Brad Patterson was a proud bureaucrat and a White House champion for Native people

Brad Patterson during the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs with Interior Department's Harrison Loesch. (Photo via American Indian Press Association archives)

Mark Trahant

One legacy was Brad Patterson's contribution to what became the Boldt Decision

Brad Patterson helped draft many of Indian Country’s most important stories that came to life during the Nixon era. He was a champion for tribal sovereignty, improving Indian health and pushed for a fair settlement for Alaska Native land claims.

Patterson worked in three presidential administrations and was considered an expert on the staff role at the White House. One measure of Patterson’s influence: There are nearly 90 boxes of material, memos and other White House documents that he produced during the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford administrations.

He was recruited from the State Department to join the White House by counsel Leonard Garment in 1969. (Patterson had been the Cabinet Secretary during the Eisenhower Administration.) He worked with Garment, John Ehrlichman and Bobbie Kilberg playing a key role in creating and executing Richard Nixon’s policy on American Indian and Alaska Native issues.

“He died March 19 in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 98 years old. Brad married his soulmate, Shirley Jane DoBos at Rockefeller Chapel on the Campus of the University of Chicago on December 26, 1943. They were married for 67 years until her death in 2011. He is survived by daughter Dawn Marie Capron, and three sons, Bruce DoBos, Glenn Gilman, and Brian Braese, as well as 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren,” Patterson’s official obituary said.

“Brad Patterson was a gentleman and an empathetic and effective public servant. He did yeoman’s work to improve the dire health conditions and understood that, were it not for the excesses and diseases of western ‘civilization,’ land-greedy states and gold-fevered settlers, we would still be living in health, prosperity and freedom,” said Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne, Hodulgee Muscogee. “He got that the federal government once was too small to live up to its treaty promises, but that the U.S. did not grow out of its duties when it became powerful; rather, the U.S. has a continuing obligation because of its inabilities and failures in the past to do what it can to make up for lost time and to try to make things right for the future. His appreciation for U.S.-Native Nations’ treaties and sovereignty carried over into his dealings with tribal and religious leaders and his approach to activists’ actions and trying to find solutions to issues raised.”

“The Alaska Federation of Natives extends our condolences to the family, and friends of Brad Patterson on hearing of his passing,” said the federation’s president, Julie Kitka, Chugachigmiut. “Brad was an unsung hero during his critical time working at the Nixon White House which resulted in greater urgency to the settlement of our land claims in the late 60s and early 70s. He and his colleagues worked through many barriers but had a significant role in increasing the acreage of land which would be retained by Alaska Natives.”

At the White House, Patterson said he had barely begun his new job when a group of college students occupied Alcatraz on November 20, 1969. He said the director of the General Services Administration called and said he would send US Marshals on the Island and have the students arrested. Patterson said he told his boss that was not a good way to handle the issue. So Garment picked up the phone, called the GSA, and said as an assistant to the president he was ordering the director to stand down. Instead the Nixon administration continued negotiations and waited for some 18 months until there were only a handful of people left who were escorted off the island.

This was a philosophical decision. As Patterson later told a researcher at the Nixon Library: “We never went to court, because courts tend to impose deadlines. Deadlines in a situation of symbolism and PR simply do nothing else but escalate everything: escalate tempers, escalate expectations, escalate the press, TV cameras all standing around to see what's going to happen after the deadline.” Patterson, and Leonard Garment, preferred dialogue.

That idea was tested at Wounded Knee. Patterson and Garment again sided for restraint, but the Department of Justice was bent on action. Patterson called “the whole damn thing symbolism, marvelous symbolism. When those guys picked Wounded Knee -- what a place! But in the end a symbolic solution for a symbolic occupation. The solution was to send five White House negotiators out to Wounded Knee … and they agreed to lay down their arms, and so forth.”

Patterson was particularly proud of the return of the sacred Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo and Richard Nixon’s 1970 message on Indian affairs. He called that statement “one of the great state papers” of the Nixon administration.

“We're proud of all our years here and the things we were able to do,” Patterson told the Nixon Library. “I think in Indian affairs one of the things we are proudest of is our role in the President's message of July 8, 1970.”

While he was involved in the planning for the Nixon message, that project was led by Bobbie Kilburg, because Patterson was in Norway for his son’s wedding.

Patterson also helped secure the Indian Health Care Improvement Act through the White House (he stayed on after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency). Many in the Ford administration had wanted to veto the bill because they saw the bill as too costly. Patterson lobbied within the government and wrote a draft of both the approval message and the veto message. Then he informed the president, “I think you should sign it.”

OMB director Paul O’Neill was on the other side, pushing for a veto. O’Neill wrote that the Senate bill was “a prime example of unnecessary and inappropriate Congressional enactments.”

Patterson countered in a memo to the president. “For seven years there has been an unbroken series of Presidential actions which have reversed and rectified the past decades of neglect for Native Americans. It has been a brilliant executive/legislative accomplishment in which you and a bipartisan Congress fully share. A veto of this bill would be the first turnaround in that seven-year record and, as such, would have a symbolic impact greater than the merits of the bill.”

Patterson and other supporters carried the day.

"Brad Patterson was magnificent," wrote then IHS director Emory Johnson. "He had a sense of our mission, and saw his job as helping to further that mission. Whenever the pressure from the OMB and HEW officials got too bad, I could pick up the phone and call Brad, and know that I could then get on with my job."

