On June 20, more than 500 people gathered for a touching tribute to Stewart L. Udall, who passed away March 20, 2010. At the “Celebration of Life” memorial service held on the Santa Fe Indian School campus in New Mexico, Stewart’s children spent the first Father’s Day since his passing remembering their dad.
Several other Udalls paid their respects and were joined by tribal leaders from across New Mexico and Arizona, along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Gov. Bill Richardson, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and others. Jemez Pueblo Gov. Joshua Madalena, accompanied by his daughter, gave a beautiful opening prayer.
Many who gathered were visibly emotional and the portrait the speakers painted of Stewart reflected a man devoted to public service. They commended his legacy for protection of the earth, demonstrated in the remarkable accomplishments made throughout his life. Several people talked about Stewart’s service in the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona’s Second District and his tenure as secretary of the Interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. While Babbitt noted that he will likely go down in history as the greatest American conservationist since Teddy Roosevelt, it was also clear that Stewart was a friend to Native people.
Under his leadership, the Interior Department embarked on one of the most aggressive expansions of federal public lands in recent decades and assisted with the enactment of major environmental legislation. Among his legacy to the country are four parks, six national monuments, eight seashores and lakeshores, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites and 56 wildlife refuges added to the U.S. National Park system.
At the celebration, tribal leaders praised him for his protection of Mother Earth. Stewart’s hard work while at the Interior Department led to landmark statutes on air, water and land conservation. He presided over a vibrant era of conservation in the United States and his work has had a profound impact on Indian nations. The laws he advocated for have been used by tribal leaders for several decades to protect tribal lands and the environment surrounding their lands. One speaker noted that right up until the end of his life, Stewart was encouraging people to spread the word that we must protect the earth.
Another significant accomplishment highlighted was Stewart’s role in the installation of Robert Bennett as the commissioner of Indians Affairs in 1966. Bennett was sworn in by President Johnson as the first Indian to serve as commissioner since the administration of Ulysses S. Grant.
Many spoke of Stewart’s tireless efforts for justice as an advocate for tribal members who were exposed to contamination during uranium mining. In the 1970s, he became the lead lawyer on behalf of a group of Navajo citizens who were some of the earliest uranium miners in the country and were not warned of the dangers they faced from exposure to uranium. Stewart worked for years with the courts and Congress to enact the 1990 Radiation Exposure Safety Act to compensate thousands of individuals.
It was noted that in November 2009, Congress enacted legislation to honor Stewart by renaming the Morris K. Udall Foundation the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation, in recognition of the historic Interior secretary’s contributions. The Udall Foundation, an independent federal agency, carries on Stewart’s legacy through numerous environmental and American Indian initiatives around the country.
Stewart was not the only Udall to work on behalf of Native issues and was likely inspired by his father, Levi Udall, who served on the Arizona Supreme Court. In 1948, in an opinion authored by Justice Udall, the Arizona Supreme Court overruled previous legal opinions and held that American Indians had the right to vote.
Stewart’s late brother, Morris “Mo” Udall, was also a strong advocate for American Indians. While serving 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, he sponsored innovative legislation such as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The former congressman guided 184 bills affecting Native interests enacted into law throughout his 14 years as chairman of the House Interior Committee. Mo Udall served in the House until 1991, when Parkinson’s disease precipitated his retirement. In his honor, the following year Congress established the Udall Foundation in his name.
In addition, Stewart’s late wife, Ermalee Webb Udall, was an enthusiastic supporter of American Indian arts. She played a major role in developing the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She also encouraged Stewart to reopen the gallery and crafts store at the Department of the Interior, which showcased exhibits that included children’s art from BIA schools and the work of Native artists from IAIA.
Stewart was the father of Sen. Tom Udall from New Mexico and the uncle of Sen. Mark Udall from Colorado. Mark Udall is the son of the late Morris Udall. Today, these two senators continue their fathers’ dedication to Native people and conservation, carving out a special interest in Native issues and a genuine commitment to working with Indian people and tribes. They are part of the new generation who are making their mark and expanding upon the enduring legacy their fathers left behind.
Elizabeth Rodke Washburn is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and the director of communications and external relations at the Udall Foundation.