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Wisdom From Mel: It's Okay to Not Know Everything

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Mel Tonasket served as the Colville Confederated Tribe’s Chairman, The President of National Congress of American Indians and Indian health Service Area Director.

Mel Tonasket was not formally educated but he had lobbied and negotiated with Congressman and Senators. When Mel was in Washington D.C. he heard the fancy words from the Solicitors office. He was determined to fight for tribes and not let the “Suyapees” (Anglos) get the best of us – so when he traveled he carried a little dictionary and would look up words so they couldn’t beat him with fancy words.

Mel would tell you himself that he struggled in school. He’d laugh and say he was good at Art and P.E. Sometimes he would tell the NCAI Executive Director, Chuck Trimble what he wanted to say and his E.D. would write it up.

1) Lessons from Mel: Use your staff. It’s okay if you don’t know everything. It’s okay if you look up fancy words. You can rely on your staff to figure out the best way to deal with an issue. Don’t let your pride get in your way. Mel was humble and held counsel with staff.

If Mel was faced with a tough issue or a tough question was posed to him. If he didn’t have all the facts or information – he didn’t rush it. He wasn’t afraid to say “I don’t have all the answers.” He did say “I will find the answer and get back to you.”

2) The lesson is to get the information you need before making a hasty response. And when you say “you’ll get back to someone – get back to them.” Integrity is doing what you said you were going to do! Mel always kept his word and got back to people.

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Mel once related, “When I was young, in my twenties, my parents brought me to ATNI and NCAI meetings. They fought against the termination movement. I listen to tribal leaders like Ozzy George from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. He moved you, inspired you and almost manipulated you. He could make you cry and make you laugh. Although I was a young man I knew I wanted to be able to speak like him. He died the year after I got elected to tribal council. Damn. I wanted to follow him around and learn from him.”

3) Lesson: That’s what we needed more than anything during the termination era. Tribal leaders who could inspire us and remind us how hard our ancestors fought to protect a future and a land base. We need the Ozzy George’s of Indian Country to remind us where we come from.

When Mel got on the Colville Tribal Council he soon found out that Lucy Covington had bigger plans for him. “Pretty soon Lucy had me on the NCAI resolutions committee. We would work with a non-Indian attorney Bob Delwo and he would help us draft resolutions. We had a broad number of issues and would work until midnight. Finally, when we got all our work done we would head to the party or “49er.” When we got there everyone was already drunk or paired off. Then Lucy, Joe Delacruz, Sam Cagey and Roger Jim told me the ATNI caucused (met) and wanted me to run for NCAI president. I told them “NO. I couldn’t possibly speak in front of people. I told them I would poop or pee my pants.” I ended up winning NCAI president because of the leadership at ATNI. Sometimes my Executive Director would write a speech for me. But I couldn’t just read the speech. I had to speak from my heart.

4) Lesson: When tribal elders ask you to step up – you listen! You do the training and work on the resolutions committee even if it means you get to the “49er” late. Maybe if you aren’t the greatest speech maker we are not Suyapees!” We are Indians and we have always spoken from our hearts!

When Mel Tonasket was National Congress American Indians (NCAI) president his goal was to visit with as many tribes as possible. He said that he wanted to visit even the little tribes that were not a part of NCAI, often because these smaller tribes could not afford to travel. These smaller tribes were poor and isolated. Mel was determined to know their issues and concerns. As NCAI president, Mel traveled to those small tribes to hear their concerns. Even though it meant being away from home he would travel to as many as he could visit – to get the consensus of “Indian country.” “I wanted to visit the isolated and the poor tribes. They couldn’t afford to come to the meetings. If you look at history, big countries pick on the little and this sets a back precedence for Indian Country.” Mel believed in bringing every tribe’s concern to the forefront. Not just the big tribes and the tribes with the money. Then Mel stated: “We’d get the bigger tribes to advocate for the little tribes – maybe Goshutes of Nevada – we’d write down their concerns and take notes – then the Seminole or Nez Perce would advocate for their concerns. “So everybody has a voice!”

5) The lesson is that Indian country needs to work together for every tribe’s best interest. The larger tribes should look out for the smaller tribes because the erosion of Sovereignty affects all of Indian country. Everyone should have a voice. Mel would say “Indian Country is only as Strong as the weakest tribe.” Mel believed in bring every tribe’s concern to the forefront not just the big tribes or the tribes with money.

Author Margo Hill (Spokane/Colville) is an attorney and Professor for the EWU Tribal Planning program.