Five years ago, this month, artist and author Joan Mondale walked on at 83 (1930 – 2014). Smart, talented and good-humored, she was a beloved ally of Native peoples and such an arts/culture champion that she was called “Joan of Art.”  

Married to U.S. Vice President Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale, she served as the Second Lady from 1977 to 1981. They lived in Washington, D.C., while Fritz served Minnesota in the Senate from 1964 to 1977, and in Tokyo, when he was U.S. Ambassador to Japan (1993-1996). Walter Mondale remains one of our most consistent champions of Native rights and Joan Mondale was an active partner in that work. 

A potter with a college degree in history and fine arts, Mondale had broad and deep knowledge of visual, written and performing arts, and knew much about the cultures and peoples who produced them. While in DC, she was a docent for the National Gallery of Art and conducted tours for that and other museums and art venues. Over her long professional career and history of volunteerism, she worked for and sat on boards of some of the most prestigious art institutions and showcases in the U.S.  

As Second Lady, Mondale exhibited Native artists’ small works on walls and pedestals of the U.S. Naval Observatory, which is the official residence of the U.S. Vice President. She displayed Native artists’ larger works in the mansion’s sculpture garden and elsewhere on the grounds, amidst work by Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson and other superstar sculptors of the day. She also showcased Native cultural performers and held social gatherings and conversations with artists and culture and history bearers. 

Mondale also carried important messages to her husband, to President Jimmy Carter and friends in Congress about fellowships, recognition and funding for Native arts and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She advocated for Indian education and health programs and for keeping U.S. treaty promises. And, she cautioned about the nationwide network of anti-Indian, anti-treaty hate groups. 

In 1984, when Fritz was the Democratic nominee for president, Joan often appeared as his campaign surrogate at meetings, events and rallies. Elegant and down to earth, she was a knowledgeable policy spokeswoman and popular campaign substitute for her husband. 

At the start of that same year, I had been selected as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. I was serving with my good friend, Joseph B. DeLaCruz, who was President of both NCAI and the Quinault Indian Nation on the Pacific Coast of Washington. He and I knew and admired the Mondales and invited either one or both to address the NCAI Convention in Spokane, Washington. Fritz and the Republican invitees were not available that week, but Mondale was free on the afternoon and early evening of NCAI’s annual convention powwow and traditional feast. 

Some of Candidate Mondale’s Native policy statements were drafted by my Cheyenne brother, W. Richard West, Jr., R. Sargent Shriver and me. West and Shriver were partners in the Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver law firm in DC, where I was Legislative Liaison immediately before going to NCAI. We drafted remarks for Joan Mondale to make at the NCAI Convention powwow, and her statement had been approved by the campaign. 

On the afternoon of the event, DeLaCruz and I met with Mondale and her Secret Service protective detail in the host hotel’s large ballroom, where the powwow was set to start a few hours later. The Secret Service agents swept the area for potential hazards and met with us about the flow of the event and security accommodations. 

Protecting Mondale at a powwow, even one indoors in a contained room, presented many challenges, the easiest of which to resolve were entrance and egress doors for safety precautions of all kinds and for all people at the powwow. 

More complex challenges involved Native customs and traditions. Many Native dancers, singers and observers wear bullets and casings as jewelry, carry them as symbols of survival and sew them on clothing (as I did at that time.) They wear knives in beaded hide sheaths attached to leather belts; and dance with weapons (usually carried by combat veterans), which may or may not be real or functional, but are not loaded. Most carry closed medicine bags, pouches or bundles, which are not to be opened or touched by anyone else. 

This discussion alarmed the agents, whose concerns mounted with a new bit of information, such as, some feathers, bird and animal parts and certain other items cannot be removed or taken off once affixed, and that certain people who would be present cannot be touched. In other words, no searching or making people take off bustles, headdresses, shawls, jingle dresses, leggings and other apparel and regalia. 

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We explained that it would work best for Mondale to lead a grand entry-style dance and shake hands and receive gifts that some people would present to her. It was pretty much a nightmare for the agents, but it was a dream for Mondale. They said she could not receive any handshakes or gifts, that she absolutely would not be able to dance and that agents had to surround her. We said no one could be in front of her, the people would love it if she danced and we could make a place for gifts, but no one could stop the occasional child or elder who wanted to put their present in her hands.

