Remembering Bill Plante With Lesson About Why Journalism Matters in America

Though several days late there was no way I could not pay tribute on this blog to a solid reporter that most of my readers watched countless times from the White House on CBS News.  Bill Plante, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of those voices and faces that our nation turned to in times of turmoil and high drama that would play out at the White House regardless of the person sitting in the Oval Office, or the political party in power. As I will demonstrate Plante’s professional moves as a journalist underscore some basic truths about reporting and politics in our nation.

The New York Times wrote of his boyhood in Chicago, attending Loyola, and being hired as the assistant news director of WISN-TV in Milwaukee. He joined CBS News in 1964 and was quickly sent to Vietnam; it was one of four times, through the fall of Saigon in 1975, that he reported from there.

Shouting questions was a necessary part of the press corps’s job, even if that behavior appeared rude, Mr. Plante told the streaming service CBSN; if reporters did not, he said, “we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role — and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”

One of Mr. Plante’s most disquieting moments as a White House correspondent occurred in late October 1983, when he learned that the United States was about to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada. Before going on the air with his exclusive, he asked Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s acting press secretary at the time, to confirm his information.

Mr. Speakes denied it, and CBS killed the story.

“Larry said something like, ‘Preposterous — where did you get that?’” Lesley Stahl, then a fellow White House correspondent for CBS News, said in a phone interview for this obituary last year. “And the next morning there was an invasion. At the briefing the next day, Bill was furious, and justifiably so, and, in that big booming voice of his, accused Larry Speakes of misleading him.”

The reason Plante knew the story should be reported, and why he was furious with the White House Press Secretary (acting or not and one who should never outright lie to a reporter), was because the military adventure in Grenada was a “look over there’ move by the Reagan Administration to deflect from the massive loss of American lives two days earlier in Beirut.

Fundamentalist militants attacked the US Marine barracks in Beirut with a truck bomb on October 23, 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen. History recorded that as the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II. Reagan did not, however, send additional troops to Lebanon, which was the theatre of obvious attention, but rather 7,000 troops to invade Grenada, the smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere. Reagan would claim in a national television address about “fighting communism” but Plante was well aware this was nothing more than a political face-saving moment after the loss of hundreds of American soldiers.  Plante also understood the absurdity of needlessly “rescuing” around 800 American medical students on the island for the most dubious of reasons. The matter was far more about expedient politics than foreign policy.

Our national government allows for reporters to be very close to the seat of power.  Closer than any other leader provides for reporters in any other country around the globe.  The White House Press room is located just steps from the office of the press secretary. The relationship between White House reporters and the leader of our nation, regardless of political party or decade, is often tense and difficult.  As it should be.  As it needs to be.

To provide our democracy with the information, insight, and analysis needed for citizens to be able to evaluate the direction of the nation a robust press corps needs to probe and question all our leaders.  That often makes every White House uncomfortable.  That is one price of attaining power that each president must deal with.  The fact that reporters unearth and report on issues that otherwise would never come to light such as the famed example of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s underscores the need for an energized press as they report and help secure the foundations of our nation.  Too often the public forgets that the press in our nation is as much a part of why we are free today as the soldiers in uniform. 

Bill Plante was most aware that when the flare-ups between the people who wield power, and those who report on them seem most tense, we are actually witnessing the strength of our nation. Think of the many nations where a free working press cannot exist within their boundaries, let alone in the same building or close proximity to where the leader works and lives.  To pepper any president with tough questions, or demand accountability from the government, is the very task that these reporters should do on a daily basis. And Plante did that job with a single focus under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. At times these actions can royally irritate some in the seats of power and others while watching in their living rooms, but history shows we are better served by being truly informed citizens.  That can only happen with many intrepid reporters on the beat.  Especially at the White House.

Bill Plante showed America how it was done. 

Vote In Italy Underscores Why U.S. Must Heed Fascist Moves

The dangerous push for illiberal democracy with its continuing threats upon the most effective path following WWII to create vibrant economies and form relationships to foster international understanding gets much attention on this little slice of the internet highway. I have penned my utter disdain for Marie La Pen in France and complete contempt for Donald Trump in America. I have thumped my fist against Russian aggression and Hungary’s oppression. The slippery downhill slide to autocratic goals via menacing political maneuvers from governments worldwide is a concern that more people simply must take stock of and push back against.

