By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Sen. Dan Inouye said he has been an advocate for American Indian issues because of the United States' "shameful" history.
But his involvement with the tribes happened by default.
In 1978, as a leader of his party, it was Inouye's job to make committee appointments for Democrats in the Senate.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee had five members and was about to lose a senator. Inouye could find no one to fill the seat.
At that point, then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., suggested that because Inouye "looked" like an Indian, maybe he should take the post.
Inouye demurred, saying, "At that point my knowledge of Indian affairs was one degree above nil." He also had no reservations in Hawai'i.
Nonetheless, he appointed himself to the committee. With the help of Patricia Zell, then staff member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Inouye studied American Indian history. He said he was appalled at what he learned. Zell is now the minority staff director and chief counsel of the committee.
"There were just outright slaughters," Inouye said. "At one time, anthropologists suggested there were as many as 53 million Indians. At the end of the Indian era there were about 250,000. This is the kind of history we have."
Inouye also said there were boxes filled with thousands of American Indian remains at the Smithsonian Institution. They were collected during the Civil War, when the U.S. Army's surgeon general was interested in measuring intelligence based on cranial capacity.
"They sent thousands of them," Inouye said. "It is a shameful record. I decided I will do something about it."
Inouye let it be known to tribal leaders that he would consult with them and "carry their agenda forward," Zell said.
He became chairman of the Indian affairs committee in 1987. Inouye will soon give up a leadership role on the committee but will remain a member. He will become ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee and cannot serve in leadership roles on more than one committee.
"My name appears on important legislation involving Native Americans, such as healthcare," Inouye said. "I have been designated as the author of the measure that established the National Museum of the American Indian, and to date $214 million in federal and private funds have been raised for this project. I have also assisted numerous Indian tribes and nations in establishing businesses on their lands."
Ernest Stevens, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, said Inouye "will always fight for sovereignty."
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