Mondale said it wasn’t her first rodeo or powwow and she would accept friendship from the people in any form, saying sweetly and firmly, “I would love to dance.”  

As in all group matters, there always a compromise. This compromise was that Mondale would dance, wear a shawl, shake hands and accept gifts on a blanket on the floor and from anyone who gave them to her directly, and the latter would be handed to others to hold for her on the sidelines; two Secret Service agents would walk/dance behind her; and DeLaCruz and I would flank her at all times.  

DeLaCruz and I were happy to be her human shields, which we didn’t mind because of our unwavering belief in the peoples’ diplomacy and admiration for her. But, he couldn’t keep from joking about “NCAI hot politics” and the mixed bag of a security plan: “The two of us will draw fire, but she’ll be safe in the middle, "cause we’ll stop the incoming.” We laughed but had to talk very fast to allay fears sparked by the remarks, which the agents did not find amusing. 

While DeLaCruz went outside to start the salmon cooking and oversee the details for preparation of the feast, I got to teach the agents to approximate dance by walking in time, keeping time in place and not bumping into us. Mondale was a natural, needing few tips on holding a shawl together, shaking hands, receiving and handing off gifts and dancing and marking time to the beat.  

DeLaCruz returned. His next host duty would be to dish salmon for everyone in line – he was the first NCAI President to carry out that part of his mandate to serve the people. We practiced our unusual three-across front-line dance, with the more unusual row of two agents behind us. The agents were good sports about dancing, and they weren’t bad at it either. 

Mondale wanted to go over her prepared remarks, most of which she had committed to memory. “There’s something I’d like to talk about adding to the speech,” she said. “I’d like to tell people that I’m Indian, too.”  

We asked what nation and held our collective breath, hoping she would not say “Cherokee.” She didn’t know, but thought it “might be Pocahontas’s tribe.” We didn’t dare look at each other, for fear of being rude. “When I was growing up, my sisters were blonde and light and I was dark, and my father called me his ‘Indian Princess.’”  

There are four top ways non-Native women explain how they are Native, and mentioning any one of these cliches elicits spontaneous laughter, eye-rolling and groaning from Native audiences of any size: 

1) They say they are Cherokee. 

2) they say an ancestor had high cheekbones or dark hair/skin. 

3) They say a grandmother was an Indian princess.

4) They say they descend from the historical Powhatan daughter, Pocahontas. 

DeLaCruz and I explained this in detail because Mondale was our friend and honored guest, and we did not want her to be exposed to derision or anything but the love and respect she deserved. 

Mondale received the information with sadness, realizing that her father may have created a family myth, in order to explain why she was not as light as her sisters. She expressed surprise that she had lived so long with that treasured memory without ever questioning it, but took comfort in the thought that, no matter the origin or background, it was emblematic of her father’s love. She wondered aloud if “his white lie” was something she had known for what it was and if that kept her from raising it with us in any of the years before. She also expressed gratitude for the story, because it likely was the reason she was drawn to and learned from Native peoples and our arts and cultures.  

Her political savvy kicked in almost immediately, saying she did “not want to embarrass Fritz or the (Democratic) Party or you or me,” and thanked us for helping her, “avoid such a faux pas.”  

Mondale understood the gravity of the political climate and moment in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes states, including the Mondales’ Minnesota home. At stake were Native Nations’ ceremonial, commercial and subsistence treaty rights. It was no time for actions that would make Native peoples appear as or be associated with “Indian” punchlines. 

Even though we were about to be in a setting of festivity and good-will, the location was Spokane, in ultra-right-wing eastern Washington. Native Nations were locked in a struggle over a state-wide referendum, Initiative 456, attacking treaties between the U.S. and Native Nations and declaring them unconstitutional. 

A state vote has no legal heft, but it made for a huge rallying cry for the Indian haters. 

Native Nations had been stripped of their tribal enforcement and court jurisdiction over non-Natives in a 1978 Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe. By 1984, perpetrators of crimes against Native people – including non-Native drunken drivers, drug pushers, encroachers, poachers, predators and domestic abusers – were beyond the reach of tribal justice, and state and federal authorities were slow to respond or act, if they responded or acted at all. 

