ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. — Hank Adams, the lifelong activist who
negotiated peaceful ends to some of the most dangerous standoffs in modern
Indian history, is the 2006 recipient of Indian Country Today’s American
Indian Visionary Award.
The award will be presented in a ceremony at the National Press Club in
Washington, D.C. on March 1.
Famously self-effacing, Adams was a crucial behind-the-scenes figure in
practically every scene of the militant Indian revival of the last four
decades. He is best known in the history books for his negotiations with
the White House to resolve the takeover of the BIA building in Washington
in 1972 during the Trail of Broken Treaties protest and to wind down the
10-week siege of Wounded Knee in 1973. Both incidents could have caused
untold casualties, but his ability to gain the confidence of both sides is
credited with keeping bloodshed to a minimum.
But Adams worked primarily out of the spotlight, through an activist career
that started a decade before Wounded Knee and continues to this day. Long
before the American Indian Movement burst on the scene, Adams had been
arrested many times in tribal fishing protests in the Pacific Northwest and
even taken a bullet in an assassination attempt. His extensive influence
came not from dramatic action, however, but from his powers of intellect,
research and persuasion, delivered in slow, soft-spoken cadence.
Born on the Fort Peck reservation in Montana in 1943, Adams is
Assiniboine-Sioux. But his mother married a Quinault man and moved to
Washington state, where Adams grew up with the Northwest fishing tribes.
Among his other feats of mediation, he later bridged the gap between the
buffalo culture of the Plains and the salmon culture of the Northwest.
As a teenager, he became active in protests against the imposition of state
jurisdiction on the Quinault Reservation under Public Law 280 and against
the social disruption it caused. Already attracting the notice of national
Indian leaders, he broke with the establishment in 1963 and joined the more
radical National Indian Youth Council. He dropped out of the University of
Washington that fall to work full time on community issues.
The next year he enlisted actor Marlon Brando in support of the treaty
rights struggle for fishing along the Nisqually River. In the middle of the
fish-ins and frequent arrests by militarized game wardens, he also did the
research and laid down the arguments that led to the historic Boldt
decision of 1974 which upheld the treaty rights of the Nisqually, Puyallup
and other Northwest tribes. He also started the long-range planning for
preserving salmon and steelhead that has since been realized by the
Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
In 1972, he helped organize the cross-country Trail of Broken Treaties
caravan. He was primary author of the “20 Points,” laying out the treaty
basis for relations between Indian tribes and the federal government. When
the caravan reached Washington in November and a series of blunders led to
the forcible occupation by the protesters of the BIA building, he did his
best to salvage the original purpose of the caravan. He worked with White
House aide Leonard Garment, an architect of President Nixon’s Indian
self-determination policy, to end the takeover and send the protesters back
He also helped retrieve boxes of documents taken from the building, fearing
that their loss would jeopardize Indian claims that later took shape in the
Cobell v. Norton lawsuit. For his pains he was arrested by the FBI, along
with investigative reporter Les Whitten, in a case that was quickly thrown
out by a grand jury.
The connection with Garment came into play again the next year during the
famous siege of Wounded Knee, when Adams served as go-between for the White
House and Lakota traditional leader Frank Fools Crow.
“It’s a long time back,” Garment told ICT, “but Hank Adams’ role in the
peaceful resolution of some very difficult problems is still vividly clear
in my mind.”
Since those dramatic days, Adams might have been less visible but his
influence has expanded, internationally as well as in Indian country.
During the late 1980s, he spent time in Nicaragua, drawing attention to the
precarious situation of its east coast Indian tribes in that country’s
struggle. He also helped negotiate the Canadian-U.S. treaty on Northwest
He has helped negotiate water rights agreements between Northwest tribes
and neighboring localities, and has remained active in follow-up issues to
the Boldt decision that linger to this day.
He entered what he calls another “long-drawn-out engagement” in securing
the Little Big Horn National Monument Indian Memorial. After five years of
work on the initial congressional authorization starting in 1987, he
resumed an active role in 1999 to get congressional funding. Actual
construction of the memorial began in June 2003.
He also worked in the ’90s to defeat a Washington state gaming initiative
that he considered a front for non-Indian gaming interests. He also is
admitted as lay counsel to the Quinault, Puyallup and Nisqually tribal
courts. (Although his legal erudition caused many to assume he was a law
school graduate, he has been entirely self-taught since his sophomore year
at the University of Washington.) He expressed pride in helping win an
acquittal in a “cigarette smuggling” case in Tacoma, Wash., as an aide to a
public defender. He said he was able to introduce the fact that Gen. George
Custer, in slaughtering Black Kettle’s band at Washita, also confiscated
800 pounds of tobacco.
When asked to sum up his career, he directed attention instead to the work
of the previous generation in defeating the federal termination policy of
the 1950s. He also cited some of the disasters he had managed to avert,
both in militant standoffs and Congressional legislation.
“Some of the things you prevent from happening are as important as many of
the things you are able concretely to achieve,” he said.