In my younger days, I tried to become a serious baseball card collector and of signed baseballs. I used to go to baseball card shows with my brother Eddie, my nephew Clint and also made my daughter Martie go along with me at times, because that way, we could get 2 autographs instead of one. My other brother Larry did the same in the city of Minneapolis and we would exchange autograph baseballs. I had autographed baseballs from Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Johnny Bench, Brooks Robinson and many others. I shook hands with many of those people. I was in awe to see somebody like Mickey Mantle standing in front of me. It's hard to describe what it was to see a great man like that.
I thought I'd never experience that again, but did, after I got involved in tribal politics, and ran into some interesting, if not great, people on the tribal political road. In the 1980's, I had the distinct honor of meeting Roger Jourdain, Wendell Chino, and Joe De la Cruz at different times. They were in the twilight of their political careers, but they still had a bunch of fight in them. Their political delivery was close to the fire and brimstone preachers you once saw in old movies, but their message wasn't about the Lord, it was about Indian sovereignty. They were set in their ways and believed in defending the sovereignty of all tribes and didn't hesitate to voice their opinions on the subject at the local and national level. I guess, you could say they refused to slow-dance in the political fast-lane. I was impressed on how these old tribal leaders stood up for Indian rights. I was a fairly young guy then, and those old guys would go out of their way to introduce themselves and to shake hands with me. That, too, made an impression on me.
First of all I need to identify how I met these leaders. I jumped into the political fires of the Potawatomi Nation in 1986 and have survived until the present year of 2010, but it's best to go from day to day.When somebody says you have to have a thick skin to handle politics, rest assured they’re not lying to you. It seemed like the attacks start when you enter that political door and don't stop until you leave. Or maybe it's like what Woody Guthrie said, "I'm going to stick around to see what the hell happens next."
During those earlier years, I finished the unexpired term of chairman after the position opened up because of a political upheaval. I didn't want to take the appointment because I was between college and graduate school and didn't know if I wanted to take time off from that. Eventually I gave in and accepted the position. In less than two weeks, I was on my way to Washington, D.C. for a Tribal Leaders Summit at the White House. There were 322 tribal leaders in attendance. It was a true honor for me to be part of the summit and to see so many leaders in one place. The newspapers said it was the first time a sitting president met with the Indian tribes since James Monroe did so in 1822. That day we rode buses to the White House, from the hotel and took a tour. We were escorted to a large tent in the Rose Garden, which is located on the south side of the White House, and were seated in sections.
After about an hour of waiting, President Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary and Vice-President Gore and his wife came out to sit on the stage. It was truly a magical moment to see the most powerful man walking out there to see the Indian leaders. The MC announced the agenda. It started with Chairman Wallace Coffey, in his tribal regalia complete with a war bonnet, singing an honor song. It was so impressive to see Coffey sing that song. I felt so proud to be an Indian and be to a part of that event. After this, several speakers spoke about Indian issues and then President Clinton addressed the crowd.
He may have been a much criticized leader, but for me, Bill Clinton was elevated to new heights that day. After all the speeches, he stood there and shook hands with all 322 tribal leaders. Some had on their tribal regalia and others had on business suits. I was in the latter group and still could kick myself for not wearing our tribal gear. Well, anyway, I stood in the line waiting to shake hands with the President and thought, "Oh, he's going to get tired of standing there and leave," but he didn't. I got closer and closer and could see the secret service personnel around him. One guy looked like a man you wouldn't dare mess with. He had that no-nonsense look about him - a cold, hard look with eyes that reminded me of that shark in "Jaws."
I finally made it to the front of the line and could only mutter, "I'm honored to meet you, Mr. President," and shook hands with the President of the United States and just like that, it was over. I know the old leaders in the 1800s met the President before, but up to that point I was the only Potawatomi leader in modern times to shake hands with a President. So this experience was similar to the accidental fame of a guy named Gump.
Back to the tribal road over the years I would meet Congressmen, BIA bureaucrats, and many other tribal leaders. I did the usual photo-ops and have them hanging up next to my children and grandchildren's pictures. Most of those experiences would be from National Indian conferences on gaming or politics, but not everyone was friendly like Chino, De La Cruz and Jourdain. Those guys had down to earth values and didn't act like they were better than others. Everyone wasn't like that because I've seen people with the titles that wouldn't give you the time of the day.
In retrospect, meeting people like old baseball heroes, Roger Jourdain, Wendell Chino, Joe Del la Cruz, President Bill Clinton, and some modern leaders will always hold good memories for me. Anymore, in my old age, I rarely get impressed with anyone, but it did happen to me a time or two.