Unsung Heroes: Lucy Covington, Termination dragon slayer…
In his superb new book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, Mark Trahant tells about Lucy Covington’s campaign to unseat pro-terminationist members of the Colville Tribal Council and thereby save the tribe from dissolving itself. Lucy Covington is one of the great leaders in modern Indian history, alongside other Northwest leaders like Chief Joseph R. Garry of the Coeur d’Alene and the founders of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
Lucy Friedlander Covington was extraordinary. Her grandfather Herman Friedlander was Jewish and her grandmother an Entiat tribal woman. According to Lucy, neither of the couple learned the other’s language, so their seven children spoke both Jewish/German and Entiat. Lucy’s mother Isabel Friedlander is listed as one of the outstanding women in the history of Washington State.
Trahant’s brief but very accurate account of the Colville campaign brought back wonderful memories because I was involved in that struggle as Lucy’s communications person, although I carried no such title. She enlisted me after I gave a brief talk on the birthing plans of the American Indian Press Association at the 1970 NCAI convention in Anchorage, Alaska. She asked if I would come to Colville and help put together a newspaper.
She made no offers of compensation for travel and expenses. The Press Association was not yet established and there were no funds for travel or anything else; so I went at my own expense. And when I arrived in Spokane where she met me, she sat me down in a room at the Indian Center there and told me what she expected of me. She wanted a newspaper that would tell what a tribe means to its people, and its true worth to them in terms of land, natural resources, and most of all their cultural heritage. She wanted the newspaper to be called Our Heritage, and she even described the logo she wanted for the masthead. It would be a pair of hands holding together the shape of the Colville Reservation. The logo would signify that the future of their reservation, indeed their nation, was in the hands of the people, not in the U.S. Government or the State of Washington, or anyone else.
I was not familiar with what termination of a tribe entailed, and how it was carried out. I thought the U.S. Congress unilaterally determined that a tribe’s unique trust relationship with the Federal government would be severed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would execute the congressional order. When I learned that the tribe, through its elected leaders, had to approve the dissolution of their own nation, and that a majority on the existing Colville Council was forcefully behind the measure, I felt disheartened. Gaining an anti-termination majority on the Council meant internecine warfare, and Indian against Indian was always mean and messy.
Among the younger candidates on Lucy Covington’s slate was Mel Tonasket, who was running to represent the Omak district of the reservation. When I met the candidates Lucy asked me what I thought of them. I told her I liked them, with the possible exception of Tonasket, who seemed somewhat unfriendly or aloof to me. Three years later he was elected President of the National Congress of Americans while I was Executive Director of the organization, and we served together for the next six years. We made a good team – he was levelheaded and cool while I tended to get riled at the politics of Washington. Both of us were among the several younger people enlisted for her struggle by Covington, who proudly carried the group name of “Lucy’s Litter.” We became like brothers, and I still view Mel as a sibling.
Many Colville tribal members bought into the Congress’ stated goal of “freeing the Indians from government chains,” and liquidating the Tribes land and assets, resulting in individual wealth from the proceeds. In fact, the pro-terminationist element in the Tribe called themselves the Liquidationists, so as to distance themselves from the dreaded “T” word. Covington had served on the tribal council for fifteen years, and dedicated herself to the protection of the Tribes lands and resources against overwhelming odds against termination.
She successfully operated a ranch alone after the death of her husband a decade earlier, and sold cattle from her herd to fund her repeated trips to Washington, D.C. She also traveled to meetings of the NCAI and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, where she mobilized much outside support for her struggle. Her fight to prevent Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington from passing the Colville termination bill helped raise awareness for her campaign and inspired tribal leaders from across the country.
After the newspaper was up and running, I enlisted the help of my father-inlaw, Robert “Bob” Savage to devise an advertising campaign to help Lucy get out the votes to elect her slate of candidates. Bob had long experience in advertising and was newly retired from his own large advertising company. Looking back on those old ads in my files, I appreciate the genius of Bob’s work in that campaign. He knew little of tribal politics, but quickly caught on.
Our campaign would necessarily be low budget, with Bob writing the copy and the overall design, and me doing the illustrating. Bob and I footed the cost of all the travel and for the printing.
We decided that the first rule of the campaign would be to refrain from exacerbating the intra-tribal battle. We needed to inform the tribal members what was in store for them if they terminated themselves, and who the ultimate beneficiaries would be. There was no guarantee that the tribal members would get rich from the liquidation. Indeed, the real winners would be the timber interests, paper mills, water interests, land developers, recreational interests around the wonderful lakes and rivers in the reservation, and most of all the banking interests. In our ads these outside interests were portrayed as vultures, flying around the reservation waiting to pick apart the remains of the dying Colville tribe. These vultures became the common enemies to fight; not tribal brothers against brothers.
This is not to say the intra-tribal battle subsided to any great degree. Liquidationist forces still harassed the anti-terminationist rallies, including running a herd of cattle through one of the gatherings.
We also wanted to appeal to the offreservation Colville voters in Seattle and other urban areas. We feared that they would not feel the urgency of saving the Tribe, since they weren’t benefiting directly from it, anyway.
I recall the day of the election at Colville, as we waited up late to get the results by phone. Finally, very late, Lucy called with the results – she had the votes for a majority on the Council, and the major leaders for the Liquidationists were off the Council forever. I immediately called my father-in-law with the good news.
Not long after the victorious election, Bob flew out from Omaha to our place in Colorado, where we met with Lucy. It was the first time he and Lucy met each other. But both had much in common, including a great spirit and a fine appreciation for a good martini. Thus, we toasted the great victory into the night.
Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. His columns and cartoons were 2010 award winners in the South Dakota Newspaper Association Contest. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com