Perhaps it’s a holdover from 1950s TV Westerns where Indians were savages that had to be killed in order for the settlers to turn the wilderness into a garden. Then again, maybe it’s a more recent form of bigotry mobilized by resentment of the freedom and leisure enjoyed by pre-industrial, indigenous societies. Whatever the source of the ludicrous notion that traditional, indigenous peoples today cannot also be modern and cosmopolitan, the end result of perpetuating such nonsense is to undermine meaningful truth and reconciliation between indigenous and settler societies–at a juncture where the very future of humankind depends on it.
Back in the 1960s, one of the leading intellects of the indigenous resurgence in North America, Hank Adams, risked his life to preserve Bureau of Indian Affairs records he foresaw as vital to this eventual making amends. At the forefront of what was to become the American Indian Movement, Adams was shunned by leading liberal religious organizations looking to capitalize on the misery of Indians much like they had on southern Blacks. To our chagrin, the suit-and-tie clad Hank was cast aside in favor of more noble-looking Indians in buckskins.
Fifty years later, we are still fighting the Indian or indigenous wars. Liberals and conservatives alike continue to perpetuate the myth of civilized, white superiority — especially when asserting a benevolent, cosmopolitan posture — an inevitable consequence, I suppose, of the vast changes now being forced on us all by the blind ambition and arrogant ignorance of manifest destiny. So sad that the only excuse some can come up with is that we had to destroy the world in order to save it from savages.
As another saintly research activist in the vein of Jack Minnis from the Civil Rights Movement, Adams saw what needed to be done and did it. Neither fame nor fortune ever graced Hank’s steps, but like other visionaries with integrity, this never stopped him from putting his people first.
Back in 1975, the late Vine Deloria wrote the following about Hank Adams.
When the media collide with a social movement, their chief contribution seems to be the simplification of issues and the creation of instant personalities. The complexity of conflicting ideologies which separate the respective minority groups from the rest of America is often overlooked in the rush to lionize the most-obvious heroes of the latest cause. As a result, accomplishments become fewer and fewer; and the public, satiated with its superficial understanding and oozing with sympathy, moves on to find another cause. The media-created personalities emerge a decade later in where-are-they-now articles and little is accomplished.
Now that Marlon Brando is filming the AIM version of Wounded Knee as a never-to-be-forgotten but hardly understood epic, future historians will be all the more puzzled when trying to distinguish fiction from fact concerning the activities of this generation of Indians. It is time, perhaps, to attempt to sketch out for the record some of the important persons of the recent Indian movement who have rarely achieved wide public recognition but who have contributed and influenced events far in excess of what one would expect from a virtually anonymous individual. Future historians – indeed, present historians – when looking for the most important Indian of the post-war years will be missing a bet if they fail to choose Hank Adams, a slight, shy and somewhat mysterious Assiniboine-Sioux from Fort Peck, Montana.
Like Bob Moses, the enigmatic and shadowy black organizer from the early movement in Mississippi, Adams has remained a mysterious character who has shunned the spotlight, avoided the college lecture circuit and escaped the evening talk shows. But Adams has been the key man behind the scenes, the crucial individual who held the line through knowledge, perseverance and hard work during those times when others shirked the dirty work or failed to see in the turn of events the crucial nature of the confrontation.
In January 2006, Kevin Gover, Pawnee professor of law at Arizona State University, and former assistant secretary of state for Indian affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, reflected on his experience with Adams thirty years earlier.
Some people impress with aggressive deeds or a dynamic presence. Others impress by speaking loudly and forcefully; still others, by their natural charm. The most impressive people of all, though, are the ones who impress with the breadth of their knowledge, the gravity of their ideas and the eloquence of their expression. Hank Adams is one of these.
I met Hank in 1975 when he was chairing the American Indian Policy Review Commission’s Task Force on Trust Responsibilities. As it happened, I had just partied my way into failing grades in college. I doubted the value of education and of scholarship in changing the way Indians lived and the way the United States dealt with tribal governments. Hank hired me to work for the task force.
I had no idea who he was, this small, unassuming man. I had no idea that he was a hero of the treaty fishing rights battle in the Northwest. I had no idea that he had survived an assassination attempt. All I knew was he was giving me a job. What I really got, though, was a life-changing lesson in the power of words and ideas. …
Most of all, I saw intellect, scholarship and commitment to which I could aspire. I wanted to know as much as Hank knew, and use words as well as Hank used them.
More recently, Cobell v Norton — the largest Indian trust fund recovery case in American history — relied heavily on a careful audit (by Blackfoot accountant Elouise Cobell) of the Bureau of Indian Affairs records, records Hank Adams three decades earlier preserved when the Native American occupation of BIA headquarters in Washington threatened their loss or destruction.
During the Native sovereignty battles of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, several young Native Americans rose to the occasion. In The Hank Adams Reader, editor David E. Wilkins examines key writings and documents from Adams’ archives, that give us an inside look at what it means to be a leader in social conflict with an eye to the future.
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