An interview with former Senate Committee on Indian Affairs staff member Patricia Zell
WASHINGTON – Patricia Zell has a deep feeling for the Democratic congressional members and staff ushered into majority power by the voters on Nov. 7. They had some warning, but probably not enough to avoid feeling a little overwhelmed, as well as empowered, at the prospect of enacting legislative priorities after years in the political wilderness of a minority party.
Zell has been there. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee under similar circumstances, following the 1986 midterm elections. Between the November elections and the opening of the next Congress in January 1987, Inouye did some deep reading in Indian history. It moved him to use all of his newfound power to make a difference for Native people, a determination he conveyed to a staff that was already pretty stirred up by their newly minted majority standing.
Zell would serve on the committee staff as general counsel, chief counsel and chief of staff until her retirement from Capitol Hill in 2005 to open the Washington-based firm of Zell and Cox Law. But the opening months of 1987 still transport her. “It was literally magic.”
In February of that year, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution testified before Congress to the existence of 180,000 Native remains in the institution’s keeping. This was a month into Inouye’s chairmanship.
“You take all of the books he read and one month into his chairmanship this revelation, and you take a mild-mannered senator from Hawaii and – what! He was outraged.”
Within 10 days, negotiations had begun over the housing of New York’s Heye Collection of Native artifacts. By April, the concept of a national Native museum in Washington to house the Heye Collection and rescue the Smithsonian remains had taken shape. From there, the National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington Mall and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act were no more than a series of difficult negotiations away.
That’s where Zell, accustomed like all Capitol Hill staff to putting the congressional member first, enters the historical record in spite of herself. Shuttling between Washington and New York for perhaps thousands of hours of negotiations over museum holdings and transfers, principals of the time considered her indispensable. Eventually her efforts merited a mention in the Congressional Record.
When the museum opened its doors, in September 2004, Zell was there for what she calls her best day in Washington – “That, far and away.”
A host of Native people echoed her sentiments, then and now. “I’ve talked with hundreds of people who were there that day, and they went home and felt their lives had changed and would never be the same. It was just like this was a new day in our history. ... One of the most important things about this country is its Native people. I hope we never forget that. And I’m so glad that museum is located where it is” – just across the way from the foot of the Capitol, a permanent claim on the attention of the nation’s legislative nerve center.
If that was her finest day and her foremost project among thousands, the work she liked best was on Indian water rights. The process usually led to a settlement between the local parties, each knowing the other wasn’t going away, because bringing a water rights conflict to Congress often meant finding that 535 elected members already knew better. “Now they have a common enemy. They’ve got to stand shoulder to shoulder.”
Beyond the courts and the media cameras and the halls of Congress, Zell said, the parties tend to work through points of conflict like friends and neighbors. “By the time they get a settlement through [Congress], they’re really blood family. It’s a remarkable and wonderful thing to see. It brings tears to my eyes.”
Likewise on all counts for the long negotiations over tribal fishing rights in the Northwest, Zell said.
Zell’s presence at so many high points in recent Native history says something about the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as well. It continues to play a valuable and trusted role in terms of shepherding tribes through the legislative process and advancing their proposals, difficult as that may have become in recent years. “Basically the committee helps the tribe develop a kind of strategic plan. I think it’s a fortifying interaction for tribes. I hope it is, and certainly many tribes have said so.”
Nowadays lobbyists do similar work, some of them exceptionally well. But Zell cautioned against expecting well-paid sophistication to open doors in the corridors of power. “The reality is that the person the member of Congress is going to remember [at a committee hearing, for example] is the tribal leader, and what the tribal leader has to say.” No amount of money can be paid to replace that presence, she added.