them.

At a time when June Cleaver of television's "Leave it to Beaver" fame fit the mold of what a woman should be, Helen Peterson was a single mom, striding through the halls of Congress as NCAI executive director, educating legislators and representatives of other organizations about the terrible impact House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108) better known as the Termination Act, on tribes and individuals across the nation.

Forrest Gerard, former assistant Secretary of the Interior, regards Peterson's work against the Termination Act and the equally insidious 1953 Public Law 280, the first general federal legislation extending state jurisdiction to Indian country, as a "kind of heroic battle."

"She and the late Joe Gerry, who was president of the organization (NCAI) at the time, I really give those two credit for mobilizing the tribes and networking the churches, the National Council of Churches, the labor unions and like-minded organizations," Gerard says. "I think she imbued in a lot of (Indian) leaders a better understanding of how the legislative process works. ... And I believe that she contributed more to bringing a coordinated drive in opposing termination that ultimately led to more enlightened policies down the road."

Of almost equal note in Gerard's eyes was Peterson's efforts convening all Indian tribes from across the nation at a meeting in Chicago to hammer out what was called a Declaration of Indian Purpose.

"I think it was primarily through Helen's efforts that this document, representing the vision and hopes and aspirations of tribes, led to a more enlightened policy under Nixon," he said.

Raised in a poor family near Pine Ridge, Peterson graduated from the Hay Springs (Neb.) High School in 1932. That same year, while working on her bachelor of science in business education at Chadron (Neb.) State Teachers College, she started work as a student assistant.

She wouldn't retire from her labors for another 53 years.

In the course of those years, Peterson rose through the ranks to hold some of the most influential positions in Indian country. She sat on the boards of directors of 26 different organizations and committees, including the Girl Scouts of America, the National Association of Intergroup Relations Officials, the American Indian Civil Liberties Trust and the National Council of Churches of Christ.

She worked as an advisor for 23 other groups and movements, among them the United States delegation to the Second Inter-American Indian Conference in Cusco, Peru, the White House Commission on Food and Nutrition and the Daughters of the American Revolution's National Indian programs.

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She was a member of 19 organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League, the NAACP and the Latin American Education Foundation.

When Peterson moved to Portland in 1978 to be closer to her son's family, she took the job as government services officer for the BIA. In that capacity she was at the forefront helping tribes throughout the Northwest determine goals and develop the means and programs to accomplish them.

A devout Episcopalian, she founded the Church of the Four Winds, an ecumenical Christian ministry for urban Indians.

"She had this sort of relentless drive to continue to learn and continue to work and continue to move," says Ramona Rank, a Klamath Indian and associate minister at the Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland. "She never forgot who she was and she never let people who came into contact with her forget who they were either."

Rank, who met Peterson while a student at a women's college in Denver, says Peterson encouraged young Indian people like herself to "know their story," to discover their history and understand what the issues were beyond the "beads, braids and buckskin illusion."

Greatly in awe of Peterson, who was executive director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations at the time, Rank says the thing that impressed her most was how kind and encouraging she was.

"For me, the great mystery and gift of Helen Peterson was, here was a woman who walked in the halls of Congress lobbying these legislators and being at the White House and lunching with Eleanor Roosevelt. And yet she had time and she had the passion to make sure that young people were affirmed and learned ... that you're valuable and needed and that you're going to be able to make a difference."

A woman of seemingly inexhaustible energy and determination, Peterson, on top of everything else, helped established formal scholarships for young people, often writing $25 checks or $100 or $200 checks out of her personal funds to help them.

Max Peterson, a retired Washington state veterinarian, remembers his mother as always being up late into the night and then getting up early every morning.

"She was also blessed with the personality and gift of gab that lets you talk to people and relate to them," he says. And she had a gift for "parting people from their money for whatever cause she was focused on."

Asked to share remarkable stories about Peterson, one and all replied that it wasn't so much the individual remarkable actions she took, which were legion, but rather the fact her life was so consistent, so powerful in its intent to uplift and assist others.

"Wherever she was and whatever she was involved in, she was a dynamo, a dynamic person who just inspired people to do things better," says longtime co-worker at the Portland BIA, Hiroto Zakoji. "She had such wide, diverse interests insofar as ethnic minorities ... and the problems that the ethnic minorities have had here in this country."

"Her love and her kindness and her vision, it's so remarkable," says Rank. "An advocate and a woman of great stature that we were so lucky to have with us, she was my friend and my colleague and my mentor. And I was so lucky to be a part of her life."

A memorial service for Helen Peterson is planned at the Trinity Cathedral in Portland. Contact Ann Scisns for information at (503) 281-1860.