United Tribes News Speech Archives

Remarks Of:
Tom Disselhorst, In House Counsel
United Tribes Technical College
October 9, 2004

North Dakota Peace Coalition Annual Meeting
Prairie Peacemaker award conferred on
Tom Disselhorst

Sponsored by
North Dakota Peace Coalition
United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota

Thanks so much - what an evening and what an honor.

Although I know there has been recognition of them already today, in various ways, I first want to ask for a moment of silence as we recognize and think of several of our previous Prairie Peacemakers who passed away this year --- Father Richard Sinner, Sister Celine Foy, and Representative Linda Christianson.

Each of these individuals was caring, thoughtful, committed to peace and justice and will always be an inspiration to me and I suspect to all of us in the North Dakota Peace Coalition.

Thank you again to the ND Peace Coalition my friends, my colleagues, those who have been waging peace and justice for so many years, for honoring me tonight. But, as I told Brian Palecek when he first mentioned this award to me, I am probably not the most deserving of the award and what it represents.

As I thought about previous Prairie Peacemakers, many of who are in this room tonight, I couldn't help but observe that each of them has made a tremendous self-sacrifice to make this world a more peaceful place. I on the other hand have had the good fortune that my vocation as an advocate and as an attorney is a major part of my commitment. I think of the singular efforts of Larry Lange, always writing and urging his community to really care and think about a more peaceful world, and putting his money where his mouth is with his tax protests! I think of Father Sinner being willing to have his only vehicle impounded by the INS to allow refugees from U.S. fomented civil wars in Central America have a chance for a better life; I think of Lew Lubka being willing to be arrested during the McCarthy era to allow blacks to have better housing in Louisville, Kentucky; I think of Brian Palecek being our first (and only) Executive Director of our Peace Coalition with its very marginal salary; or Don Morrison giving up his state job to take a dicey job as Executive Director of the Progressive Coalition, or Lisa Brown giving up countless hours to send to us alternative news on peace efforts from around the world through the "peacelab" list serve; or Vinod Seth running for City Council in Bismarck (not to mention Aruna serving on the school board and he and Aruna spending hours cooking their annual Gandhi Peace Network dinner); or Steve Merrill being willing to serve a silent vigil to protest the Iraq war; and so many others not from here who have sacrificed so much, including their lives, for the cause of peace, and I see my contribution as fairly minimal.

So, instead of seeing this award as a tribute to past accomplishments, I rather see this award as an incentive to do more, to take additional, necessary risks to accomplish some of the goals I have set for myself in my sojourn on this blue planet. That is what I would like to spend the rest of my time talking about, a few of those goals and ideals.

But first, some of you may wonder who is this Tom Disselhorst character anyway? How did he happen to come to North Dakota at all and what does he have to offer to the North Dakota Peace Coalition and to North Dakota, to the Native Americans for whom he works?

I suppose some of my life has already been set out by previous speakers tonight. But I have a few tidbits I want to share, things that shaped me and still give me pause. And I want to share with you a couple of unfinished personal goals and finally, talk about what peace efforts mean to me.

My mom is from this state; she was just here over the powwow weekend at United Tribes and saw her very first powwow at the age of 81. Wow! Well, I am not from here; I was born in Seattle and grew up in California where I went to school through law school. However, several of my cousins are here, Marvin Zeller and Carol Zeller.

Most of you know I was a VISTA volunteer to United Tribes in 1975 fresh out of law school and that I realized after a few months here that I could accomplish nothing with and for the indigenous peoples of this region if I left anytime soon after my year in service as a volunteer was concluded. So, I found the true love of my life, Arlene (who has suffered the most from all of my political efforts) got married and the rest, as they say, is history. Arlene is in the front row here!

Well, that is only part of the story. My stepfather, a chemical engineer who worked with Glenn Seaborg and Edward Teller (sometimes called the father of the a-bomb) was one of a few hundred civilian personnel to watch some of the first thermonuclear bomb tests on the Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands chain in the South Pacific. He undoubtedly watched the explosion of the largest bomb the United States ever tested, a 15-megaton bomb blast on the Bikini Atoll code named Bravo in February 1954. All he could tell us is that he was going to the South Pacific, to the Marshall Islands. After he left employment at the University of California Berkeley Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, or RadLab as those who worked there called it, in 1959, he finally told us the name of the islands he had gone to in the early '50's. As you might guess, my step dad has held for most of his life a top-secret security clearance. From those trips, he brought back seashells gathered on some of the once pristine beaches of these atolls and I obtained a horrifying beautiful poster of an atomic bomb explosion at night.