Patterson was also deeply involved with the negotiations for what became the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. There had been a push for more domestic oil production and that required the settling of land claims by Alaska Natives. He said the issue itself was “fascinating” because the land claims had not been settled by the purchase of Alaska from Russia or when Alaska became a state.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Interior were ready to pass a settlement bill without hearing from any Alaska Native voices. When Patterson raised the issue, he recalled, OMB responded, “you don't want to open up that whole bloody battlefield again.”

Nonetheless Patterson and Garment did just that and said the point of Nixon’s 1970 message was to “consult Indian people about the things that affect them."

Patterson recalled a White House meeting with John Ehrlichman where the settlement act seemed stuck. Ehrlichman urged folks to stop fighting. Then Ehrlichman announced that he had talked to the president and Nixon wanted a big number. “At that point,” Patterson recalled, Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton said, ‘Well, hell, let's make it forty million acres and a billion dollars’ which was roughly the position we had been taking. Exercising my habits as former assistant Cabinet Secretary, I had my pen busy.”

Later Patterson asked Ehrlichman if he really met with the president. Patterson said he did not get an answer, only a knowing smile.

“We should have a bronze statue for Brad Patterson and Bobbie Kilburg,” said Willie Henlsey, Inupiaq. Hensley was active in the negotiations with the Congress and the White House for the settlement act. He said those two above all others pushed the legislation in the Nixon White House and once Richard Nixon “backed the legislation, other Republicans came on board.”

“I dealt with him from Alcatraz onward,” said Hank Adams, Assiniboine-Sioux. He said one issue that Patterson and he worked on together was a complex case involving a young man who the U.S. Army had declared AWOL. They worked to get him home and an honorable discharge.

That was 1972 and the Trail of Broken Treaties was underway and Patterson had heard Adams on television saying things that Patterson felt undermined the Nixon administration. “He was mad at me,” Adams recalled. But when the BIA was occupied by people from the Trail of Broken Treaties and the American Indian Movement suddenly both Adams and Patterson ended up as negotiators.

One story from those negotiations. The Indian side wanted the table at the BIA moved in a different direction. The Paris Peace Talks had been in the news and the table-size had become a huge issue. So both sides saw the BIA talk as a negotiation ploy. Interior would not budge. Same with the Department of Justice. Finally the word from Garment and Patterson was to move the table. Everyone agreed — only to discover that the table had been bolted to the floor and could not be moved.

An agreement was finally reached and it included coming up with $66,000 in bus fare for the Broken Treaties caravan to go home. There was no way for the federal government to cash a check to make it so, so the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity worked out a deal with Chuck Trimble at the National Congress of American Indians. NCAI would front the money, cash the check, and get reimbursed. The BIA occupation ended peacefully.

This whole episode, however, led Patterson to what Adams considers his greatest achievement.

A federal judge in Washington was considering a tribal fishing rights case. Two things changed the course of that action. First, Nixon had appointed a federal judge, George Boldt, to lead the Pay Board and Price Commission, in 1970. Boldt took the job, but kept his senior status as a federal judge. So when he decided to return to Washington he came back as a federal judge and assumed the fishing rights case. Second, Patterson brought together the US Attorney in Washington, the Justice Department, and the Interior Department’s lawyers and got them to agree to support the tribes’ right to co-management.

This was crucial. The right support from the Nixon White House. The right judge. And the result was US v. Washington. The official government line was in support of the tribes and in a case that clearly reinforced the power of treaties in the modern era.

“That was primarily support that we gained through our negotiations at the White House on Trail of Broken Treaties,” Adams said.

He said Patterson ought to get a lot of credit for the return of Mount Adams to the Yakama or for Blue Lake. But his role in the groundwork for what became the Boldt decision — and the principle of tribal self-regulation — may be the lasting legacy.

Adams said Patterson was active after that, making sure the federal budget included money for implementation of the Boldt decision, including the funding of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “That turned out to be one the last appropriations by President Nixon,” a budget request for $650,000.

Patterson told the University of Chicago magazine that he was proud of the term “bureaucrat.” He said: “These are men and women who serve their country, serve their nation, some of them at great sacrifice, at modest pay, and sometimes for their whole lives. To give them that kind of pejorative appellation bothers me a lot. I’m proud of public service and the men and women in public service.”

After the White House, Paterson served at the Brookings Institution. He wrote several books including “The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond.”

In 2004 he was awarded the University of Chicago National Alumni Association's Professional Achievement Citation.

From his obituary: “Brad and Shirley were avid world travelers and outdoor enthusiasts, and inculcated a sense of adventure among their family. Together, they surveyed most of the natural and man-made wonders of the world. Brad dove into the ocean both above the Arctic Circle and below the Antarctic Circle. Brad and Shirley observed whales breaching in the Pacific, grizzly bears hunting for salmon in Alaska, polar bears migrating in Churchill Canada, and penguins roaming in the Galapagos. They foraged for witchity grubs while embedded with one of the last hunter-gather aboriginal tribes in Australia. For years, they criss-crossed the American west by station wagon, pursuing historic trails and natural wonders. Brad summited five of America's 14,000 foot mountains. At 74 years old, Brad trekked to 17,500 ft to see Mount Everest.”

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is the editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports


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