Indian Activist Reminds People They Have Civil and Treaty Rights

While in wake of Pine Ridge killings 200 armed officers swarm reservation, intimidating innocent families

La Donna Harris, President of Americans for Indian Opportunity, was interviewed by Washington Star Staff Writer Judy Flander
This is a Question and Answer Interview

The Washington Star, August 4, 1975

Question: A great deal of the limited attention paid to the American Indian has been focused on the militants and the violence. Do you see more such activity such as Wounded Knee coming up?

La Donna Harris: Sometimes it is self-fulfilling if you say that there will be. I think you will see some in local communities, such as happened on the Menominee, and what happened in Washington state. This is a people who have discovered that they have rights, and they have, by law, not only civil rights, but treaty rights. And as people they have come to understand that they will come to exert themselves. And if the institutions, such as government, education and others are not responsive, people will flare out in frustration. We try very hard in our organization to provide an outlet for that frustration so that it will be in a constructive vein.

Q: Do you think that that frustration is building again with the killings at Pine Ridge and the current economic problems have to be affecting the Indians, like all minorities most severely?

A: Yes, we are the least employed of any peoples, so it is reflected. The tragedy on Pine Ridge of those two officers and the young Indian man inflamed some prejudices. We have been working with the Justice Department, asking them to use prudence and justice in their behavior. I think some of the FBI behavior since the death of those two officers have been questionable.

Q: In what way?

A: There are over 200 officers in fatigues intimidating citizens who are not involved in any way, and they don’t know about the Indian community.

Q: They are on the Indian Reservation now?

A: Oh yes. They have had two helicopters with men with machine guns flying at very low altitudes all over the reservation, they have gone into homes without warrants, private citizens’ homes that have no connection, you see they don’t know the people involved, and so they have done some things without calling on the people who are knowledgable about that community. We have seen reactions like that. It has been reported in Denver, local law enforcement people going into an Indian social gathering without warrants because somebody happened to have a Pine Ridge or South Dakota license plate. Those kinds of things that are totally unwarranted and are not what America stands for. I think the approach to solving who did murder, or not murder — we don’t know that it is murder because the facts that were reported, as your newspaper indicated, were not the true facts. We want to solve the death of all three of those people as well, but we do not see it necessary to intimidate large communities of good citizens.

Q: Do you think things are getting worse, that the government is becoming more repressive, rather than making an effort to understand.

A: I think the FBI. and the Justice Department are responsible for their activities. We have met with the assistant attorney general on the subject, and we are waiting for their response and hopefully those things will be corrected. There were a handful of people in South Dakota involved in that, and we still don’t know all the facts. They were reported improperly and the FBI was responsible for giving those first reports. We’ve found out they were inaccurate reports. We want to believe in the FBI as a law enforcement agency, but other facts have indicated that they have not handled themselves according to the Constitution and the law that we believe in.

Q: There is not much an Indian rights organization can do on the spot however, is there?

A: That’s right, and so what we have to do is come to talk with the top officials who are responsible for the actions of those officers in South Dakota.

Q: Did you get any satisfaction from the Justice Department?

A: They gave us assurance that they would check into it and report back to us immediately, so we are looking for an answer soon, so that we can feel more comfortable and see whether the FBI’s investigation of the deaths are handled in the appropriate way. Do they need the helicopters, do they need the 200 men, is that they way to carry out an investigation of that kind.

O: You make it sound as if the people living there are terrorized.

A: They are terrorized, they are. We had a stack of complaints that we submitted to them, and we still get complaints, and these are outstanding citizens of South Dakota that are being treated this way. It is just unforgivable. Nobody else would tolerate such behavior by the law enforcement people.

Q: It doesn’t sound that the treatment of the Indians has changed very much since the days when they were being completely put down.

A: Some of the government agencies are very responsive. Congress is more responsive. There are a lot of good things happening now, because Indian people have become more educated and more sophisticated and know how to respond to institutional structures. So I see some very positive things. This is why the behavior of one agency is very important while another agency, like the Environmental Protection Agency is doing great things.

Q: What about the Bureau of Indian Affairs? They have been criticized, and there was, of course, the siege of the bureau. How do you rate them?

A: They are being more responsive. They are trying. But I think what that reflects is that the Department of the Interior has not given the kinds of recognition to that agency. It is a human resource agency and yet it is in a department of where everything is directed toward natural resources. And so there is a natural conflict of interest there, and a real conflict of interest. So my feeling about the Bureau is that it tries to do the right kinds of things, and it is now hiring great numbers of Indians, and they are trying to renovate their organizational structure, and trying to provide good services. But within the Department of Interior they are really hamstrung. They have elevated the commissioner of Indian affairs up to at least where he can talk directly to the secretary and the undersecretary. See, we used to be under Land Management, and structurally we still are, we have to go through the undersecretary of land management, so that is really the problem.