The latest such dreadful headline followed the election results from balloting in Italy. A far right-wing coalition won a convincing majority with the ultra-conservative Brothers of Italy Party prevailing which means their leader, Giorgia Meloni, will become the new prime minister.  Those who know their history realize the enormity of the election headline, it means Meloni will be that nation’s first far-right prime minister since Benito Mussolini.  She pays lip service to not being associated with fascism, BUT OH PLEASE, her party is ripe with the trappings, symbols, and values of that wretched period that much of the world wishes to never see again. It is because some in the world do read history that so much uproar resulted from her victory.  

What we are witnessing, again, is the idea advanced through the party rhetoric that politics can take precedence over the law.  It is not a new concept, obviously, for the far-right fascist elements. But what happened in Italy underscores the growing threats elsewhere if such behavior is not checked and choked. Cultural nationalism has been the root cause of so much misery throughout the pages of history and the Brothers of Italy Party has stoked that fire both overtly and covertly.  Airbrushing history, which they love to do, along with what must be admitted was an effective political campaign strategy of uniting Italian protest votes resulted in a body slam to the high ideals the world embraced—and Italy mostly understood–following the last world war.

Transforming a democracy, even one as chaotic politically as Italy has clearly demonstrated for decades, is not something we can simply dismiss or view as happening ‘over there’.  We must ponder why such moves are taking place in Europe, South America, and even in the United States. There has been a most disturbing trend among the conservative Republican base to saddle up to misinformation and wrap their arms around conspiracy theories that are linked to those pushing illiberal democracy. For a functioning democracy to thrive there must be a fact-based citizenry. We have all watched the absurd, baseless, and groundless election chaos and followed the reasons many offer for why passions have been unleashed in the way they have over the past months. 

There are over 240 extreme conservatives running as Republican nominees in the mid-terms who rejected the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections.  Think about that for a moment.  We know from studies and polling that the link from such preposterousness stems back to some in the nation feeling their religion is under attack, (it is not) or that laws and social adjustments are occurring for a wider segment of the populace who are not white, and that the ‘browning; of the nation is happening ‘too soon’.    None of that should be the cause to throw rational thinking aside for fascist whims. But that anger in our nation over social advances for historically marginalized groups, or at times economic transitions not easily understood, is used by some politicians to foster partisan turmoil. Even advance autocratic and illiberal outcomes.

I will leave this column about Italy and fascism with a quote from a most famous American.  As the story goes Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when someone shouted out, “What have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

To which Franklin supposedly responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

With illiberal democracy knocking, and in places winning at the polls, we need to very much heed what Ben said centuries ago.

Queen Elizabeth II Dies At 96: Met U.S. Presidents Since Harry Truman

It still came as shock, even though it was often talked about over the past years. Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96 and there is now a new monarch in Britain. Only earlier this week the Queen had continued her constitutional duty and invited Liz Truss to form a new government. Even with health problems and aging concerns, there was always Queen Elizabeth who kept the long line of history very much intact on the British throne, acting with quiet resolve for decades.

I have thought about how to best reflect her life as seen through the eyes of this American home, and have settled on a series of photos of her interactions with our top leaders. (The Queen never met President Lyndon Johnson.) President Harry Truman was her first president to meet even though Elizabeth was not yet queen when, at the age of 25, she filled in for her very ailing father.  

President Harry S. Truman and Britain’s Princess Elizabeth are shown as their motorcade got underway following the reception ceremony at Washington National Airport on October 31, 1951.
 Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
20th October 1957: Queen Elizabeth II, US president Dwight D Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) with his wife Mamie (1896 – 1979) and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at a White House State banquet.
 Keystone/Getty Images
Buckingham Palace during a banquet held in his honor, American President John F. Kennedy and his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, pose with Queen Elizabeth II London, United Kingdom, June 15, 1961.
 PhotoQuest/Getty Images
From BBC
President Gerald Ford dances with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth during a White House State Dinner honoring the Queen US Bicentennial visit, Washington DC, July 7, 1976. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
6/8/1982 President Reagan riding horses with Queen Elizabeth II during visit to Windsor Castle, Daily Mail
Express UK
People magazine
Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth II, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo: Jack Hill – WPA Pool/Getty Images
(Wow….just wow.)

