I saw a mention that today is the birthday of Lucy Covington (November 24 - September 20, 1982), a tribal leader with the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State. Thinking I'd find some bits and pieces of interesting facts about her, I started my research. Instead, I found out that she was likely single-handedly responsible for protecting her reservation's protected status from being "terminated" by the federal government and the tribal leaders at the time.
Termination sounds terrible, and according to Lucy, it would have been. In the 1950s, the US federal government's approach was to induce tribes to liquidate their holdings (usually land) as a way to better assimilate into the wider society. When Lucy first heard about the plans for termination of the Colville Reservation, it had already been approved by the tribal elders. Many of them saw it as a way to get a very large check from the federal government. Lucy saw it as selling off the economic and social future of her people for short term financial gain for only a few.
She viewed the retention of their lands as integral to their identity. "Termination is like giving your eagle feather away." To her, the value of the land was more than simply its financial worth. It was a home base for her people. It was something their ancestors had fought for, and one they could not sell away from their descendants.
In fact, it had been her great-grandfather, Chief Moses, who had bargained with US officials for this land in the 1870s. And her great-great-grandfather had been a leader of Yakama and Palus Indians who rebelled against unjust treaties imposed on their people in the 1850s. She came from a long line of distinguished families, and had Wenatchi, Sanpoil, Palus, and Entiat ancestors. Intertribal marriages were common among high-ranking families, and hers was no exclusion. Her mother married a rancher with both Nez Perce and Okanagan ancestors as well as a German Jewish father.
She was born in a teepee in the small reservation town Nespelem, on land that had been allotted to Mary Moses, sister to Lucy's grandmother and second wife to Chief Moses. She and her family lived with Mary Moses for many years, running cattle and riding horses on their little piece of land. No doubt she heard many stories from her elders and especially from her great-aunt Mary that influenced her later political actions. "She wanted me to know somehow how much suffering had happened before we got a home base." Her take-away? "If an Indian doesn't have land, he has nothing."
She married John Covington in 1935, and the young couple moved around the area, following construction jobs for John. During World War II, they both took jobs as welders in a shipyard in Portland, Oregon, where Lucy continued to work after John joined the Navy.
After the war, the moved back to Colville, where they raised cattle on Mary Moses's allotment. It would have been a quiet, simple life, surrounded by family, caring for nieces and nephews -- Lucy and John never had children of their own -- but for the US government's policy to begin "termination" of tribal land protections starting in the mid-1950s. When Lucy learned of her own tribal council's vote to agree to termination, she sprang into action, selling off her cattle (her livelihood!) to fund trips to Washington, DC, to meet with various and sundry officials and representatives to block the procedure.
All in all, it took nearly 15 years for her to finally stop the termination of the Colville Reservation, and in the effort, she effectively killed the practice on a national scale and mobilized an impressive intertribal movement. She worked with representatives of other tribes to spread the tales of hardship and poverty experienced by tribes that had already gone through termination, shining a national spotlight on the policy and the harm that it caused.
As part of anti-termination campaign, she also founded a tribal newspaper, Our Heritage, as well as a network of tribal lawyers. Both of which played an integral part in her eventual success. Her activism was not solely focused on anti-termination, though. She was a staunch advocate for her people on a number of issues. She'd witnessed the aftermath of the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, and the devastating effect it had on her people. "We had a beautiful way of life. We were rich. The dam made us poor." She worked to protect tribal resources and rights, mentor younger tribal leaders, and develop tribal services, always with an eye toward the future benefit of tribal members and strengthening intertribal cooperation.
When she died in 1982, she was honored with both a Catholic funeral service and a traditional Seven Drums ceremony, attended by hundreds of people from her community as well as by national officials. She had been fighting for her own tribe, but in the end had helped the entire American Indian community.
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