Robert F. Kennedy’s Legacy with First Americans

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Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in Bismarck, North Dakota, September 13, 1963.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s address to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Bismarck, North Dakota. I was in high school then. My memories are that of tribal leaders who came together from throughout the nation to discuss key issues of the time—challenges that are still with us today. The leaders welcomed him with accolades, but also with a great hope that he and his brother would lead us all to a better condition. They inspired great hope in us to overcome so many obstacles.

It was only slightly over two months before his brother, President Jack Kennedy, was assassinated. It was less than one month after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the National Mall.

In my view, Robert F. Kennedy’s legacy in Indian Country is enormous. In his speech to NCAI, he made it clear that American Indians deserved fair treatment and that they had a unique status in the United States as separate, sovereign nations. He also recognized the enormous responsibility of the United States to meet its trust obligations to American Indians and Indian tribes.

A significant part of Robert F. Kennedy’s civil rights agenda was accomplished before his untimely death in 1968. He studied the conditions that threatened Indian Country through a major report. This exemplified the difficulties at such places as Pine Ridge. Later his brother Edward took up the baton to produce the Kennedy Report on Indian Education. A part of the fulfillment was with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both of these laws aided the efforts of American Indians going forward. These laws made possible things like the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 and gave American Indians and Native Nations in the United States an opportunity to pursue justice, sovereignty and economic development on their own terms. Without Kennedy’s activism, I doubt we would have the Tribally Controlled College and University Act, passed in 1978, that helps fund the postsecondary school of which I am president.

Robert Kennedy also made plain in his visit to NCAI that the injustices to American Indians were great and in need of solutions. These are problems that are still very much with us today in many parts of Indian country: inadequate housing, health care, public safety, education, lack of jobs, and missing or inadequate infrastructure. Great improvements in these areas are still needed—and as Kennedy recognized, these are the basic building blocks that allow communities and Native nations to thrive.

Perhaps most importantly, there has been, in many ways, a failure of our government and educational system to fully recognize the many cultures and important values Native nations have to offer all of us. Our youth commit suicide at record rates because they do not feel they are a valued part of our society.

Fifty years later, we need a renewed commitment to resolve these issues once and for all. Too much is at stake; too many lives have been lost in this struggle. Being willing to make a commitment to continue our fight for justice is the real legacy of Robert F. Kennedy.

We thank President Obama and U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder for creating new inroads and paths in the nation-to-nation status of tribal government and for our growing population. The Attorney General and his staff have taken up the challenge of creating equity and sorely needed public safety for American Indians. These are key elements for creating healthy, assured tribal communities throughout the land. Issues of safety for children and youth, adults and elders are critical for economic growth and a pathway on the road to independence.

In response to the public safety challenges, the Justice Department drafted and helped to secure important provisions of the new Violence Against Women Act, which President Obama signed into law earlier this year. Department of Justice officials and U. S. attorneys have partnered with tribal law enforcement to reduce crime and prevent violence.

David M. Gipp (Hunkpapa Lakota) is president of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota

(Editor’s Note: David M. Gipp delivered this speech before the White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.)

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