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AN UNLIKELY COLLABORATION

By Wendy Wintermute

Many years ago, working in Chicago’s rough and tumble political scene, I discovered my personal mantra: “What we can’t do alone, we can do together.”  Then and now I find it keeps me going to know that I belong to a “we” who can work together to accomplish very big change.  Today it appears we’re being challenged again to rethink who “we” are. Perhaps we are or can be larger and more inclusive than we think.

 

A fascinating story from New Mexico (where I now live) tells of an unusual collaboration of mostly white, middle-class women and New Mexican Native Americans who thwarted an attempted land grab of Pueblo lands in 1922. Alvin Warren, formerly Lt. Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and Secretary of Indian Affairs for New Mexico, currently a program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and ever a history buff, recounted the story in a keynote address at a Kellogg Foundation gathering in 2011.

 

The setting is New Mexico in 1922. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the US-Mexican war in 1848, resulted in the appropriation of much of what is now the Southwest United States. In the treaty, the United States agreed to recognize Indian land holdings and to allow Indian people to continue their customs and languages. The terms of the treaty were widely disregarded. Non-Indian settlers had been encroaching on Pueblo land for years and by 1922 claimed at least one-third of these lands. To settle the matter, New Mexico Senator Holm Bursum introduced a bill that would cede these lands to the current occupants, no questions asked and no compensation to the Pueblos for any land lost.

 

The bill galvanized the 19 Pueblos to join together to fight for their land, echoing the Revolt of 1680, when the Pueblos drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico, for a time.  The Pueblos formally organized into what is now the All Indian Pueblos Council (AIPC).

 

But they knew they would need help, and it came from an unexpected source. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), founded in 1890, was a federation of over 3,000 local women's clubs that promoted civic improvements through volunteer service. They did not shy away from taking on controversial issues, chief among them women’s suffrage. In 1921, with women’s suffrage won, the Federation’s campaign fervor transferred to protecting Native Americans rights and created an Indian Welfare Committee.

 

John Collier, a sociologist and social reformer who had been introduced to Pueblo communities by Taoseans Tony and Mabel Dodge Lujan, was appointed by GFWC to coordinate with the AIPC.  Collier and the Pueblo delegates traveled to Washington to speak against the Bursum Bill.

 

An excerpt of testimony in Congress on behalf of the AIPC included the following:

 

Now we discover that the Senate has passed a bill, called the Bursum Bill, which will complete our destruction, and that Congress and the American people have been told that we, the Indians, have asked for this legislation. This, we say, is not true. We have never asked for this legislation.  We were never given a chance of having anything to say or do about this bill. We have studied this bill over and found that this bill will deprive us of our happy life by taking away our lands and water and will destroy our Pueblo government and our customs which we have enjoyed for hundreds of years.

 

The 2 million members of Women’s Clubs across the country took up the cause, working with the AIPC and other allies, inundating Congress with letters and testimonies. Though the bill had earlier passed the Senate, it was withdrawn from the House of Representatives by unanimous vote.  Senator Bursum lost his reelection bid in 1924. John Collier later served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The GFWC continues, diminished perhaps in numbers, but not in the force that their legacy can still inspire.

 

Alvin Warren concludes his story by giving us this charge: Collaborate more and better and with unlikely partners. “Remember that the transformation we need depends on our connection to each other. The challenges are too daunting and the scale is too great to do otherwise.”

 

Fast forward to today.  New Mexico, perhaps more than most states, doesn’t have the resources to waste on duplicative or ineffective efforts. We want to learn from each other about what works in New Mexico (or elsewhere, adapted for New Mexico) and do more of what works, together.  My job, as Outreach Director for SHARE New Mexico (ShareNM.org),  a state-wide community information space, is to travel our state to find and connect ideas, information and people to create change.  Si, podemos. Yes, we can.