SEATTLE – Sen. Edward M. Kennedy passed away at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Aug. 26. He was 77. Kennedy was a larger than life political icon, the last surviving brother of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
He was known throughout Indian country as a leader, a fighter, and by his nickname, “the Liberal Lion of the Senate.” Kennedy leaves behind a legacy of legislative achievements that strike at nearly every facet of Native American lives.
Kennedy cut his teeth on Native American issues when he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Special Subcommittee on Indian Education in early 1969. His older brother, Robert F. Kennedy, served as the subcommittee’s first chairman, prior to his assassination in 1968.
Kennedy called his subcommittee’s groundbreaking 1969 report “a major indictment” of the federal government’s policies on Indian education, policies which he believed led to “poverty and despair,” and a situation Kennedy deemed “a national tragedy and a national disgrace.” His involvement in nearly every major education law, from Head Start to Bilingual Education to No Child Left Behind, demonstrated his commitment to education, especially among Native Americans.
The subcommittee’s investigations had a deep impact on the Navajo Nation. Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah said he could never forget “the passion of this great man” who was able to speak up for “people who may not have always been able to speak up for themselves. Ted Kennedy did a wonderful job of speaking for them and putting their concerns in the right perspective. I always admired him. His heart was in the right place and he will long be remembered by the Navajo and Indian people as a man who fought for our rights and our rightful place in life.”
Kennedy was among the first to truly grasp the importance of consultation, writing in the 1969 report that “perhaps the most important principle that this investigation embraced was simply soliciting, listening to, and respecting the opinions and concerns of Indian people across the United States.”
Kennedy had harsh words for the federal policy of assimilation, calling it for what it was, “a desire to divest the Indian of his land and resources.”
His insights into Indian country were visionary. He wrote in his subcommittee’s 1969 report that the United States’ treatment of Native Americans “raises serious questions about this nation’s most basic concepts of political democracy. It challenges the most precious assumptions about what this country stands for – cultural pluralism, equity and justice, the integrity of the individual, freedom of conscience and action, and the pursuit of happiness. Relations with the American Indian constitute a ‘morality play’ of profound importance in our nation’s history.”
House Committee on Natural Resources chairman Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., spoke of the impact Kennedy had on his son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. Rahall said the younger Kennedy “learned the importance of tribal sovereignty from his father, and became one of the original co-founders of the House Native American Caucus.” Rahall called Kennedy “a tireless and long-time advocate for improving health care in this country and extending educational opportunities to Indian,” and stressed that “Senator Kennedy’s legacy will continue to live on in the hearts of all Americans.”
The subcommittee report touched on other themes, describing federal Indian policy as “coerced assimilation” which led to “the destruction and disorganization of Indian communities and individuals.” He unflinchingly called America “a nation that is massively uninformed and misinformed about the American Indian, and his past and present,” and faulted national attitudes that carry “a self-righteous intolerance of tribal communities and cultural differences.”
The Kennedy report also cited the government’s failure to “understand the human needs and aspirations of the American Indian” as justification for the formation of a committee that would eventually become the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
American Indian activist, leader and founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, LaDonna Harris worked with Kennedy. Harris remembered “spending time with Ted and the family at Hyannis Port. Even back in the 1960s, he was for universal health care. As he said at the Democratic Convention in Denver last year, ‘the torch will be passed again to a new generation. …’
“We all have that responsibility now to fight for what is right and carry on the Kennedy family legacy. He and his family will always be remembered for their contribution to this country and their support of Native American rights.”
Kennedy was known for being a fierce liberal, but had a reputation for reaching across the political aisle to work with Senate Republicans. Some of his greatest political achievements, like creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and the AmeriCorps Program, were the result of his ability to balance principle and practicality.
During his career, Kennedy helped steer historic legislation that affects the daily lives of Native Americans. Kennedy helped move the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the WIC program through Congress.
National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia extended his condolences to the Kennedys, saying Indian country has “lost a strong, true leader in Congress and an unyielding supporter of tribal sovereignty for all Indian nations.”
Garcia said Kennedy was a champion “for Native people and communities,” that his “door was always open to American Indians and Alaska Natives,” and that “he will be dearly missed throughout Indian country.”
Accolades for Kennedy have streamed in from all parts of Indian country and from its champions.
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who is recovering from a brain hemorrhage he suffered in 2006, said Kennedy touched his family and his spirit. “In my darkest days, he was a friend and source of support. When he heard I was sick, he brought lunch to my staff. And when he heard my son Brooks was in Iraq, he as one father to another called me to inquire about Brooks’ welfare and to wish Brooks well.”
Johnson hopes Kennedy’s legacy lives on and that the Senate welcomes more “senators willing to work with one another to find compromise” and “help those who need it most.”
South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin also paid tribute to Kennedy’s life dedication to “equality, justice and fairness” and said her “heart goes out to my colleague Patrick, with whom I have the honor to serve with in the House of Representatives, and the entire Kennedy family.”
Kennedy’s legacy across Indian country is assured. His compassion for Native American people was remarkable. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk called Kennedy a great friend of Indian country and said his “support for improving the lives and futures of the American Indian and Alaska Native people, particularly through education and health care, will be remembered warmly by all who knew him.”
Kennedy will also be remembered for his tough stance against IHS budget cuts, as well as for his support for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and Tribal Self-Governance.
At an Aug. 27 press conference, President Obama not only called Kennedy “one of the greatest senators of our time” but singled him out as “one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy.” Obama closed by saying: “The extraordinary good that he did lives on. For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was the defender of a dream.”