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Joe Garry of the Coeur d'Alene: Hero of 20th Century Indian America

Chuck Trimble
4/11/12

The Northwest Tribes have produced some of history’s greatest leaders, most notably Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. In modern times the most important leader ever to come out of the Northwest in Indian Affairs was Joseph R. Garry of the Coeur d’Alenes, who certainly merits a place as one of the great tribal leaders of the 20th Century. Yet his glory days were well before the spotlight of the national media turned on to Indian affairs and technology provided for political self-aggrandizement.

Until recently, I hadn’t known about a book titled Saving the Reservation: Joe Garry and the Battle to Be Indian that was published by the University of Washington Press in 2001. Written by Professor John Fahey, it is well researched and an exciting read. Although I knew Joe Garry well, there is much in the book that I didn’t know about him, because he was a man who never talked much about himself. Although he was a strong leader and magnificent public speaker with a powerful voice, he was a humble man with a warm sense of humor.

He was born in a tipi on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho in 1910, but his father, Ignace Garry, enrolled him on the Kalispel Reservation in order for him to get a land allotment, which was not available at that time on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. Nevertheless, he spent most of his life on the Coeur d’Alene, and was elected the tribe’s first President when its first Council was formed in 1948.

Garry led the Tribe in organizing itself through years of Bureau of Indian Affairs paternalistic manipulation and faction mongering to disable what little tribal government was in place. The BIA, at the area office and local agency levels were hell-bent on terminating the tribes. Garry’s efforts to counter the BIA by communicating directly to the Interior Secretary and the Idaho Congressional delegation in Washington only angered the bureaucrats further and made matters worse for the tribe. Robert Dellwo, long-time attorney for the tribe, and usually a peace maker between the tribe and the BIA, finally wrote to the BIA Commissioner, “I am certain that this whole matter…resulted from a concerted program by Bureau officials to hamstring and discredit Joe Garry. We went through the era when everything we tried…was bottled up with endless obstacles and splitting of hairs…At the same time there was copious propaganda released to Coeur d’Alene members trying to give the impression of incompetence, callousness and greed on the part of the Council members and of Joe Garry in particular.”

The fact that Joe was actually a member of the Kalispel Tribe while he served as a citizen and leader in his host Coeur d’Alene tribe arose as an issue when BIA officials sought to unseat him from the tribal council as a means of curbing his activism against termination policy. To counter the BIA’s efforts, the Coeur d’Alene tribal council officially adopted him into the tribe.

In 1949, Garry represented the Coeur d’Alene at the founding of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and was elected as the ATNI’s first President, an office he held for several years, building it to be the strongest caucus in the National Congress of American Indians.

Joe Garry was elected President of the National Congress of American Indians in November 1953, as legislation to end the trust relationship between the federal government and tribal governments – what had become known to Indian Country as Termination – was moving through Congress. It was in the earliest days of NCAI and it fell to Garry to effectively organize, without any resources, a campaign to meet the threat of termination – the push of Congress to dissolve tribal governments, liquidate tribal lands and resources, and turn jurisdiction of their territories and citizens over to the states.

Driving across the country from Phoenix to Washington, DC following the NCAI’s Phoenix convention, Helen Peterson along with Helen’s mother and little son traveled with him, which gave the new NCAI president and executive director much time to talk political strategy and fund raising plans to meet the termination threat. They zig-zagged across the country visiting tribes and talking about what “termination” was, and what its effect on tribes would mean.

During his hectic schedule of rallying the nation’s tribes to fight the termination movement, organizing his own tribe for the first time in its history, organizing a budget to use a Indian Claims Commission award payment to bolster the tribe’s governance and solidify its land base, and fighting the BIA’s bureaucratic mischief, Garry decided to run for a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives. This would give the tribe additional allies in its expected fight for survival against state jurisdiction. He was elected to office and was the first Native American to serve in the Idaho legislature, serving many years thereafter in both the Idaho House and Senate.

Although I was well tutored about NCAI by arguably the organization’s greatest Executive Director ever, Helen Peterson (Oglala/Cheyenne), there is much in Saving the Reservation that I didn’t know about NCAI’s founders and early formation, and the great defensive battle it waged to rally the tribes during the darkest times in modern Indian history. It is a book that should be in the library of every serious scholar of Indian history.

Since I had written a series titled “Unsung Heroes” about Indian leaders I have known and admired, I have been asked by friends and relatives why I had not written about Joe Garry. After all, he was married to my older sister, Leona. I planned to write about him, perhaps even a book, but like so many of my plans in my old age, it just didn’t happen. And after reading the book Saving the Reservation, I am satisfied that his memory will be well preserved for those who write Indian history in the future.

I was told by a niece of mine that the book was not kind to my sister Leona, but I find upon reading it that it is fair and truthful. Leona was a beautiful woman and generous; but she could be haughty, mean and sharp tongued, and alcohol exaggerated her temper. She and Joe loved each other, but his gentle nature was often tested to the limit. Joe died on the last day of 1975 at the age of 65 years. Leona died a decade later. They are buried side by side with their only daughter, Ursula, at the DeSmet cemetery on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.

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