I had nightmares as a kid about atomic explosions, especially after one tour of the Pleasanton, California facilities where they manipulated highly radioactive materials with tongs operated through eight-foot thick glass viewing ports. As some of you remember, the 50s were the period when we all had bomb drills once a month or so, ducking under our desks and being told not to look out the windows (which I always did anyway; I wanted to see the mushroom cloud first).

When my Dad left the RadLab, I always thought it was because he got a better job with greater salary doing something similar to what he was doing before. Now that I think back on it, I suspect he also realized that the time of open air testing of nuclear weapons had passed and that there were other things that ultimately could prove more important. Maybe he was tired of the culture of secrecy so fundamentally engrained into every person working on the thermonuclear bomb projects - anyway, he started working for a company that manufactured nuclear electric generating plants using something called a High Temperature Gas Reactor.

As you might imagine, with this upbringing, (my mother is a nurse) I was in many respects, becoming a scientist - fascinated by the potential good that was seen at that time in unlimited nuclear power. I did major in chemistry and wanted to be an oceanographer, or maybe a nuclear physicist, I was never sure, before I went to law school at Berkeley, California.

One event from that period stands out, however, and I think it has compelled me over many years to completely rethink the nuclear age and the cold war and now its aftermath - weapons of mass destruction set loose in a world filled with injustice. More on that in a minute.

The event I am talking about happened when I was in ninth grade. I had a transistor radio, my first portable radio, and I remember having it on for two days straight, even during classes with a little earphone, I was that concerned and fascinated with the unfolding of world events. Soviet ships were heading toward Cuba, and the U.S. had made it clear if those ships passed through our naval blockade, we were prepared to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Well, I thought I knew just a little about what that would mean. The bombs would hit the San Diego harbor, where the Navy was stationed 20 miles south of where we lived in Solana Beach, no doubt, and I would see the mushroom shaped clouds and who knows if we were far enough from the blast site to survive!

Some of the kids in my classes teased me about being so concerned. Are we at war yet, one asked in the hallway between classes? I turned and stared at him and listened more intently to XTRA news, the first 24 hours news station in the U.S. broadcast from Tijuana, Mexico.

Well, we are all still here. The cold war stayed mostly cold with a lot of heated rhetoric. We survived the evil empire of Ronald Reagan, and are gearing up for another battle over implementation of a new Star Wars type defense system being heralded by our cold-warrior types now ensconced in the White House. But the thinking I went through in those days during the Cuban Missile Crisis stays with me. The lessons of the book and play "Alas Babylon", the book and movie "On the Beach", the movie "The Day After", the nightmares of childhood, the clock on the magazine "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" (to which my step-dad never subscribed) set at one minute to midnight (now it is at three or four minutes to midnight), still reverberate in my consciousness. These thoughts very much compelled me to accompany Brian Palecek and Louise Pare in October 1983 to Cooperstown, North Dakota to a meeting to form the North Dakota Peace Coalition. I think I was acting not so much from logic, or from a passion for peace, but rather from a far more basic emotion: fear.

We, all of us survivors from those early days of the ND Peace Coalition and all of the new members, too, have a lot to applaud ourselves for in the last 21 years. Think about it: I certainly was not one who would have believed that the site of our first protest at a missile silo in the Grand Forks Missile field near Starkweather, North Dakota would find those missiles dug out of the ground and destroyed!! I think we all need to applaud that unbelievable effort, and the efforts of those at organizations like NukeWatch that helped make our protests mean something.

But of course our job is not done.

That brings to me another side of myself that I have truly discovered only recently. I now realize that one of the things I am good at, if anything, is evaluating processes; how society fits together, how things mechanical, physical, chemical, biological and social, work and function. Give me a flow chart and I can figure out bottlenecks. Tell me that there are social tensions in a community and I will work to identify the players, their functions, what their powers are and what are some of the ways to manipulate the interacting forces to produce a desired result.

So it should come as no surprise that I have been working since just about the time I came to North Dakota to ensure that one particular process is in place to bring about justice in North Dakota: A human rights commission. We don't have it in place yet. But as long as I am here, as long as I have a voice to raise, I will work towards its establishment.

Let me give you just two recent examples of why this Commission is so important. Wednesday, this past week, October 5 an employee at UTTC came into my office and told me about two disturbing events that had occurred to her and her family. The first was familiar, a tale of a discriminating landlord who was making it difficult for her and her family (a husband and five children) to stay in the duplex they were renting. I recommended she go talk to the North Dakota Fair Housing office in Bismarck, an organization I am proud to have had a part in establishing.

