A life spent changing minds

A passion for civil rights is what Elizabeth Furse hopes to instill in her students at Portland State as director of the Institute for Tribal Government. She has been an activist all her life.

A passion for civil rights is what Elizabeth Furse hopes to instill in her students at Portland State as director of the Institute for Tribal Government. She has been an activist all her life.

The institute at the Hatfield School of Government provides governance training to elected tribal officials across the nation and agency training on federal law and federal trust responsibility. Furse said the lack of knowledge of tribal treaties among federal agencies and the public is astounding.

Through her efforts, the institute has created a collection of video-recorded interviews of present-day tribal leaders who have made important contributions to tribes and federal Indian policy. “The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times” tapes are part of the curriculum and also available to schools and individuals.

Her goal is to bring awareness of the true history of Native Americans to university students and public schoolchildren who, along with most adults, have no clue.

“The young are intrigued by what they learn,” she said. “Some express anger that none of what they learn at the institute was taught in the schools. Too many see Indians as either drunks or inept at life.”

Furse has had a lifelong commitment to Native American issues, to peace as the founder of the Oregon Peace Institute, the environment and social justice. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, she moved to South Africa as a child.

Inspired by her mother, Barbara, her activism against apartheid caused her to join the first Black Sash demonstration in Cape Town in l951.

This experience set the stage for a life of activism and commitment to civil rights. In Los Angeles, she was involved in a women’s self-help project in Watts and assisted Caesar Chavez’s United Works efforts to unionize the grape fields.

When she relocated to Seattle in l968, she became involved with Native American fishing rights struggle and co-founded Citizens for Indian Rights. Its grassroots education on the law of treaties and the obligations that flow from such treaties evolved into the National Coalition to the Support of Indian Treaties.

Furse co-founded the Oregon Peace Institute in Portland with a mission to develop and disseminate conflict resolution curriculum for Oregon schools. She served as a U.S. Congresswoman for three terms, from l993-99.

“Most people do not know that tribal treaty rights gives the tribes their own government,” she said, adding there are 532 tribes in the United States and 274 in Alaska. “Tribes are treated as a government, not as a minority.”

After two years at the Lewis and Clark College School of Law, Furse became director of Oregon Legal Services restoration program for Native American Tribes. When the government relinquished its relationship with 63 tribes, they lost their funding, including their land and homes through an act of Congress.

“The U.S. made promises and the tribes were losing their protection, health care, educational services and land. What I teach at the institute is federal Indian law, which is very complicated,” Furse said. “I believe people need to know the law.”

Behind the purchase of Indian land was 2.5 million acres that went to timber companies, she said, affecting 45,000 Native Americans.

The board of directors at the institute consists solely of tribal leaders. When one of the leaders who had been involved in struggles for American Indian rights died, it was decided to develop a curriculum around Indian law and to train tribal governments as well as teach university students at Portland State, OHSU and Lewis and Clark.

Many students are graduates and undergraduates in political science. Some want to go into government careers. The interviews of leaders tell of the extraordinary lives of the Native Americans and their struggles. Most are surprised the tribes are a government unto themselves.

“The casinos, allowed under the National Indian Gaming Act, do not result in money for individuals. The money goes to the governments for education, building, clinics and elderly housing,” Furse said. “There is no evidence of a criminal influence in this casinos. They are highly regulated.”

Casinos are just the beginning of a Renaissance. Native Americans are buying hotels and timber reserves, including Portland’s Governor Hotel.

“There is still great poverty on many reservations,” said Furse. “Not all the tribes picked gaming to get funding.”

While tribes in Oregon are small, with the Klamath being the largest, in Arizona there are 60,000 Navajos, she said.

It is not commonly known that the Douglas County tribe provides one-third of the jobs in that area.

“Federal agencies have a duty to these tribes. If tribal rights are set aside, who knows how this could some day affect all of us. It’s so distressing to see treaties violated. Indians never forget a friend and never forget a hurt,” she said.

With a class restriction of l8 students and a waiting list, Furse’s teaching style is conversational. The university is now developing a cadre of classes and curriculum on Native American studies.

“I teach facts, not theory, not sadness and the past, but useful information to spark interest,” she said. “Portland has the third largest urban Indian population in the country.”