Ki Tecumseh learned to work within the system—or stretch it

“Indian people don’t consider themselves to be a minority people.”
—Ki Tecumseh

Growing up on the Yakama Indian Reservation, Kiutus “Ki” Tecumseh, Jr. learned to put his finger up to the wind to test the direction it was blowing. In his ideas and actions, he also likes to test conventional thought. A longtime public relations specialist with the Department of Energy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he is soft-spoken and measured in his speech. But people tend to listen to what he has to say, more than how he says it.

For example, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when college students were protesting everything from U.S. military involvement in Vietnam to racism and the rights of migrant farm workers, Tecumseh was marching to a different drummer. He always has.

Earlier, when he informed his high school counselor at White Swan that he wanted to go to college, he was told, “You will fail. You are good with your hands. You can be either a baker or a bricklayer.”

Not to be dissuaded, Tecumseh applied for admission to Washington State University. He was accepted. While earning a degree (’72 Comm.), he served as an ASWSU senator and was an assistant instructor in a contemporary American Indian Studies class. Many remembered him best as founder and first president of the Native American Students Association.

“Indian people don’t consider themselves to be a minority people. They have their own religion, own culture, own life and land,” says Tecumseh, a member of the Winnebago Indians of Nebraska, his father’s tribe. He believes traditional fishing rights, shoreline and mineral issues, and treaty rights transcend the reservation and are important to all people living in the Northwest.

When attempting to organize WSU’s Indian students more than three decades ago, he remembers being “manipulated” by the University. Finding himself shuffled from one office to another, he learned to work within the system. Or stretch it.

Tecumseh recalls an early conversation with WSU president Glenn Terrell “that wasn’t going anywhere,” until he placed a tape recorder on Terrell’s desk. He discovered later that the recorder’s batteries were dead, but his actions still earned the president’s attention and eventual support. They have been good friends ever since. Last fall, the pair spent two hours visiting over lunch in Seattle. Tecumseh was en route to the Tri-Cities, his wife Nancy’s home, and to WSU. During two days on the Pullman campus, he met with President V. Lane Rawlins and Alex Tan, director of the Murrow School of Communication, among others.

“Indian-specific issues” have always been important to Tecumseh. During his student days, he and his Native American peers pushed the University to recruit more Indian students from the state and provide the support services they needed to be successful.

During the 1970 WSU student strike against racism, leaders of other student minority groups assumed the Native American Students Association would be supportive. When the strike committee met, Tecumseh told them the Indian students would not be part of the strike. Faculty member Johnetta Cole, a powerful voice for the African American students and later president of Spelman College in Atlanta, lobbied for his support.

“Ki, they [the Indian students] will listen to you,” she said. “Be with us.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” was his response. “We operate by consensus. I will never tell the Indian students what they will think.”

To this day, he believes “Our position helped break the strike.”

He credits late WSU professors Suzanne Lloyd, psychology, and Louis McNew, English, with being particularly sensitive to minority students during troubled times. “They were open to us, willing to listen to our concerns, and helped where they could.”

McNew spent 35 years on the faculty. As coordinator of the Curriculum Advisory Program for 17 years, he took the lead in creating the Academic Development Program that provided tutorial assistance for those students needing it.

The late Alan Barnsley’s course in creative writing also stands out in Tecumseh’s mind. “We were encouraged to talk about our writing in class . . . to share.” From that dialogue, he gained empathy for others and a sense of working cooperatively toward common goals.

In Albuquerque he is active on a citizens’ advisory board that wants to build an Indian Center, and he chairs the advisory council on Indian education to the state board of education. The council’s goal is to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs to adopt state standards for schools on Indian reservations.

“It’s not hard to remember your people,” he says of his activities today. As early as high school, he was writing a column on Indian issues for newspapers in Toppenish and Wapato. People looked up to him then. They still do.

Someday Tecumseh may write a book about Indian issues, including Indian education—“but not a profile in courage.” He believes in affirmative action. “It’s good. It works. It can benefit everyone,” he says. “But don’t mistake quotas for goals.”

As invited speaker at an Earth Day celebration in Utah’s Monument Valley a few years ago, he stressed the importance of tradition, culture, and education but cautioned against “sanitizing” things.

“If we work only on science and math, and do away with social issues, we are lost as a country. “We will be totally neutralized, sterile.”