During the 18 years of Walter Lamar’s career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he responded to the Rodney King riots Los Angeles, partipated in the Branch Davidian standoff at Waco, Texas, and responded to the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for which he was awarded an FBI Shield of Bravery for “life saving deeds.”
Amy Petty-Downs was one of two survivors rescued from the Oklahoma building. She remembers being trapped in the rubble, not being able to see anything. The floor had suddenly given way and she fell three floors while still in her chair. “I didn’t think I was going to make it out alive,” she said.
It took four hours before Down’s rescuers, including Lamar, could see her, and another two hours before she was free. “The first thing I saw was someone’s boots,” Downs remembered. “I reached through the rubble and grabbed that boot, and held on.”
The 13 FBI agents who responded that day received the bravery award. In the history of the medal, only two people have received two of the awards. Lamar is one of those two. In the following interview, Lamar talks about the Oklahoma bombing, the experiences of being an FBI agent.
Why did you decide to give your award to the Oklahoma Memorial and Museum?
I made the decision to give one of those medals to the museum. They were made specifically for those FBI agents at the Oklahoma City bombing, and there are only 13 of those in the world. It was almost too much responsibility to keep. What if there was a burglary or a fire, God forbid? I did it so the award would be kept in a safe place. My kids were saying, “Why didn’t you give it to us?” And I said, “Really? Are you gonna put it on the mantelpiece or on a shelf, or is it going to end up in a box somewhere?” Then you have the responsibility.
I gave the museum a lot more than the medal, there were handwritten notes I did right after I left the bombing that day. But the agreement is that anytime my children or grandchildren come here and want to see the collection, they can be taken down to the bowels of the museum and can see that.
What did the award mean to you personally?
I think its important for our tribal communities to know that there are Natives who have participated and been involved in all kinds of things. That’s important to me, and the medals are important in that regard, as an American Indian man, these are the things I did, and you have the potential to do anything you want to.
What do you remember about that day?
I walked through the area where the triage was dealing with the children who died in the day care center, but my mind couldn’t deal with that. There were things I had to do, so you do them. There was a picture on the cover of Time magazine and there was a dead body there, and I was standing right there. I saw the body but it didn’t register in my mind, and in some ways it takes the mind’s ability to protect us.
You know, it was something I participated in, it was part of my job. It’s like I took that experience and wrapped it up and put it in a box, just like those notes. I don’t take that experience out of the box very often, and when I participated in the museum’s oral history project I got pretty emotional, and it was because I looked at those notes. Looking at all of the experiences of that day, it almost overwhelms me, and that’s why you put those things away, and you leave them put away.
Have you had any problems with PTSD?
After the Oklahoma bombing, I didn’t go to the peer support, but after the shooting (later in 1995) they wanted me to go. They said it was just for the people who had been there, we were all gonna talk. I said okay, I can do that, and it was one of the most interesting experiences I ever had.
At the end of the day, I worked pretty much for 18 years kicking down doors, arresting people, and probably what was the worst thing, I had to go to an autopsy of a little baby.
Is there anything in particular that may have helped you cope?
People asked me if being Native had an affect on how I dealt with things. You think of generation after generation going on war parties and battles, and after they came back, they would go from lodge to lodge telling the stories and reenacting what they did, and that was all part of it. I think we are able to deal with that, to tell the story, because we are storytellers and it doesn’t rest in your mind and eat you up. With the Oklahoma City bombing, it wasn’t like you could go around and tell the stories.
In 1995, the standard procedure after a shooting is you take off work for three days. Well, I wasn’t going to stay off work, I went right back the next day because I wanted to tell the story. I wanted to be around the campfire telling my deeds. It was like somebody died in the family and people didn’t know what they should or should not say.
We absolutely get things from generational memory, the generations who went before us; we have genetic memory. We have these things within us that create who we are. In the (oral history) videotape, there is emotion attached to what I did that day. There is more emotion as years go by than there was after the event.
When I was in the FBI, all the doors I kicked down, all the things that happened, they are fading from my memory, I’m losing them. You feel like it was a dream, like it really wasn’t you, because time creates a lot of distance. Then you work a little harder to keep these things in your memory and when you do, one of the things you keep is that emotion.
How did you happen to join the FBI?
My dad and my grandfather were in the Blackfeet Law Enforcement and it always appealed to me. I never saw the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Drug Enforcement Agency, or FBI as an option, because I didn’t know any Natives who were doing that. Then I met some Native FBI guys at a recruiting booth at an NCAI [National Congress of American Indians] conference and I was like, maybe it isn’t a far-fetched idea.
It wasn’t until I became an FBI agent that I realized it was important for me to be able to help change things from the inside. There are a lot of folks who want to change things from the outside, maybe they were in the American Indian Movement, and they maybe took a radical approach, and there is nothing wrong with that because that, too, enacted change. But I just felt there was a way to enact change from the inside. And we were able to do that, the Native FBI agents belonged to what was called the FBI Directors Native American Advisory Group.
It was interesting, I went to an NCAI conference in Rapid City, South Dakota in the 1980s, and we weren’t necessarily welcomed by everybody. There were some folks that were calling us apples and cavalry and Indian Scouts and all kinds of things. It didn’t phase me. I’ve grown up on Indian reservations my whole life. My dad was a nationally recognized tribal leader, and my mom was the first Native female BIA department head, so they are known throughout Indian country.
There was that kind of prideful thing that we were warriors and serving our country, and as years went by, if anybody ever said anything derogatory it was in jest, calling us Fry Bread Inspector, or Feds Bother Indians, but at the end of the day, people were proud of what we did and who we were.