President Biden Addresses “Battle For The Soul Of Nation”

It was a national address from a President of the United States that the citizenry needed not only to hear but to heed.  While the three main networks did not air the speech the gravitas of the message from Philadelphia was one that echoed from the Founding Fathers about political passions that are not tempered with reason and dangerous autocratic behavior not bridled by citizens.

President Biden spoke from Independence Hall Thursday evening to give a stern warning to the nation about our national democratic values being flagrantly assaulted and undermined by forces of extremism who kneel to Donald Trump. Biden did not mix words when he stated the issue that we face.  This is, he told us, a “battle for the soul of this nation.”

The message is one that the majority of this nation has been aware of since the years when Trump sat in the Oval Office and especially since the end of Election Day in November 2020.  We watched with dread and revulsion as the seditious actions played out at our nation’s Capital on January 6th and since then as Trump deliberately and aggressively has poked and stoked his followers who are easily led to the point they will even aid in the undermining of our nation.   Those followers are willing to add their voices as election deniers and some even have lowered themselves to the point they now call for violence to be unleashed in this country.

So it is readily understood with the facts we have seen play out that Biden was correct when stating Thursday that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”

The others in the nation who have embraced reading and understanding our national story could connect and agree with the historical truth when Biden talked about the “extraordinary experiment of self-government” represented by the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, saying that “history tells us a blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.” The Federalist Papers which were taught in high school, and more deeply studied in college alerted many Americans to the dangers the Founders urged us to avoid.

I have advocated for years our nation required a president to undertake the role, though some might think it old-fashioned, of a leader who will stand on the stage and preach the values of democracy.  The efforts of reducing and outright removing liberal democracy around the world have been underway for decades. Autocrats prattle about how democracy is not the way for nations to grow and prosper. Actions from Hungary to Brazil have left many worldwide rightly concerned about the condition of democracy. China has challenged democratic tendencies in places like Hong Kong, while we know all too well that Russia will do anything for wistful memories of an empire.  That battle for democracy is also taking place in the United States.  Right in front of eyes.  The seriousness of the matter makes headlines daily as democracy versus dictatorship, freedom versus authoritarianism plays and we must be engaged as citizens to defend the core ideals handed to us by the Founders.

Our Founding Fathers envisioned several examples of possible dangerous behavior to democracy and placed solutions to them within the Constitution. But they simply could not have fathomed the degree of partisanship and even outright sedition and treason currently running through some parts of the Republican Party. Partisanship is so deep and corrosive that it would harm the nation itself.

It is truly concerning for the politics of our time, and for the very nature of democracy itself, that a rather staggering number of Trump’s most vociferous, foul, and unbalanced followers are proving to be violent and hostile. Conservatives have willingly traded away their credibility by allowing the Republican Party to be hijacked by Trump. Today, no actual conservative party policy idea can surface as the saturation of crazy has dominated every aspect of the GOP. There is no oxygen in the room to talk about ideas as there is a past election outcome to excoriate.

So, it was most appropriate, in fact necessary, that Biden called out last evening the vilest of the Trump base who have seized hold of one of America’s two great political parties.  That element celebrates the violent mob that stormed the Capitol in hopes of overturning an election.  That is what the weak-minded in the nation have opted to do with the ideals and hopes of our Founding Fathers.   As I watched the 24-minute speech it dawned on me how remarkable this moment in our history is, as first, a president has never needed to call out the opposing party for their desire to strangle democracy. But secondly, there has never been a time in the 45 years (since age 15) of my reading American history where that was required. Biden stated it precisely as our nation needed to hear it. “You can’t love your country only when you win”.

Compromise Essential Ingredient To Passage Of Inflation Reduction Act

Long-time readers of this page know I like to see government work. I applaud elected officials who understand the art of governing. I also have a deep interest in history and politics, which underscores my admiration of Henry Clay and his resolve to seek compromises to secure the unity of the country in the first half of the 19th century.  I am again very mindful of those larger issues at play this week, following the votes of United States Senators in passing the Inflation Reduction Act.  That action proved that modern-day pols fully grasp what Clay did, that compromise is the main ingredient in governing.

