Several years ago, in the countdown to the 21st century, several of us
has-beens and current members of the Indian press began to communicate on
names of the most outstanding American Indians of the 20th century. Perhaps
we could come up with a top 50 list, we thought.
It proved a difficult task because there were so many categories to
consider, including human rights, politics, the sciences, athletics, fine
arts, literature and, of course, journalism. And the arts, in which Native
America abounds, had to be broken down into traditional and contemporary,
then into further categories of performing and visual arts.
Given the fact that for much of the 20th century they were excluded from
various categories of leadership, women would be given a separate category,
although there were many who excelled anyway.
After the list got so long, we abandoned the idea.
Like history, true leadership is hard to judge without some lag for
perspective. Prior to the founding of the National Congress of American
Indians in 1944, for example, there wasn't a forum in which Indians could
manifest leadership on other than a regional inter-tribal basis. In the
last quarter of the century there was a proliferation of national Indian
organizations, and new leaders emerged among the various interests.
Finally, in the last decade of the century, with a new appreciation of
tribal sovereignty and newly enhanced self-governance, along with access to
educational opportunities - particularly in law - a new crop of Indian
All this generally obscured many important leaders of the early and
mid-century eras, and names like Charles Eastman, Carlos Montezuma
(Wasaja), D'Arcy McNickle, Joseph R. Garry, Ruth Muskrat Bronson and others
tend to be forgotten. Those names re-emerged in our futile list-making
exercise, and other names of unsung heroes of more recent times emerged in
several of the lists. One name that appeared on several lists was Philip
Director of the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico,
Sam can be credited with the growth of American Indian attorneys from the
1970s on, commensurate with the improvement in Indian rights protection and
the development of tribal self-governance.
But Sam defies categorization in his great contributions to Indian tribes.
His greatest impact has been in the area of Indian politics in the sense of
internal tribal governance, intertribal relations and federal/tribal
relations. But no politician is he, in the usual sense of the word - the
back-slapping, compromising, glory-seeking good ole boy. In fact, he is a
realist, sometimes iconoclastic, who doesn't suffer fools or folly.
At one of the NCAI conferences in the mid-1970s, for example, Sam was
moderating a panel discussion. There were open microphones on the floor and
much audience participation. "They must give us back our dignity," said one
individual, referring to the federal government. "No one can take your
dignity from you, and no one can give you dignity," said Sam, much
irritated. "If it's dignity you want, look around you in this hall."
And he often punctured balloons of dramatic but ill-conceived political
strategy or legal action that would have only ended up wasting time or
diverting precious tribal resources. To many people, especially demagogues,
he was seen as a naysayer, a spoilsport. He is perhaps a curmudgeon, but he
has done more than most tribal leaders to preserve and advance tribal
sovereignty and self-government.
Though no politician, he is a superb political strategist. In 1975, he took
up the challenge by the tribes at the NCAI's Portland convention to do
something about tribal jurisdiction compromised by PL-280. Working closely
with the NCAI staff, he devised legislative proposals to offer options for
tribes to reacquire their jurisdiction lost to PL-280.
At a special meeting in Denver, the options were discussed in full with
tribal delegates and videos explaining the options were sent home with the
delegates for their tribal councils to consider. The videos were produced
by the Indian Law Center, the first use of electronic technology for tribal
consultation. The strategy resulted in solid tribal consensus and support
in Senate Bill 2010, introduced by Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of
Washington, calling for a range of tribal options for reacquiring
jurisdiction to the extent that they might choose. Unfortunately, the bill,
like other positive legislation in the pipeline at the time, was lost in
the backlash in Congress.
The defeat of the great backlash in 1977 itself can be attributed largely
to strategy devised by Sam. Again, based on solid consultation with tribal
leaders, he worked with NCAI to devise a three-pronged approach. He quickly
surmised that the well-funded anti-tribal campaign of the Interstate
Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities would work through state and
local government interests to pressure Congress for legislation to
terminate the tribal/federal relationship, expand state jurisdiction over
tribes, destroy Indian fishing rights and ultimately abrogate the treaties.
HIS plan called for actions to compromise that strategy through improved
relations between the tribes and the National Association of State
Legislatures to start a process of long-term understanding. Sam's approach
of fact and reason took the momentum from the abrogation movement; the
backlash abated for lack of an audience.
Sam was a pioneer in international indigenous affairs, instrumental in the
founding of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and in securing
nongovernmental organizational status for the organization in the United
Although he is from the most recognized surname in Indian affairs, from a
family that for four generations is known for great religious leaders,
scholars and authors, he is perhaps the least recognized. But he eschews
recognition and glory, declining awards.
His praise comes nevertheless, from the many Indian attorneys who got their
start at the American Indian Law Center, and from leaders who recognize his
important contributions to the protection of tribal sovereignty and the
perfection of tribal self- government.
Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation. He
was the principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970,
and served as executive director of the National Congress of American
Indians from 1972 - 1978. He is president of Red Willow Institute in Omaha,
Neb. and a columnist for Indian Country Today.