March 25, 1998 in Nation/World

Indians Protest Race Commission Makeup Activists Call Clinton’s Panel A Sham Because They Were Excluded From Board

Tom Kenworthy Washington Post
 

A sober forum on the issue of racial stereotyping turned into a raucous protest here Tuesday after President Clinton’s race advisory commission came under attack for not including American Indians on its board.

Shouting down advisory board chairman John Hope Franklin and Energy Secretary Federico Pena on Monday night, and marching outside a second meeting Tuesday morning, several dozen American Indian activists bitterly denounced the president’s “One America in the 21st Century” race initiative as a sham. The campus meeting Monday night became so disorderly that a planned discussion could not go forward.

“We have yet to get a straight answer from the White House how Native Americans could be left off” the commission, said Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee tribal member and lawyer with the Indigenous Law Institute in Oregon. He accused the commission of adopting a “pre-scripted and choreographed agenda” that prevented an honest and freewheeling discussion of race and the continued “colonial” status of American Indians.

The vigorous protest is the latest in a string of controversies that have dogged the panel since it was appointed last year as a means of examining public attitudes on race through a series of meetings around the country. Criticized as slow-moving and unimaginative in its first months, the panel also has been faulted for excluding the views of affirmative-action opponents and for having a closed door meeting in Dallas last December to which only blacks were invited.

Thrown on the defensive by the intensity of Monday night’s confrontation, on a downtown Denver campus shared by three university branches, Franklin and other commission members said they are powerless to change the seven-member panel’s makeup.

Franklin, a distinguished historian who at one point Tuesday - to his later regret - referred to Monday night’s virtual takeover of the public forum as a “performance,” said, “We don’t make appointments (to the commission); we barely have advisory power.”

But Franklin said the commission has on several fronts worked to include American Indians in its discussions, including three private meetings in Phoenix, Santa Fe and one in Denver.

The commission, Franklin said, has also included American Indians on its staff and forwarded the complaints of Indians to the White House, but was unable to meet the demand of adding an Indian to the commission.

“We’ve had more conversations with Native Americans than we’ve had with any other group, and we’ve already made a number of representations to the president,” Franklin said.

“Whether (Clinton) appointed the right or wrong people is beyond us,” added Linda Chavez-Thompson, the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO who serves on the presidential panel. “The president appointed this advisory board and this advisory board has informed him of the issues raised by our Native American brothers and sisters.”

Laura Harris, a member of the Comanche Nation who serves as a consultant to the commission, said that because no members of the board are Indian, the staff assigned to the advisory panel had worked with “a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity” to Indian concerns.

In contrast to Monday night, when they turned a planned dialogue on racial stereotyping into a shouting match, the Indian activists displeased by the commission’s makeup Tuesday confined their protest to the sidewalk outside, where they drummed, chanted and carried signs that read “You’ve Taken Our Land - Now Take our Ideas.”


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