The House of Representatives will cast votes later this week on the bill, which upon passage will go down in the history books as the most significant climate legislation to date.  That is no small act of legislating, given the dysfunction on Capitol Hill.  In real terms, passage means that nearly $370 billion in spending will be used to cut emissions and promote clean energy.   The end result is meaningful and worthy of our nation’s attention.  President Biden will sign it and another promise to the nation from the 2020 campaign will be enacted into law.

How the sausage is made into such laws is not a mystery.  Well, not so much, anyway, if one has followed the many months of congressional reporting as ideas and wish lists were tossed about, sorted out, scratch-offed, discarded, re-wrote, praised, slammed, praised again, and then finally—finally–efforts joined into a measure that met with a consensus vote.

As the countdown to the House vote nears, environmentalists rightly cheer that bill’s passage and enactment.  Those who have hoped and lobbied for the policy goals in the soon-to-be law can be proud to aim for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. by 40% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, as well as creating 1.5 million green jobs.  Doctors are pleased with the bill, too, as data supports the measure will prevent thousands of premature deaths from air pollution.

Many will still scorn West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who stemmed a much more energetic and ambitious proposal by the Biden administration, a plan that, yes, would have pushed more robustly towards transitioning away from fossil fuels. A goal more and more people are correctly embracing. We must not lose sight, however, of what has been achieved by venting anger at one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. All hands must be on deck now for messaging the many positive aspects of the bill to the public.

We got to this point having the adults in Washington make compromises, the only way large and diverse measures of this type can be crafted and successfully passed. Too often, we need to remind Americans that compromise is far different from capitulation. The fringes of both parties often deride compromise and instead turn up the rhetorical heat for their own self-interests at the mention of uniting on a bill. History, however, shows that compromise is not only often needed, but exactly what the nation requires.

I just know Henry Clay is smiling in agreement today.

Thank You, David McCullough

American author and historian David McCullough in his writing shed where he still used a 1941 Royal typewriter, at his home in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, USA, 4th February 2002. (Photo by Stephen Rose/Getty Images)

Several years ago, on a summer evening, as the Amtrak train pulled out of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, James and I sat in our sleeper car ready for a trip that would take us overnight to Chicago. It was 2017, and the weight of the outcome of the previous fall’s election was pressing against the contours of our national sense of norms and traditions. In our compartment, as the train trekked towards Pittsburg, over the swaths of America that were like painted vistas as the sun set, we settled back with some books we had purchased on our vacation.  Among them was The American Spirit by David McCullough.  It was subtitled Who We Are and What We Stand For.

The collection of speeches from the famed historian had been released just weeks prior and James was immersed within the pages.  (I had Thomas Fleming’s book on the Founding Fathers as my selection while drinking a cup of coffee from Amtrak’s kitchen car.) We had followed the advice from only a couple of weeks prior upon hearing McCullough, in a wide-ranging interview, and in his usual eloquent way about why people needed to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. James and I were already months into the planning for such a trip that took us to Washington, D.C., and some sites in the general area. Connecting with the touchstones of the past was exactly the very thing that McCullough urged.

Tonight, America is learning of the death of David McCullough, a man so many truly respected and admired. He was 89 years old.

In 1992, as President George Herbert Walker Bush was campaigning for reelection his Truman-like train came into Plover, Wisconsin with a long blowing of the whistle. It was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin.  Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot. The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book Truman in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948.  In spite of the polls, there were still campaign stops to be made as Bush was working overtime at trying to make his Truman moment come true.

(As a side note my mom and dad attended that rally with me. We arrived very early which allowed us to stand up front near the podium.  It needs to be noted that in 1944 this is where my mother’s family had debarked upon their arrival from Ozone, Arkansas.  It was that tidbit from history and the circle coming around again that would have made McCullough smile.)

Again, that fall in Waukesha I would attend a Bush rally where the candidate alerted the huge turnout that he had read McCullough’s book and he was going to be like the Missourian come Election Night.  That was the trip I was able to shake both George’s and Barbara’s hands.  Again, the historian would have smiled as he knew American values, as expressed by joint efforts to accomplish things, mattered in our system of government; that joint effort starts with listening and respecting each other.