Near Spokane, whose white population hovers around 90%, the Aryan Nation and other white supremacists and fake “Indian” ceremonial cults were renting and squatting on lands within exterior boundaries of reservations in Washington and Idaho. In addition to committing crimes without fear of punishment, the white nationalists and pseudo-Indians were disrupting tribal meetings and trying to gain privileges to run for office in Native governments, to have an interest in tribal businesses, to control Native natural resources and to vote in tribal elections. 

All of that was being done in the name of “equal rights” for non-Natives, who were calling Native peoples “super citizens” and challenging Native treaty rights and federal laws as violative of non-Natives’ constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court had settled that issue five years earlier, by ruling that Indian rights didn’t interfere with non-Indians’ constitutional rights; they simply were different – but the rhetoric still energized the anti-Native hate groups. 

Washington’s senior Senator in 1984 was Slate Gorton, R-WA (1981-1987) the state’s former Attorney General, who was the architect of the Oliphant case, which is the legal underpinning for life-and-death situations enmeshing Native families across Indian Country. 

Congress, which continues to deal with Oliphant’s disastrous effects, took a huge step in the 2013 Violence Against Women Act Amendments, with the recognition of Native Nations’ inherent sovereignty and jurisdiction regarding perpetrators of domestic violence in Indian Country.  

At present, the VAWA reauthorization is hung up in Congress, and further delays threaten to make reservations safe for non-Native predators, again.

Gorton as Attorney General was on a mission to abolish Indian treaty-fishing rights through state anti-tribal practices, including countless beatings on the water and arrests of Native people and allies. The state and Gorton were handed a huge defeat by the Supreme Court’s 1979 ruling in U.S. v. Washington, which upheld the treaty fishing rights of Native Nations in the Pacific Northwest, and chided the state for its recalcitrance. 

Senator and Vice President Mondale was on the Native side of the protracted litigation. The Carter-Mondale Administration defended the federal and tribal side and won. The 1984 referendum was a way for Gorton and the hate groups to begin to undo the 1979 ruling and follow-on litigation, which is ongoing. 

As Senator, Gorton was trying to convince colleagues to accomplish what he was unable to win in court. Several senators said he was so aggressive and openly hostile about Native peoples that they shunned him, treating him as the one-termer he turned out to be. In 1984, he was supporting the hate groups’ state referendum, as well as their efforts to defeat tribal fishing and hunting in the Great Lakes region. 

The NCAI convention was our opportunity to rally support for the exercise of treaty rights. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians planned a series of awareness-raising activities, and all the local planners were working overtime. I produced a concert in Spokane where Native musicians called for the defeat of Initiative 456, including those from the Anishinaabe, Colville, Dine’ (Navajo), Isleta Pueblo, Kaw, Mescalero Apache, Muscogee (Creek) and Sisseton-Wahpeton Nations, including Tom Bee, Jim Boyd, Sharon Burch, A. Paul Ortega, Jim Pepper, Keith Secola, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, XIT and others.  

Mondale was aware of the stakes and knew she was representing all those U.S. officials who did not condone the agenda of Gorton and the hate groups, who opposed the anti-treaties initiative and who worked to fulfill U.S. treaty promises. 

She was well-versed in the Reagan Administration’s schemes to privatize the Native Nations’ resources, to turn over control of money and education to banks and states and to rip out the wires of federal-tribal services and funding that kept the U.S. side of the bargain to provide programs in perpetuity in exchange for gaining lands over which to govern. 

Mondale acted accordingly, in service of the high purpose. She was not ego-driven or spotlight seeking. I’m sure it never occurred to her to forge ahead with her family story or to ask us to validate it. It never occurred to DeLaCruz and me to humor Mondale by seeming to validate her family story.  

Today, there are some political operatives who insist that Native peoples should support important allies’ claimed “Indian-ness” to avoid alienating those in positions to help or harm us.  

We gave our best and most straightforward advice because Mondale was a valued ally and deserved our honesty and because it was the kind thing to do. We recognized that she, like Native peoples and all those with diasporic histories, was seeking to establish kinship and looking for relatives, which is what we do for our ancestors.   

Joan Mondale and Fritz continued to advocate for our interests and promote our artists’ work. She never asked a Native Nation or family to adopt her or to vouch for her family story. She was an ally of the first order and one who is remembered with respect and fondness in many Native families and homelands. 

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Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.