Articles & News 2006

From the March 24, 2006 Williamsport Sun-Gazette.  LLA member Bob Elion lectured at Penn College:

Local attorney recalls fighting for Indian rights


From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” With those words, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians surrendered at the Battle of Bears Paw, Oct. 5, 1877.

Although his surrender marked the end of overt fighting between American Indians and whites, it also marked the beginning of more than a century of struggle between native peoples and white interlopers who threatened to overwhelm them.

Lecturing at the Pennsylvania College of Technology Thursday night, local attorney Robert B. Elion recounted his experiences working as a civil rights attorney on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in 1971 and 1972.

After graduating from the University of Iowa School of Law, Elion said, he accepted a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship, which allowed young lawyers to spend one to two years in impoverished areas around the country.

Elion spoke to nearly 100 students and others at Penn College’s student administrative services building. Students enrolled in the four-year degree programs attended to receive extra credit in their cultural diversity distribution requirement.

Although he could have chosen from several sites around the country, Elion said, he chose Leech Lake because, ‘‘I thought it was the right place to go.’’

The reservation was home to the Ojibwa and Chippewa tribal peoples.

Elion said he greeted with suspicion, but he and the rest of the staff at Leech Lake Legal Services dove head-first into righting the wrongs they saw all around them.

Using anecdotes to highlight some of the problems he encountered, Elion painted a picture of poverty, desperation, imperialism and fomenting unrest threatening to explode into violence at any moment.

He told of a female client who said she was being denied entrance to the state welfare office. Elion knew there were problems with welfare applications not being accepted or being ignored if they were, but he found this hard to believe, he said.

He called the newspaper in Minneapolis-St. Paul and got them to send out their helicopter. Then he assembled two buses of Indians and drove them to the welfare office. He had his client first, singly, try to get into the office. After she was denied, he said, he signaled for the buses to pull into view.

The news helicopter hovered overhead, reporters were shouting questions, and the clerks at the welfare office looked stricken, he said.

Every person on the bus was admitted and filled out the application. To prevent the applications from being trashed, Elion said, he filed suit in federal court seeking a mandate that all welfare applications be acted upon in writing within 30 days of filing. The court ruled in his favor.

Another battle Elion fought valiantly was against the police. The police force was entirely white and abused its authority, he said.

‘‘I heard stories about girls, 14 years old, being arrested for something or another, driven out to the deserted country, and made to have sex with the officers’’ to make the charges disappear, Elion said.

‘‘I had a woman call me up and say her son had been arrested. I told her I’d take care of it. I went down to the police station and asked to see my client. This was one of those old jails that had a sliding (partition in the door). I looked in and he was in there. I asked the officer to let me in and he refused,’’ Elion said.

Elion then asked to see the arrest warrant, which would list the probable cause. The officer said he didn’t have one. Elion demanded the release of the client. The officer told him the client was in his jail and was going to stay there, Elion recounted.

‘‘I’m a young attorney, six, eight months out of law school. I go home and call my professor from law school and say, ’What do I do?’ My professor says, ’He can’t do that.’ I say, ’I know, but what do I do?’ He was looking at it in this very academic way.”

His client was eventually released, and Elion filed suit against the police department. The court decreed that two Indians be appointed sheriff, Elion said.

By that time, Elion had sued the school board, the police department and the welfare agency. He had made a few enemies, he admitted.

One day, he said, he was in court and the sheriff came in and told him he needed to be in court. ‘‘I said, ’I’m already in court, what are you talking about?’’’ Elion recalled.

He was presented with a summons that said he needed to go before a grand jury that had been convened to investigate the activities of the Leech Lake Legal Services.

Elion said he was questioned by the district attorney for more than two hours. Then the jury issued a series of recommendations, including firing and disbarring both Elion and the director of legal services. Among the list of offenses was, ‘‘educating the youth as to their constitutional and statutory rights, but not their responsibilities, leading to rebellion.’’

Elion and his associates at the center filed suit in state court, arguing the actions were beyond the scope of a grand jury. The case went all the way up to the state Supreme Court, ‘‘which delivered a scathing opinion of the district attorney and his practices,’’ Elion said.

Threaded throughout these issues was a deep-seated hatred and distrust of Indians by white people, or ‘‘Anglos’’ as Elion called them. At the center of the fight was the Indians’ persistence in hunting and fishing without licenses.

Elion also took up that battle and discovered that in the treaties, the Indians were guaranteed use of the land forever. That was before the whites themselves were invented hunting licenses.

Although Anglos had no problem applying for hunting and fishing licenses, the Indians did not understand why they needed licenses to do what they were promised they could do, Elion explained. After a legal battle, the courts ruled in favor of the Indians, saying the treaties predate Minnesota hunting laws.

That led to a massive controversy because whites were afraid the Indians would overfish and overhunt the lakes and land.

In 1973, a standoff between Indians and the FBI at Wounded Knee led to several deaths. Leech Lake avoided that tragedy, Elion said.

‘‘I called the reservation yesterday. I hadn’t talked to them in more than 30 years. The endemic problems (alcoholism, depression, domestic violence) are still there, but race relations have improved. There is still an income disparity. The schools haven’t improved, because of poverty,’’ he said.

Leech Lake has been combined with nearby Red Lake and White Earth.

Red Lake Reservation was the home of 16-year-old Jeff Weise, who shot his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend on March 21, 2005, He then went to his high school and shot five students and a security guard, wounded seven more students and teachers, and then turned the gun on himself.

During a question-and-answer period, a student asked Elion if he had ever felt afraid for his life.

‘‘I should have. I didn’t. I was young, and we were there doing something,’’ he said. ‘‘You have no rights if you have no way to enforce them.’’