Newton Lamar served as president of the Wichita Tribe longer than anyone in modern history, and won many victories both for the tribe and for Indians nationwide. During four of the years he was president of the tribe he also served as president of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association (NTCA).
Newton started his adult life as a Bureau of Indian Affairs policeman and worked on several reservations as a young adult. In one of his assignments he met his future wife, Katherine, a Blackfeet woman. In the 1960s and 1970s he was the chief of the Navajo Nation police department for several years. But he eventually got tired of being away from home, and in the early ‘70s he moved the family back to his mother’s home outside Anadarko, Oklahoma.
He was first elected president of the Wichita Tribe in 1976 and served for the next 15 years. In 1981, he won again, and Leslie Standing won as vice president, and the two men formed a strong team that had significant victories over the next decade.
When Newton took office, the tribe had just lost a lawsuit over the lands that had been taken illegally from them. The lawyer who lost the case advised them to get a high-powered law firm, one that could handle the lobbying that was necessary.
Newton and the Tribal Council settled on Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker, a big-time Indian law firm, which first had to get Congress to pass legislation allowing the tribe to sue again. They got the legislation passed, won the lawsuit and got paid for their lands.
When Newton uncovered the “R. L. Larson” account by accident one day in 1986, he had no idea that he was opening one of the biggest scandals in BIA history. It got him thrown out of the tribal chairman’s office, cost him years of grief, and he had to file and win a lawsuit before he could win back his office. It happened one day while he was working in Washington at the NTCA offices.
Newton was in the NTCA offices in Washington that morning in 1986 when he got a call from his mother back in Anadarko. She asked him to call the Anadarko Area Office to find out when she was going to get a check from the oil that was being pumped from her lands. She had not received one in two years! She had oil wells on her lands, and the oil had been pumping for years. She needed the money. The oil royalties were her largest source of income.
Newton immediately demanded that the BIA provide records of the trust fund accounts for all members of the Wichita Tribe. But the BIA refused.
Newton and Leslie even went out to the oil fields and checked the wells themselves. They found that instead of all the natural gas coming through the meter, there was a diverter valve allowing some of it to bypass the meter and not be counted for royalties. This became another thorn in the side of the BIA oil managers, who have still not reformed their rotten and illegal system of royalty payments.
Newton’s appeals to Interior Secretary James Watt got no answers, either. Watt finally appointed a commission to look into the Indian trust funds. This so-called Linowes Commission only looked at where the trust funds originated, and not where the funds went once they were produced. It was like investigating with blinders on.
Despite their attempts not to see anything, they found huge underreporting of the number of barrels of oil pumped from Indian lands. Indians had been cheated out of billions of dollars in royalty funds. To this day, no one has been prosecuted for stealing this money and no one has accounted for where it went—except for Newton.
In his second uncovering of bad administration by the BIA, a little later, while visiting the BIA office in Anadarko, Oklahoma on official business for the tribe, Newton accidentally found the beginning of the answer to where his mother’s money was. As he was waiting for his appointment, the receptionist left a drawer open on a filing cabinet, and Newton looked inside out of curiosity. What he found shocked him.
The BIA had a slush fund it had operated for years. Money that was owed to Indians for Individual Indian Monies (IIM) and Individual Monies from the Proceeds of Labor (IMPL) were being shunted into the R. L. Larson account—a BIA slush fund.
The monies were being used to pay for annual picnics, Christmas parties, trips, and gifts and prizes for employees. In the meantime, the Indians who were due to be paid this money were not being paid, and the majority of them lived in poverty.
The IIM included royalties from oil and gas, mineral extraction, land use agreements such as leases, right-of-way payments, investment income, and similar sources. As the Cobell litigation has documented within the past decade, the actual amounts of money the BIA has “lost” is somewhere between $27 billion and $100 billion. It is the difference between Indians being able to live adequately above the poverty level and living in poverty. The amounts that Indians have lost will never be known. But with approximately one-quarter of the nation’s petroleum, minerals, coal, natural gas, thermal energy, uranium, and other resources being on Indian lands, the amount that is “missing” is enormous.
Newton immediately demanded that the BIA account for the IIM as well as its IMPL monies. He demanded that they produce the records for all members of the Wichita Tribe. But his inquiries to the Anadarko Area Office hit a stone wall. No one there would give him an answer about when payments would be made or how much the payments would be.
During this same time, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Ross Swimmer, took umbrage at a number of actions that Newton had taken. Swimmer, the former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a strong Republican, resented that Newton had revealed the R. L. Larson slush fund.
And when Newton started pushing for reform of the BIA’s procedures for accounting for Indian oil and gas monies, Ross refused to certify Newton’s reelection to a third term as president.
Ross threw Newton out of office, but Newton did not take it lying down. He sued the Bureau and Ross to be reinstated and win his office back. The local Indian Courts of Federal Regulations under Phil Lujan refused to reinstate him, but on appeal the higher court ordered him reinstated. As in other cases, the court said the BIA’s actions were arbitrary and capricious.
After these types of encounters, Newton never trusted the BIA again. He taped all his conversations with the BIA for years, which is legal in Oklahoma. Before he died, he had filled over 100 hours of tapes with conversations with various BIA officials.
In another encounter with the BIA, Newton, Leslie, Newton Rose, a councilman, and the tribal attorney, a young woman named Pat Brown, met with BIA oil and gas people in Denver. Newton wanted them to renegotiate the terms of oil and gas leases on Indian lands. If an Indian owned a piece of land with a well on it, and the company drilled a second well, the Indian still only got paid for the first well. At the same time, non-Indians right next door would be paid for oil or gas from both wells. Newton insisted that the rules be changed to allow the Indian to be paid for both wells.
They met with the BIA people at a hotel in Denver for a day, with no positive results. The next morning, as they met for the final time, the BIA said they had to catch a noon flight back to D.C. and would have to finish well before then. In the meantime they were stalling and had not agreed to any of the terms that Newton and his delegation wanted.
At 10 a.m., Newton went to the double doors and held them together. “You son-of-a-bitches are not going to leave here until you change those regulations,” he told them. Since he was the biggest man in the room, weighing well over 250 pounds, the two puny BIA bureaucrats knew they would not be able to catch their flight.
“You are not going to get out until you agree to our language,” Newton told them. The BIA guys asked for permission to go to the back room to talk it over. Newton Rose, Pat Brown, and Les Standing asked Newton, “Are you sure you can get away with this?”
Newton told them, “I’m not letting them out of this hotel room until they put the renegotiation terms in the regulations.” The BIA people came back and said they would agree. Newton told them, “Go back there and come up with a draft with the right language and I’ll let you out.” Before they left, the two BIA people had put Newton’s language into their new regulations.
I loved Newton. In fact, when I lived in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma for four years, from 1981-1985, Newton called me one day and asked me to come visit him in Anadarko. “When do you want me to come?” I asked him.
“How about tomorrow?” he asked. I got up the next morning and drove the 150 miles from Broken Arrow to Anadarko to have lunch with this great man. And I have never regretted it, even though my wife said I was crazy to drive that far just for lunch. We had some great barbecue sandwiches and talked politics for two hours. He told me all about the R. L. Larson account and how he had accidentally uncovered it.
Newton died in 1992 from a massive heart attack. He had been working in Florida for the Miccosukee Tribe for a couple of years after he left office with his Wichita Tribe, and then had gone to Montana to work when he had the heart attack. I miss him terribly.
Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a scholarship and school improvement organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His next book, to be published by Peter Lang Publishers, is The American Indian Dropout. This column originally appeared in his book Modern American Indian Leaders.