When Dan Inouye moved on to the next journey, our world lost a giant of a man. Indian country lost a warrior, a leader, a true chief.
Many knew Senator Inouye better than I did, but my few memories of the Senator are clear. As a young man and new lawyer, I had the opportunity to work for the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. For me, his central message was to always do the right thing in public life. He insisted Tribal Leaders be addressed as “The Honorable." He treated them as heads of state. The experience quite literally changed my life.
During the Iran-Contra hearings, I had the opportunity to hear the Senator at his most serious when he made an uncharacteristically un-guarded remark how America’s constitution was being tested.
When my dad, who was serving as vice chairman of our tribe, was rushed to a regional medical center 90 miles away, I experienced Senator Inouye at his kindest.
I also saw him at his warmest. At one Christmas party I made the kind of meatballs that every family on my reservation makes for New Years Day. He ate them until an aide felt compelled to tell him he should stop.
My best memory was when, sitting in a meeting, he offered me some tea, to which I responded, “Senator, Indians aren’t supposed to drink tea”. In that deep voice of his he sounded quizzical: “No? Why not?” I then hit the punchline: “We could drown in our own teepee.” He laughed more heartily than I had ever heard him laugh.
Perhaps my starkest memory of Senator Inouye belongs to the dreadful morning now known simply as 9/11. On leave from my law professor post, I was then the elected chairman of my tribe, and along with many other tribal leaders I sat in the bowels of a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. transfixed by a speech being given by the senator. However, he got interrupted once by his aide whispering in his ear, then once again, and then he abruptly ended his speech due to the horrible events that morning. One of the many tragedies that morning was that the good Senator never finished that speech.
He commiserated that Native Americans would be in for a few difficult years ahead when it came to Washington politics. But then he said and did something against even his own teachings – he ventured into the internal affairs of the Tribes. He implored the tribal leaders to provide due process to tribal members in their own tribal governments. He urged tribal leaders to be fair to all tribal members in providing jobs, housing, law enforcement. He flatly explained how difficult it becomes to defend Indian Country in the face of many of the unpleasant stories of tribal politics we hear over and over. We tribal leaders needed to hear that speech more than any other. While gains have been made since that time, it wouldn’t hurt us to hear that speech on a regular basis.
Sadly, if we do hear it again, we’ll have to settle for hearing from someone with less stature, less rez-cred, than Dan Inouye.
Richard A. Monette is a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, former Chairman of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, former Director of the BIA Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs and former staff attorney with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.