The second event the employee, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribal member, told me about was profoundly disturbing. Apparently, one of the regional Class B basketball tournaments was held at the Mandan High School this past winter. The Ft. Yates team was in the finals, playing against Shiloh Christian School. Lots of young American Indian boys from Ft. Yates and elsewhere were there. Unfortunately, a bunch of them were chased outside in subfreezing weather by security officers who may or may not have been Mandan Police officers. When parents went outside to reclaim their children, some of the police officers made an effort to intimidate the parents further and wanted to force the boys outside again. All of this was justified, apparently, because one officer heard a Native American youth use some foul language that he believed was directed at the police. Shiloh won the game and some kids were seen chasing Native youth calling them names but there was no discipline taken against those children.

The parents, not being satisfied with the treatment of their children by the police or security guards, have lodged a complaint with the Department of Labor that has yet to be determined after more than six months of investigation.

The second incident is a bit different, but somehow also involves Mandan High School, who are called the "Braves" and have an Indian mascot. Many of you know well the story of this incident, so I will not dwell on it. The simple story is that St. Mary's high school at his homecoming game passed out a t-shirt with a cartoon showing a mean-looking angel dangling a caricature of an Indian man over a group of swimming sharks. The caption on the t-shirt read: "Feed 'em to the sharks". The t-shirt did not identify the caricature of the Indian as being a Mandan Brave, or the angel as being a St. Mary's Saint, nor was the Indian person clutching a football nor did the angel appear as a football player. The granddaughter of one of our UTTC staff showed the T-shirt to her grandmother and said "I can't wear this, what should I do". When the offensive nature of this cartoon was pointed out to the Superintendent, he did not see anything wrong with it! And this was in the year 2003! He eventually apologized, the shirts were withdrawn, and he said it was a learning experience. Time will tell.

American Indians are not mascots! Us white folks may be well meaning, but we do not "honor" Indians by treating them as Redskins, or Braves, or by dressing up as an Indian and doing phony war dances, as the Chief Illinewetek mascot of the University of Illinois does before home games, or by putting on war-paint and attending a game at the football stadium in Washington, D.C., or by emblazoning symbols of Native Americans in the ice at Englestad Arena.

And what do mascots have to do with the Human Rights Commission, you might ask? Well, for one thing, their use perpetuates stereotypes. One of the most important functions of a real human rights commission is education - to develop a curriculum for schools and the work place that allows all of us to understand and appreciate our prejudices; to work to overcome our prejudices, our fears, our stereotypes and our inability to understand and appreciate other cultures and other ways of life. Use of Indians as mascots makes the education effort that much more difficult.

But not only that: a Human Rights Commission must have the power to set things right! It must be able to issue injunctive relief (to make the bad behavior stop), to investigate thoroughly when police are acting inappropriately, when acts of discrimination occur, and to ensure that discriminating behavior doesn't happen again. It must be user friendly, and be a place that people who have been discriminated against will be treated fairly. It must be able to complete its investigations in a prompt manner. It needs to be an institution that everyone knows about, and that everyone respects.

That is one goal. Of course, understanding and dealing with one's own prejudices is an ongoing effort, an ongoing process and another goal. I have rediscovered recently once again that it is easy for us white folks to invoke a sense of superiority. What is not as easy is to deconstruct the reasons we feel that way and start recognizing the tremendous value and contributions to our world of others not quite like us. As I wrote that, I thought, there I go again, thinking that it is up to us, the dominant culture, to give value. No, that is not up to us. There is much, much more to learn.

For me, it is like this: once we realize the fundamental common and largely peaceful ideals of all human cultures, it is about recognizing and accepting the fact that other cultures may have entirely different ways of dealing with the world around them and that we do not have the right to determine that the world views of other cultures are somehow inferior or superior to ours. Not in Iraq, not against indigenous cultures, not in Africa, not in Asia, not anywhere; we do not have that right.

To develop a process to implement this view is difficult. Lauren Lesmeister told me once that it is the goal of a Zen master to be able to hold two opposing viewpoints at the same time - and that is what I ask us all to be willing to try to do - to believe in and value our culture, but at the same time, understand the viewpoint of other cultures and accept those views as equally valid, as well!

Accepting both points of view and also acting on the consequences of that acceptance are ideals that we aspire to. In aspiring to them, we become acutely aware of the potential for goodness of all humanity. We become ready to be both respectful and joyful in our appreciation of and participation with all the human beings with whom we come in contact, and also ready to act accordingly.

Let me give you a concrete example of what I mean, something I found out about late this week. In some ways, I suppose, it is controversial, as almost all these discussions about recognition of other cultures seem to be.