Q: They are really more interested in the resources than the people?

A. That is right, and that’s the way they see themselves. So we are trying to get the Department of the Interior to recognize that you cannot treat that department in the same way that they treat the other departments in their agency. It needs to be thought of differently, it needs to be handled differently. We are seeing, some changes. Of course, now we have a new secretary of interior and we have to start all over again. About the time we get people sensitived, or should we say, raise their consciousness, they are either gone or transferred and have to start all over again, I think that again reflects the problem of the Bureau, and Indian people generally. People are not taught in American schools true American history, but the history of Europeans coming to the United States. That has made it quite difficult for a non Indian person to work at solving this problem because he really doesn’t have a proper perspective of how Indian people fit into the society as a whole. So we have to start with Columbus with many people, and come to where we are. It gets very tiring.

Q: What is your group doing right now to help the Indians on the economic front?

A: Well, we are holding regional meetings, showing the tribes what options they have, bringing in experts say a lawyer who has worked with developing nations, or the Overseas Development Council. Resources of the Future has recommended particular people who have expertise in the field of forestry. We are now planning for September a Great Lakes conference of the tribes of the Great Lakes area, so we are talking about timber basically. We are talking about wild rice in Minnesota. We are talking about land use for recreation. We are talking about fisheries and water use in general. And also vineyards. We are inviting the tribes from New York, they have great vineyard possibilities for wine growing and development and agricultural lands. That is our September thrust. And we hope by December another regional set up, say the Northwest that has great timber lands, and great fisheries. They have aquaculture, one tribe in aquaculture is a great success. They have to market as well as product, oysters. salmon, in Washington state, It is very exciting, they are water people, that is their culture, that is why it has succeeded. Rather than bring a manufacturing plant on the reservation to get cheap labor, they have developed something that is identifiable with their culture and historically precedented.

0: Where does the money come from, for example, to get them started in aqua-farming in Washington?

A: I think the beginning monies came from an OEO grant, an equal opportunity grant. The BIA has now put some monies in it. But it’s an idea that really came out of the tribe. Some local people out of the university saw this as something real and tangible. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The success of it has now made us think about what are the cultural ways that people could identify and enjoy the work, because they could identify with that style of work and production.

Q: Does the Indian face a large amount of racial discrimination as compared to blacks and Mexican Americans ?

A: Probably more. It is more subtle though. It is not open and blatant except in states like South Dakota and Nebraska. It is blatant there.

Q: Are there problems in getting jobs ?

A: Oh yes. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be the least employed with the lowest income. You take any socio-economic figure, and we are in the bottom or the highest, whichever is the worst condition. There are more of us arrested by percentage of our population; we get longer sentences, more of us return to prison. You just name any kind of index. We have the highest suicide rate. Name anything. Our infants die three times more, our life expectancy is shorter. What that is indication of to me is that there all forms of discrimination. That any peoples would face those kinds of problem in modern America indicates that discrimination might not be so obvious, because we are dispersed in isolated areas all over the country, and we are not visible. But it indicates all forms of discrimination through us not being aware. It’s a terrible form of discrimination. Then there are blatant discriminations, in employment, law enforcement, education.

Q: When you start that far back you really have a job. Do you see any real progress for Indians in the foreseeable future?

A: I say yes, because I see this beautiful renaissance of people reclaiming their language, getting it into some kind of written form. The cultures and the music and the dances of the tribes are now something to be proud of; young people, are wanting to know it, the pride of their identification with who they are is just a blossoming experience. And because of their pride they are becoming more educated in the sense that it gives them the self-confidence to go through an education experience so they can compete in the larger community. They can compete because they are proud of who they are, and that they know that they are distinctively different and something is beautiful, that they have something that no one else has. You can see them exerting themselves more, in the field of education, in the field of law. My daughter just last week in Oklahoma had a giveaway because she was graduated from Stanford Law School in California. We had a giveaway, which is a tradition where the family in honoring Catherine would give to the other people in the community, and all the people in our family gave in her name. They had special songs, and she led the dance for the whole community, the Comanche Reunion. Our son went into the Little Pony Society, which he has an inherent right to because of his lineage. They gave him the traditional robe and beads and rattler shaker. He danced and was initiated and is now formally accepted into that society. That pride, that sense of pride in people identifying with that, and here my daughter is a lawyer, and is doing that.

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Judy Flander is an entertainment feature writer and television critic who for many years during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s wrote insightful interviews of many well known people, and some not so well known then, were published in newspapers and magazines across the US.

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.

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