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Teaching & Learning Moments: Creating Space for Gratitude, Reflection, Healing and Needed Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Council of the Utah Chapter of ASPA with input and approval from the Council of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.
July 1, 2019

The date was May 21, 2018. The occasion: The ASPA Utah Chapter Annual Awards Luncheon in a venue overlooking beautiful downtown Salt Lake City, UT. It was a time for celebration and a time to honor public servants who have gone above and beyond to advance the communities they serve. As we had done every year for the last three decades, we awarded the Senator Arthur Watkins Distinguished Service Award to an exceptional state legislator—only this time someone was bold and brave enough to speak up during the luncheon regarding the immensely hurtful and offensive connotations associated with United States Senator Watkins.

The Distinguished Service Award for an Elected Official had been named after this United States Senator from Utah in the 1980s. This was largely because of his courageous actions in 1954 as Chair of the Watkins Committee of the United States Senate, which led to the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Our failure, however, was in being culturally and historically blind. Leaders of the Utah-ASPA Chapter did not look beyond traditional white United States history sources when deciding to name the award, and Chapter leaders (including the current leaders) since have been equally guilty of insensitivity.

A simple investigation of readily available sources quickly and easily identifies Senator Watkins as also serving as Chair of the Senate Interior Committee’s Sub-Committee on Indian Affairs starting in 1947. Watkins personally led the fight for passage and implementation of House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953 that authorized tribe-by-tribe termination of federal recognition.

Although Watkins reportedly believed that tribal terminations would benefit natives by causing their assimilation into, “White society,” this belief was a bigoted, short-sighted and an egregiously damaging United States government policy. The repercussions of the Watkins-led tribal termination policy are still being felt by tribes and Native Americans across the nation, particularly among several tribes in Utah. This includes the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

Clifford Jake, “A mythic force in southwestern Utah, both within the Paiute tribe and to whites…,” said regarding one of his interactions with Senator Watkins about termination:

I said to Senator (Watkins), did you ever visit among Southern Paiute Indians? I said let me tell you something about us. The living quarters were very poor they got lumber from the dump to build their shack, also were uneducated. Had no income of livestock, and he told me to sit down and shut up and mind my own business … A few months later on radio station K.S.U.B., the Senator stated that the Southern Paiute Nation would be terminated, whether they like it or not. We have been struggling ever since, no business at all what promises be made.

“Oral testimonies given” (D. Martineau, personal communication, April 19, 2019)

The Utah-ASPA Council should not have relied solely on handed down, “Traditional Utah,” explanations for naming this award for Senator Watkins. The Council failed to seek out and listen to the historical narrative of other cultures, particularly that of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, a tribe that was terminated although it did not meet the, “Readiness benchmark” for termination that the resolution required. The Utah Chapter is turning this error into a learning experience for its members.

Immediately upon learning about Senator Watkin’s grievous actions toward tribes and their devastating effects on Native Americans, the Utah ASPA Council went into action. Council leadership retrieved the 2018 award plaque from its recipient, had the plaque remade with Senator Watkin’s name removed and returned the renamed plaque to its recipient. At its next meeting, the Council created a committee to recommend changes to the names and descriptions of all Chapter awards with the specific charge included to remove Senator Watkin’s name from any award. The committee recommended removing the names of individuals from all Chapter awards to better reflect the diversity of our public administrators, and the Council unanimously approved the recommendation at its meeting in September 2018. The Council leadership also met with the Utah Tribal Leaders Council and the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah Council to offer a public apology.

This experience raised a much larger issue than simply the name of an award. It demonstrates the blind eye—whether intentional or not—many of us in the public and nonprofit sectors have towards often-overlooked historical narratives. Our blind eye reflects the absence of learning in our K-12 schools about multiple perspectives on history. As public administrators, we should be well-informed community leaders, yet none of us had questioned, critically examined or solicited diverse information about the award names in over 30 years!

We extend our profound gratitude to Utah Diné Bikéyah Board Chair, Mr. Willie Grayeyes, for speaking his mind during the award luncheon about the immensely hurtful and offensive connotations associated with the name of the Senator Arthur Watkins being associated with distinguished public service. He provided us with this teaching moment—one that demands an apology, reflection and action toward healing and needed change. We hope other ASPA chapters and members share in this learning experience.

Authors: The Council of the Utah Chapter of ASPA expresses gratitude to the assistance provided by the staff and board of Utah Dineh Bikéyah to the Council in arranging and facilitating communications with the Utah Tribal Leaders Association and the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

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