In a couple of weeks, there will be what is called a "signature" event out at the University of Mary in celebration of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. But watch out, there will likely be protestors there representing, in part the American Indian Movement. What they are protesting I will get to in a moment.

So the organizers of the Bicentennial have been worried: what to do if protestors show up? One response to the probability that protestors will be at the event went something like this:

"This is something the University of Mary has to help us deal with, but we must support the free speech of the protestors. At some point, if they become disruptive, they may have to be removed. After all, this event celebrates the earth lodge peoples, their rich past and the continuity of their cultures. Another phrase which came to mind after word of the protests reached us and which I've been wearing out ever since is 'remembering the past is not endorsing it.'"

Well, that is not how one Native American sees the protests at all:

"The whole point of the protesters is that Indians have not had any say in the nature of presentation of history at all - once again! An Indian dance troupe is performing at the event but that is it. And that's part of the problem. They (white people) want Indians to dance and look appropriately exotic but keep quiet (or risk getting 'removed' from 'private property'!! And the phrase 'remembering the past is not endorsing it'??!! The point is not endorsement, the point is: whose memory?? Indian people remember the past much differently than the planners of this Lewis and Clark event and that is the point of the protests. Despite all the "planning" of the event, nobody has addressed that fact. The appropriate response would be, 'We (the Bicentennial Commission) should not have planned this in this manner. This should have been a mourning and healing event. We should have let Tribes take the lead and asked for our (minimal) input instead of the other way around. We are very sorry. Let's go back and try to do this the right way'"

By the way, still another viewpoint was Ken Roger's thoughtful editorial of the other day.

In the context of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission and the example I just gave, I think we should be learning to both celebrate and mourn at the same time (those opposing notions held at the same time) while recognizing that concrete actions also need to be taken to start the healing process. This becomes true justice, in my mind - to understand the evils of our past and present, our prejudices, to accept the views of those who have been harmed as valid and meaningful, and to work to cure the harms we have done, always with the goal of bringing understanding among peoples of all cultures, races and lifestyles to an ever widening circle of relatives, friends and associates and to society at large. It's a tall order, but I truly believe that is what must be done.

By the way, I had that feeling of respect and joy in working with people of different cultures I mentioned before at the opening of the Museum of the American Indian two weeks ago in Washington, D.C. I had this enormous feeling of respect and admiration, and an absolutely unrestrained feeling of joy and elation at seeing Tribes take over the National Mall and truly begin the process of explaining to all of us in their words who they have been, who they are and for them to give a glimpse of what they would like to see in the future.

I look at our work for peace much the same way that I look at my efforts towards justice. Peace is a never-ending process, not only a goal in itself. We cannot have true peace without a means for making peace possible; even inevitable. What we have always lacked, however, is the political will to set in place and fully believe in institutions that we can always trust will make every effort to resolve disputes prior to them spilling over into acts of violence, acts even as terrible as a thermonuclear war.

We have a civil society, and a democracy, but the injustices in that society and democracy are growing greater by the day. We have the United Nations, but now we have politicians in control who tell us citizens that the United Nations will not always act in our best interests. We have a World Trade Organization to regulate commerce, but the economic injustices of the word are not retreating, they are expanding worldwide. We have an International Criminal Court, but we have politicians who tell us that this Court may try our citizens falsely. We have an International Treaty Against Land Mines and our politicians tell us that it is acceptable for our nation not to agree to the Treaty so that we can continue to keep a stockpile of these truly horrific weapons because other nations are doing so. We have a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and START II, but our government still believes we have the unilateral right to possess weapons of mass destruction because we don't know who else might have them. We made treaties with the indigenous nations of North America, but now our government argues that the promises in those treaties are unenforceable or that we never really meant what was in those treaties in the first place!

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "and so it goes."

I am still ruminating about all of these institutions, treaties and international efforts to allow nations to live in peace amongst each other. How do we improve these institutions, these documents? How do we make them politically stronger? I don't have the final answers. I do know that if we do not keep struggling to find these answers, all our efforts as the North Dakota Peace Coalition might yet be blown to bits in the terrible maelstrom of a nuclear war.

But in the end, I remain hopeful; I am an eternal optimist seeking to find truth and wisdom. I believe every one of us in the Peace Coalition is ultimately that kind of optimist; otherwise, we would not have started down this path in the first place.

So, in closing, I offer again a salute to the sacrifices of those Prairie Peacemakers who have come before me. For all of those still in the struggle, for all of those yet to come, let's double and redouble our efforts! Good night; have a safe trip home, and thank you one more time for this great honor!