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.
As the work of the task force progressed, I spoke with Hank constantly
about the weighty issues of Indian policy. The trust responsibility,
treaties and tribal sovereignty were matters of which I knew very little,
but about which Hank knew a great deal. He had a way of bringing abstract
ideas to life and giving them currency in modern tribal affairs. I listened
to his ideas and realized the amount of study it had taken for him to know
what he knew. So complete was his knowledge of Indian law that I assumed at
first that he was a trained lawyer. I suspect that he still knows more
about Indian law than most of us who teach it.
During the course of the task force’s work, Hank wrote a series of essays
describing the principles of international law that the Europeans brought
to their relations with the Indians, and how the United States subverted
those principles in its conduct towards the Indians. The more I read of his
work, the more I saw the power of the written word and the power of ideas
supported by research and passion. Sadly, those essays were never
completed. Hank fell ill in 1976 and was unable to complete the task force
report, and those of us who worked with him simply lacked the ability to
complete his work.
Still, I learned invaluable lessons from my time working for Hank. I
watched him present his ideas to congressmen and senators. I watched Rep.
Lloyd Meeds try to bully Hank and denigrate tribal sovereignty and treaty
rights, and I listened to Hank’s softly spoken yet erudite rebuttal. 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. Thus inspired, I returned to school with renewed dedication
to my studies.
We haven’t seen much of each other since that time, but now and then I’ll
see something he’s written or said and reflect again on his persistence and
his hard-won wisdom. How fortunate we are that Hank has devoted his
extraordinary talents to the betterment of Indian country. How appropriate
that he should be honored as a visionary. We could hardly do better than to
devote ourselves to realizing Hank’s vision of a prosperous and free Native
Kevin Gover, Esq., is a professor of law at the Arizona State University
College of Law in Tempe, Ariz. He is Pawnee and a former assistant
secretary for Indian affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior.