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Trimble: Remembrance of a little big man

George P. Lavatta, a Shoshone-Bannock gentleman from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho, was 97 years old when he died in a Portland nursing home in the early 1990s.

George lived a full life. Starting at Carlisle Indian School, he built a career with Union Pacific, first as a laborer, then on into management. According to his nephew, Mark Trahant, George was an ''organizer,'' recruiting Indian men to work for the company. Later, he was brought into the BIA to do much the same kind of work - recruiting Indian people. It was this, undoubtedly, that Commissioner John Collier called upon him for a special assignment.

Back in 1944, seeing perhaps the need for the tribes to be organized to withstand a massive campaign to terminate their existence as nations, Collier authorized BIA assistance for several Indian men to travel throughout Indian country from tribe to tribe, selling the idea of a national, intertribal organization. George was one of those men. Others included D'Arcy McNickle of the Flatheads, Charles Heacock of the Rosebud Sioux, Archie Finney of Nez Perce, and Mr. Lavatta's fellow tribesman from Fort Hall, Frank Parker. They traveled for many weeks by train, automobile, and team and wagon.

The resulting organization was the National Congress of American Indians, formed on Nov. 15, 1944. From that historic date up to the time of his retirement to the nursing home in the early 1980s, George Lavatta was faithful to the organization, attending every NCAI convention. No one paid his transportation or expenses. To him, that was part of his dues and responsibility to his beloved organization.

Lavatta served as self-appointed sergeant at arms at all conventions and other important gatherings of the organization. Minutes before the start of general assembly sessions, George's loud, husky voice could be heard announcing the start of the proceedings as he harangued the hallway crowds to move inside and take their seats. In late afternoon and evening sessions, his rounds might include the hotel's bars, reminding the conventioneers that their tribes sent them as delegates to take care of important business, not to waste their time guzzling booze.

To older Indian people, the mention of George Lavatta brings smiles and wonderful memories of the NCAI and his special association with the organization.

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Many will remember the important NCAI conference in Kansas City in 1970, when George met head-on with a tough and arrogant squad of White House Secret Service agents. Vice President Spiro Agnew was scheduled to address the general assembly, and there was much excitement. Only people with proper identification were allowed to enter the general assembly, and everyone had to be seated in preparation for the vice president's grand entry. No one was allowed to stand. Although there was much excitement, people spoke in hushed tones and, for an NCAI conference, the large room was strangely quiet.

George Lavatta entered late, apparently having made one last round of the lobby and bars. He surveyed the room, then spied several large, grim-faced men in business suits, standing in the rear and scanning the crowd from side to side. George made straight way to two of the men, and in his loud voice boomed out, ''No standing, go sit down.'' One of his tribesmen quickly took George by the arm and led him to a seat, explaining that those were Secret Service agents, there to guard the vice president. The crowd roared with laughter, and the agents had great difficulty maintaining their serious, foreboding mien.

George P. Lavatta, you see, was 74 years old at the time, and stood all of 5 feet 2 inches tall. Though his legs were bowed with age, he walked straight up and head back, peering through thick glasses. If he hadn't been dissuaded by a friendly hand, it would have been interesting to see if the tough agents could have backed down the little man whose lifelong dedication it was to maintain order and decorum for NCAI.

NCAI leadership over the years is a roster of modern Indian history's great chiefs, statesmen and scholars. From the beginning, women were well represented in NCAI leadership, including its first executive secretary, Ruth Muskrat Bronson from Cherokee, and its greatest executive director of all time, Helen L. Peterson, Oglala Sioux. And NCAI produced some of the greatest thinkers and authors.

But after all is said about the statesmanship, dignity, scholarship and eloquence of the organization's leadership over the years, perhaps the best picture that exemplifies the greatness and endurance of NCAI is that of its Indian spirit, small but mighty, that stands up to the big man from Washington. That spirit must be kept alive in NCAI in the memory of the late George P. Lavatta, the Shoshone-Bannock gentleman from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.

Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 - '78. He is president of Red Willow Institute in Omaha, Neb., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.