In Washington, it is one thing to see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder Abe is quite another.  I had found myself talking to many people day after day and asking them their impressions of sites all over the city. As such, I asked a black woman who was, I learned, age 88 what her feelings were about the memorial. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.

On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac, I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short term operation.  Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington.  Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb.   It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.  

I just know Dave McCullough would smile at such a conversation.  It was exactly what he hoped our nation’s citizens would do, and how we might engage with one another. Caring about history, along with our nation’s highest ideals, and the continued desire to reach them is the best way we can remember and honor this man.

Godspeed, David.

Memories Of August 8, 1974, Nixon Resignation From One Middle-Class Wisconsin Home

As a twelve-year-old growing up in Hancock, Wisconsin this news seemed most interesting for the simple reason that nothing exciting ever seemed to occur in my hometown area. Everything exciting happened ‘out there’ and that meant far way. All of a sudden the energy of a national story was hitting home as people around me were talking about it and we seemed in that fashion to be a part of the story, too. I liked that feeling and was starting to understand the adrenaline rush that came with breaking news stories.

Counting the bean-pickers that rumbled down our country road or predicting how much rain might be in the gauge dad had set up on the white fence separating Mom’s flowers from the leafy rhubarb patch were what constituted a normal type of summer day in my childhood. So it is not hard to fathom how exciting following the news of a president leaving office might be for a kid.

Even though I was not aware of the depth and complexity of Watergate, thanks to the daily paper that was delivered six days a week in our mail and from radio newscasts, I knew there was excitement brewing in the land.

My parents spent the early part of the evening of August 8th after our dinner—supper as my Mom always referred to it—doing some lawn work. There were gray clouds that evening, though not the type that made for any rain. That surely was greeted with a smile by Dad as he mowed in cooler temperatures. Mom followed him around the trees and flower patches with trimming shears in hand tidying up the spots the mower was not able to perfect. I know dad was being cognizant of the time and wanted things to be done in time for the national presidential address.

By the time Nixon looked directly into the camera the three of us were seated in the living room, with dad in his leather-like chair that tipped back ever so slightly while Mom and I sat on the sofa, with me perched close to the TV, a spot I always seemed to gravitate towards.

How my parents felt about that night is not registered in my mind. I suspect that is due to the fact they watched the address like most other Americans who knew larger legal and political forces were at work in the nation and all they could do was just watch it unfold. In later years I knew my parents were part of that “Silent Majority” that Nixon was speaking to in his national races. They worked hard, played by the rules, and at times could do nothing more than just watch as events swirled around them. I have no memory of any emotional reaction—one way or the other—from the Republican home where I grew up that night, though I still recall where we were and what we did.

As was the case with other events that played out on the national stage in those years of my life it was the drama and excitement that drew me to the story. I knew that the resignation was a major event, but am not sure I placed it in historical terms. What I very much recall that night and then in the days that followed were the urgent tones in the announcer’s voices and the paced delivery of whatever was being reported. Where others my age were the product of the TV age I had grown up with radio and experienced a whole other way of hearing the news. I may have wished for more excitement in my youth but would not trade those AM broadcasts for any black-and-white image from a TV.

The following morning was one that left a lasting impression on me.

Dad was at work and Mom was undertaking the regular household-type patterns of life that made our house a home. August 9th was sunny and bright as I sat in the living room in front of the television with the sun streaming in through the windows on the south side of the house. What happened has lingered with me over the decades.

First, and though I was not able to recognize it at the time, came the raw and unvarnished words and open emotions from a politician. Rarely has anyone with power and a national moment spoke in the way President Nixon did as he stood behind a podium and bid White House staff and administrative aides farewell. It was unscripted and though I had no reason to know why at the time his words hit me and have never left me since. Some would say in later years they wondered how Nixon made it through his roughly fifteen minutes of saying goodbye. It was wrenching to watch and never fails to move me when I view it these decades later.

