A Life and Death in the Family: Appreciating Daniel K. Inouye

Suzan Shown Harjo
December 24, 2012

Senator Daniel K. Inouye unerringly thoughtful and with a keen sense of occasion used to host a private gathering around each November 28 to mark the anniversary of the signing of the National Museum of the American Indian Act. Two, three or four of us would sit by the fire and celebrate the 1989 law we crafted that established the NMAI’s Museum on the Mall and two other facilities, as well as the historic repatriation policy that led to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

There, in Inouye’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol – one of the elegant offices reserved for senior members of Congress  we would reflect on Native Peoples’ long journey from envisioning the outcome in 1967, to achieving it in law, to marveling at its presence on the National Mall in 2004. In the history of long-fought policy campaigns, there are break-through moments as memorable as the birth of a child. The first in the NMAI/repatriation campaign happened at Bear Butte, South Dakota, where our coalition began the hard work of reclaiming our ancestors, sacred objects and past, and building a future emblemized by our “cultural center” right in front of the Capitol, from which lawmakers would have to look us in the face when they did something impacting our lives. These were the goals that Inouye embraced and empowered us to achieve.

Another break through occurred in 1988, also in Inouye’s hideaway office, overlooking the West Lawn of the Capitol and the expanse of the National Mall to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. The problem at hand was where on the Mall the NMAI could be located, and Inouye asked, “What’s that blank space between the Botanical Gardens and the National Air & Space Museum?” The Smithsonian Institution wanted a museum of man there, but Congress had not acted, and Inouye counted coup on the “blank space” and commandeered it for the NMAI.

The National Congress of American Indians, which I served as executive director, had been in talks with Smithsonian Secretary Robert Adams since 1984 regarding repatriation, care, treatment and exhibition of Native people and materials throughout the Institution. The Museum of the American Indian in New York, which Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), and I served as trustees, was in talks with the Smithsonian about the future of MAI’s deteriorating million-object collection. Both NCAI and MAI were lobbying Congress to nationalize the collection, establish a national Indian museum, make a repatriation policy and dedicate a minimum number of trustee seats for tribal people. Everything came together in the 1989 NMAI law.

Inouye’s annual get-togethers were not only celebrations of the past, but rededications to the ongoing work of NMAI, beyond his duties and mine as founding trustees. We helped NMAI raise money, on and off the Hill, to build its three facilities and endowment, and to give it backbone. When he learned that NMAI signaled agreement with some Republican appropriators that the Museum on the Mall would be constructed with non-union labor, Inouye said he had never crossed a picket line and would not do so in the future, even for NMAI. The Smithsonian’s backroom support quickly dissipated when the White House realized how many senators and NMAI trustees would take the same position as Inouye.

As a lawyer and lifelong student of comparative religions, Inouye entered Native American issues through ceremony and religious freedom. He was invited into formal ceremonies across Indian country and in his home state, and many Native Peoples gave him names in their heritage languages. He understood the importance of our traditional religions and the history of American confiscation of our lands, especially sacred places, and suppression of Native customs and ways. He empathized with the fact that many of us were forced to be outlaws in order to take part in ceremonies that were required to be done at specific sites.

Inouye was an original sponsor of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which is the policy backdrop for follow-on laws regarding repatriation, museums, languages, sacred places and other cultural matters. He made effective use of AIRFA and his Appropriations Committee positions to help traditional Native Peoples gain access to and protections for sacred places, including those involving complex physical and policy issues at Defense military and munitions storage installations. His careful, incremental work from 1979 to 1994 resulted in the Navy stopping its use of Kaho’olawe as a bombing range, cleaning up the smallest Hawaiian island and turning it over to Hawaii for Native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes.

Always a willing champion or second or whatever he was needed to be, Inouye helped Native Peoples with important legislation and corrections in various administrations. When we talked him into chairing the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, he wanted to learn as much as he could as fast as he could. We loaned him lots of books about Native American history, law, treaties and religions, some of which were returned 18 years later, all appearing to have been well read and highly used.

In a late-1986 meeting, Inouye asked me, Deloria and Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons what his upcoming chairmanship priorities should be, starting in 1987, and how he could assure American Indians that he would not focus solely on Native Hawaiian issues. We asked him to educate the public about treaties – that they all had been broken and must be upheld – and to talk to his colleagues about his and their constitutional obligations to represent the interests of all Indians and tribes (for far too many, then and now, act as if their duties end at their state borders). We identified repatriation and the national Indian museum, already well on their way, but in need of the Native advocacy muscle and big ideas that Inouye brought to them; sacred places protection, which was achieved for many specific sites; and revitalization of Native languages, buffalo, salmon and tribal economies, all of which efforts achieved measurable success.

As Inouye became Committee chair, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark tribal gaming case, upholding tribal sovereign authority to operate gambling businesses on tribal lands, and states were clamoring for Congress to undo the decision or give them a cut of the profits. Even though he disliked gambling and did not want it for Hawaii, Inouye knew that it was his duty to carry out the high court’s ruling and to advocate for the best legislation for Native Nations. He spent more hours on Indian gaming than on any other single issue, before and after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, with his efforts for Native Hawaiian self-determination and self-governance running a close second.

