WASHINGTON - Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, knew just what to say at a national Indian women's ''Supporting Each Other'' luncheon, one of several satellite events around the recent NCAI summit. An audience of more than 100 alternated between spellbound reverence and laughter as the senator made his homage to Patricia Zell, honored at the luncheon along with Rachel Joseph and Veronica Homer:
''My brothers and sisters, 20 years ago I suddenly found myself thrust into an unfamiliar position: chairman of the [Senate] Select Committee on Indian Affairs. It was called Select Committee very significantly, because it meant 'temporary.' They were all scheduled to wipe out the Indian Committee. And so they put me in there, I suppose, to wipe it out. And I must say that like most Americans, non-Native Americans, I knew zilch about Indians. I was brought up with Pocahontas and Captain Smith. I knew Sitting Bull, who was supposed to be a conniving, murderous leader. I saw a couple of movies on the bad man Geronimo. And I think all of us knew Tonto.
''That was the extent of my knowledge of Indian country. You know, that's a sad commentary on America. But I think if you analyze most Americans, you will find that what I've just said is closer to the truth.
''And so I took it upon myself, not to hire new staff, because who do I know in Hawaii who knows more about Native Americans than I do. So I adopted the staff, that was leaderless, we had left. Now I didn't know them. Yes, I had been to meetings, but you never took it seriously. And there was this young lady, lovely young lady, a Navajo, called Patricia Zell. Brilliant. ... She has a law degree. Masters at law. Editor of the Law Review. And so I said, 'Get me three books, and I'll read them in two weeks, so I can know something about Indian country.'
''Well, I depended upon her. She got me three books. And they were all on massacres. Really nothing on the history, just on massacres - a wise Indian woman. 'Get that guy angry.' Indian men don't go to war. It's the women who tell them to go to war. Study the life of the other great leaders, you'll see that the women were in the back saying, 'Old man, go.' If you didn't go, out you went.
''So she sent me, and I read, the massacres of the Pequots, massacres of the Cherokees, and she got what she wanted. She had on her hands a very angry chairman of the committee. And so I decided to just plow into this matter, knowing very little, but being angry.
''Through all the years, I've had the privilege of working with Patricia Zell; she is without question the finest woman I've known here, next to my wife, that is. She is the most knowledgeable, and I know that all of you are very knowledgeable, but I think she is the most on Indian law. She is second to none. In her dedication, she is just as dedicated as all of you.
''And so it's a great privilege to be here to say to Patricia: I thank you very much for all you've done for Indian country. I think I can say with confidence that as a result of her work, Indian country sovereignty is much greater today than it was before. I can say with some confidence that we put Indian gaming in a proper path, so that yakuzas and mafia won't take over. I can say with great confidence that the education program, which was next to nil, at least is moving forward now. I can say with some confidence that the programs we set up for jobs and employment with the Defense Department is flourishing in certain areas. And what pleases me is that the suicide rate of young Indians has come down. And we can say to Patricia: Thank you very much. The Navajos in Hawaii say mahalo nui loa. ...
''My message to you is I'm so glad that Indian women are standing up to be recognized. Because in any society, whenever women stand up to speak their minds and to be recognized, the society improves. In the United States Senate, we are finally getting women, and we men feel threatened but that's the way it should be. I think the time is coming, who knows, but we may have a woman president, and that's nice.
''So Patricia ... I still have those three books. I'm going to set them aside to say, 'This is where my war path started.'''