In one of his awkwardly emotional moments for a man who never relied on such sentiment to carry him through the political battles he stated, “Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother–my mother was a saint.” I think his time behind the podium that morning was as close as we ever came to seeing the human side of the man.

The second reason the events struck me that morning and continue to hold my attention, concerned the way power was handed over under the rules that our nation agrees to be governed by, even in the worst of times. This is not some small outcome when a constitutional crisis was finalized with the wave from a fallen leader as he gets on a helicopter and his vice-president takes over as the next leader of the free world. A twelve-year-old out in the country where nothing ever happens could even see the wonder of it all.

Decades following that morning when Nixon made his emotional comments from the White House I wrote Walking Up The Ramp, a book about my life, and parents who raised a boy to be a determined man. The quote I used to open my story was the same one that caught my attention back in the sunny living room of my childhood. No one may have ever written a book about Dick Nixon’s Mom, but I would write one about mine.

There are many who can not find anything other than revulsion for Richard Nixon. I just am not one of those. As readers might know I have had a life-long interest in the life and times of Richard Nixon. While I have long stated President Abraham Lincoln was our most important leader to occupy the White House I have long felt Nixon was our most intriguing. Nixon’s life was a Shakespeare play acted out for the whole nation to watch.

No one can or should want to spin away from the Watergate affairs which cover everything from a bungled burglary to the plumbers, ITT, the firing of a special prosecutor and so much more. Frankly, it is hard to imagine all that happened to play out day after day, week after week, month after month. Yet it all happened and many of us have memories of those days, as anguishing as they were. We would not again see a political meltdown until the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election unfolded in horror and shameful actions in front of our eyes on January 6, 2021.

Over the years I have come to a more nuanced perspective about the man. I do not allow for any wiggle room on his crimes or the need to resign from the office. But when it comes to his international involvement I leave the bitterness for the partisans while taking stock of his accomplishments in places around the globe.

At this time as we reflect on the resignation, we need to ask ourselves if our politics really did survive that event or was it instead a demarcation line where faith was lost in our political institutions that have never again been mended. Between the Vietnam War and Watergate, the nation lost more of itself than most knew at the time.

Wisconsin UW System Needs To Return, Under Federal Law, Native Tribe Remains And Funerary Objects

Over the past few years, our nation has attempted a better reckoning with some of the social issues that still lead to inequality and harm to some segments of our society.  There is no disputing the power that masses of people across the country asserted following the death of George Floyd.  The growing understanding of why transgender teens must be allowed their space and right to become adults proves how a determined push can make positive changes.

While we can point to real progress on some issues, there are other matters that deal with peoples and cultures which remain nearly stalled.  In 1990–over thirty years ago(!)–the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, became law.  Its intent was to ensure the return of tribal objects by institutions receiving federal money.

The law is rather straightforward. It requires facilities that have such artifacts to submit inventories to federally recognized tribes in the United States. Human remains, along with funerary and sacred objects that can be linked to a specific tribe must be repatriated upon request.

It was reported in the news that some 870,000 Native tribe artifacts that should be returned to tribes under that federal law are still in the possession of colleges, museums, and other institutions across our country. It must be noted, that also includes nearly 110,000 human remains.   The National Park Service maintains the data on these artifacts, with the entire list here.

The Wisconsin UW system has a number of bones and funerary objects that must be repatriated to the proper tribes.

We often hear about the desire to heal the pain in our nation, atone for the past actions of other generations, and find ways of uniting and moving forward.  How then, in this era of computers and technology, are there still tens of thousands of ancestors not repatriated with their tribes?

Why this matters so very much is that we are not talking about extinct people, as many of these artifacts are still very much integral components of living cultures. Additionally, the placement of ancestral bones and other sacred objects in cold and sterile museums runs counter to Native beliefs.

For me, this story has some meaning beyond the headlines. I am most proud of being the first cousin, 6 times removed, from Chief John Ross who witnessed the horror of the Trail of Tears first-hand.  He was also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), and was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828–1866.  My Mom’s side of the family always spoke with pride about their heritage.

Broken treaties litter our national story concerning Native tribes. Thirty years after a federal law was passed about Native bones and, artifacts it is troubling that so much work remains to be done. A better reckoning with the parts of our past regarding Native tribes is much in need.