Deloria, Lyons and I also asked Inouye to shine a light on the high numbers and conditions of Native American inmates by working publicly to free the ailing Yakama fisherman David Sohappy, Sr., and by requesting clemency for Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement member who is serving two consecutive life sentences in the shootings of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. Inouye visited Sohappy in prison, calling attention to the case and to treaty fishing in scores of political and human-interest stories, securing Sohappy’s early release in 1988 and supporting a legal strategy in Yakama tribal court that ultimately cleared his name.

Inouye studied Peltier’s case and concluded that he was convicted on insufficient evidence as a symbol of AIM, while two other AIM members had been acquitted in separate trials, and that he should be released. Inouye made formal statements to that effect and made appearances in connection with Robert Redford’s “Incident at Oglala.” In 1996, Inouye asked President Clinton to do two things: sign the Indian Sacred Sites Executive Order, which some other senators were asking Clinton not to sign, and free Peltier, which the FBI adamantly opposed. Clinton said he would sign the E/O right away, which he did, but would have to wait until after the election to free Peltier. Sixteen years later, Peltier remains in prison and President Obama is being asked to free him.

One of the questions Inouye asked a staffer as he prepared to become chairman was: what is the equivalent in Indian country of a banana among Asian Americans (yellow on the outside and white on the inside)? The staffer guessed that it was a radish, rather than an apple, which drove home the need for Inouye to have a top Native staffer who would not have to guess about the basics. Many non-Natives were jockeying to become Inouye’s staff director, but we at NCAI made a single recommendation: Alan R. Parker (Chippewa-Cree & Standing Rock Sioux), a lawyer, Viet Nam veteran and former seminarian. Inouye hired him. Parker and chief counsel Patricia Zell, who took over as staff director after Parker, led an able staff that reflected the respect and dignity of their boss.

While chairing the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs from 1987 to 1993, Inouye succeeded in gaining its full committee status and involvement in shaping leadership policy, and chaired the Committee on Indian Affairs from 1994 to 2001 and 2001 to 2003, continuing on as vice chairman when the Democrats were not in the majority or sometimes as senior member, which he was scheduled to be again in the 113th Congress. He accomplished vital advances in health care, housing, jobs, child welfare, education and other emergency and long-term issues for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Peoples. He attempted to move the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993, which would have protected sacred places, inmates’ rights, use of feathers and other items. However, the Justice Department deemed it veto bait, supporting only codification of its existing regulatory exemption to the prohibition on use of peyote (for use as a sacrament by Native American Church members), which was enacted as the AIRFA Amendments of 1994.

Inouye traveled to visit Native Peoples at home and held many hearings outside DC. He spoke out against anti-Indian hate groups and race-based stereotyping, and supported our 1992 filing of litigation against the disparaging name of the Washington football team. He instituted a custom in the Committee of listing and addressing tribal leaders as Honorable, just as leaders of other governments are recognized. It was a subtle, but powerful signal to other members, staffers, witnesses and observers that tribal leaders, too, were to be treated with respect. Unfortunately, Inouye’s initiative is not carried on in the committee today.

Inouye did whatever he could to accord respect and dignity to all people and to their families. He was courtly, elegant and wise, and approached serious things with great ceremoniousness. He wasn’t above the wicked-funny aside or the politician’s concern that not every single person loved him, but it was not pettiness or vanity that drove him. It was justice and fairness. Through it all, he was a lot of fun and had a boyish sense of humor. He liked being called Danny and loved to play “Danny Boy” on the piano, which he did (very well) with his left hand. Inouye saluted and shook hands with his left arm, and often suffered from tendonitis in his one good arm during the campaign season.

As the world knows, he was a WWII hero and lost most of his right arm in combat in San Terenzo, Italy. My father almost lost his legs at Monte Cassino and met Inouye when they were in Libya, in a recovery hospital for seriously wounded soldiers -- young men coming to grips with their futures as disabled veterans. Dad said, “I always liked that Inouye boy; he didn’t have much to say.”

I loved and admired Inouye, and am proud of the work we did to make and change history. He listened and spoke carefully, and did more than any one person could have been expected to do for so many, diverse people. For Native Peoples, his legislative stamp is on every aspect of modern Native American law, his name is spoken with deep gratitude and his passing is personal – his was a life and a death in the family.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) is president of The Morning Star Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network. A founding trustee of the National Museum of the American, she is a former trustee of the Museum of the American Indian, past executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and former legislative liaison for the Native American Rights Fund.



What can any one say He has honor so we have respect for him ,He has a good heart so we have love for him,he accepted us the way we are so we accepted him his body has crossed over but good men sprite continue to ready to help with their wisdom when called he is just waiting for us
Indian Country will miss Senator Inouye. I remember several years ago when I was part of a Tribal delegation from the Blackfeet Tribe which was making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Senator Inouye set aside 45 minutes out of his busy schedule to meet with us and get our thoughts on the prevalent issues of the day. He reinforced his belief in Tribes governing themselves and determining their own destiny. A person treasures those moments with great men. This especially impressed me, as our Senator Baucus was able to set aside only 15 minutes with our delegation before turning us over to a staffer. Senator Inouye will always be in a great place with our Indian people.

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