Without Lucy Covington, there would probably be no Colville Confederated Tribes today, and no Eastern Washington reservation for the 12 bands that make up the confederation. Some other reservations in the United States might be gone, too, and their tribal members scattered.
Covington, whose name will be on a new center for Native American students at Eastern Washington University, rose from a reluctant candidate for the Colville Tribal Business Council to a nationally recognized leader for Indian rights and sovereignty and an advocate who had the ear of powerful congressmen. Along the way she encouraged young Native American men and women to stay in school to get the kind of education they’d need to be future leaders.
She led the fight against a federal policy called termination, which offered members of Native American tribes cash payments in exchange for their reservation lands. And she won.
“Without Lucy, we’d be done,” said Mel Tonasket, a former Colville tribal chairman and longtime council member. “She not only saved us, she influenced a lot of other young leaders.”
Among those young leaders was Tonasket himself, who tried to decline when Covington asked him to run for tribal council, saying he was no politician and had even been too shy to speak up in class as a boy. She recruited him anyway. He won that race in 1970, and would go on to be tribal chief, learn to lobby state and national officials and head the National Congress of American Indians.
Born Lucy Friedlander in Nespelem in 1910, she grew up on the reservation, attending the local school and learning from her parents to harvest the bounty of the area’s berries, roots, fish and game. She remained home when an older brother and sister attended a school for Native American children in Tacoma, but later went to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. In the early 1930s, she hired on as a cook for Civilian Conservation Corps crews building roads on the reservation, her niece Barbara Aripa said.
She was serving meals to workers at a big table in a CCC camp when she met John Covington, another tribal member who was being taught to operate heavy equipment by her brother, George Friedlander. Lucy and John were married in 1936, and settled in Nespelem until World War II started, when they moved to the Portland area to work as welders in the shipyards. John eventually joined the Seabees, but after the war they returned to the reservation and started a ranch.
George Friedlander was a member of the tribal business council in the 1950s when Congress was pushing the termination concept. If a majority of the members of a recognized tribe would agree to give up their reservation and programs from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, the federal government would give each member a cash payment. With unemployment running high on the reservation, many Colvilles talked of taking the payment, inclulding a majority of the tribal council; Friedlander and some of the elders argued against it.
But George Friedlander had a bad heart, said his daughter Aripa, and the doctor said he should step away from the council. Friedlander asked his sister Lucy to take his place. At first, she said no, there was too much work on the ranch. After Friedlander promised to help with the ranch, Lucy Covington agreed to run. She won and continued to argue against termination.
In the beginning, she was in the minority. When the council was invited to testify before Congress, pro-terminators went at tribal expense, but they wouldn’t pay for Covington. She sold cows from the ranch to pay her own way.
In 1969, she recruited Tonasket and some other anti-terminators to run for council, and they won, too. The 14-member council was split 7-7 on termination, and Covington told Tonasket they would nominate one of the pro-terminators as chairman. Why would we do that? he asked.
Because the chairman only votes in case of a tie, so the anti-terminators would have a 7-6 majority on those matters, she explained. They staved off termination until Congress did away with the policy in 1975.
“Our land is like our body,” Tonasket remembers her saying. It provides sustenance and healing. “Why would we give that up for money?”
After a year on the council, Covington convinced Tonasket to run for chairman, and when he won, had him spend time in Olympia learning about state government and making contacts with legislators. Later, she took him to Washington, D.C., with orders to bring a notebook and pencil. She had him take notes as they met with congressmen and federal officials. At the end of each day, she’d go over the notes with him and point out things he had missed.
“She said, ‘You sit, you listen, you learn. Some day your people will have to depend on it,’” Tonasket recalled.
They followed that pattern for two years during trips to the nation’s capital. He recalls at one point they arrived late for a hearing being chaired by Warren Magnuson, then the powerful senior senator from Washington. Maggie interrupted the speaker to welcome Covington to the room, and the two bantered for a while, almost flirting, before the hearing resumed.
On the third year she told Tonasket to put his notebook away because he was ready and “I’m not always going to be here.”
Covington was a force in the regional tribal alliance and active in the National Congress of American Indians. She never served as president, but she was a commanding presence at the meetings.
One year, a group from the more radical American Indian Movement came to the national meeting, went to the stage and seized the microphone. They talked for about 10 minutes before Covington walked to the stage and took the microphone, telling them “OK, you’ve had your talk. We’ve got to get to business,” Tonasket recalled. They said thank you and left.
“Even AIM respected Lucy’s battles,” he said.
On the reservation, Covington served a stint as tribal chairman, the first woman to hold that post. A board member for the National American Indian Scholarship Committee, Covington worked with young people, urging them to stay in school, get the training for the jobs the tribes would need. She had a big heart, and young people with sad stories would often stop by the ranch asking “Mama Lucy” for a handout, Aripa said. She’d give them money even when she knew they weren’t likely to pay her back or return for the promised work.
“She could be so gentle and kind to people,” recalled Aripa, who served as her secretary for years. “But if she needed, she could put them in their place.”
Her lungs, however, began to give out. In 1980, her breathing was labored and she sometimes struggled to speak. She lost her re-election to her council seat, and was later hospitalized. Tribal leaders brought her home to Nespelem, where she died in 1982.
Aripa and Tonasket think Covington would be proud that EWU is honoring her legacy by naming its center for Native American students after her.
“Not very many people like this come around in your lifetime,” Tonasket said.