Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, was a Member of Congress for longer than anyone in history, serving from 1955 to 2015. He won election 30 times to the seat held by his father, John Sr., who was swept into Congress in 1933 with the Roosevelt New Deal and represented Michigan’s 15th District (later, MI-12) until he died from tuberculosis in 1955.
John Jr. died on February 7 at 92. His widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell, won election to her husband’s seat after his retirement and holds it today. Michiganders have sent the three Dingells to Washington for more than 85 consecutive years and counting.
The longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, Dingell became the Dean of the House in 1995 and also had the longest tenure of any Dean of the Michigan congressional delegation. An unwavering advocate of the home state automotive industry, he was a powerhouse for both energy and environmental legislation and oversight, as well as for civil rights.
Both Dingell Jr . and Sr. supported Native Peoples’ treaty fishing and hunting rights when it counted, when anti-Indian/anti-treaty hate groups organized in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes states, and predatory banks and developers salivated over Indian land and natural resources.
President Ronald Reagan’s states-rights Administration tried to cut off and privatize federal Indian funds and property, and withdraw legal protections for resources and turn some over to states. Reagan’s Interior Secretary James G. Watt attempted to reverse the course of ongoing litigation in United States v. Michigan by ending federal regulations that recognized Native Nations’ treaty fishing rights.
Watt sought the support of the Michigan congressional delegation, saying that state regulations prohibiting Indian fishing would rule in the absence of federal regs. He wanted the delegation to introduce legislation to ban Indian fishing in Michigan.
The Native American Rights Fund represented tribal interests in the US v Michigan case; Attorney Bruce Greene was lead counsel, and I was NARF’s Legislative Liaison. Greene and I met with Watt and tried but failed to convince him to leave the federal fishing regs in place.
We met with various members of the Michigan delegation and found that, while most disliked Watt, they wanted to support their state and were willing to sacrifice Native fishing rights.
Among the exceptions were Dingell, Rep. Dale Kildee, and Sen Carl Levin, who also loved their state, too, but agreed that its position was inconsistent with Treaty guarantees of longstanding between the United States and Native Nations.
Ultimately, the federal district court judge foiled the Reagan Administration’s plan by ruling that tribal rights preempted those of the state. The tribal regulations obtained and the states did not. Watt’s withdrawal of federal rules did not stop Native treaty fishing, and the Michigan legislators blocked his legal notions.
Watt went on a tear against Native programs, budgets, and rights, saying in a television interview, “If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don’t go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations.” Reagan later doubled down on Watt’s slurs when he was in Moscow in 1988: “Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle.”
Reagan’s statements left Dingell wondering, “Is something wrong with him?”
Dingell proved a mighty opponent of the Administration’s persistent attempts to undermine environmental and fisheries protections, and worked with broad coalitions - including environmental, social justice and religious groups and Native Nations - to force Watt to resign, which he did, in 1983.
As Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, he exercised jurisdiction over significant sections of health legislation. He introduced in each Congress broad health legislation that his father introduced during his time in Congress.
Dingell presided over the House when it passed Medicare in 1965, and famously loaned his gavel to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) when she presided over the Affordable Care Act 45 years later.
He responded to a myriad of calls to help with Native health, child welfare, and social policy issues, as well as to extend authorizations for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, whose sunset provision was lifted in 2010 when it was incorporated in the ACA.
After announcing his retirement from Congress, Dingell was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor. He and I were among the 18 recipients in the PMOF Class of 2014. Because it was difficult for the two of us to stand, we elected to stay seated and were placed next to each other on the stage right front row, with Ethel Kennedy.
The dress rehearsal for the White House Awards Ceremony was carefully choreographed because space was tight on the stage, which was compact to make room for the many guests and media scheduled to fill the East Room. President Barack Obama had very little space to maneuver when affixing the ribboned Medals around the recipients’ necks, and our part required some extra time and planning.
After the rehearsal, all the recipients sat in an adjoining room as the audience and media were assembling. Vice President Joe Biden went around the room, greeting each of us individually.
Although Biden was warm and engaging, after he exchanged pleasantries with us, Dingell had a crestfallen look and said quietly, “He didn’t recognize me.” Normally a towering physical presence, Dingell had been ill and lost a considerable amount of weight. I did not recognize him at first that day.
Biden almost cleared the door when he realized his mistake, wheeled around and made a beeline for Dingell, exclaiming, “Big John!” They hugged each other like the old friends they’d been for more than 40 years, since before 1973, when Delaware sent Biden to Washington as the youngest US Senator. Then an amplified voice announced, “The Vice President of the United States,” and Biden ran back to the hallway for his East Room entrance.
Soon, we all were escorted to our chairs on the stage. As the program began, Dingell whispered, “I’m going to stand.” There was no way to warn anyone, so the President learned of the change when Dingell stood up where Obama was supposed to cross over. A less agile person would have been thrown by the different staging and much smaller area, but Obama’s movements were smooth and Dingell stood straight and true. When it was time for my Medal to be affixed, I said, “I’m staying seated.” The President answered, “Good. It’s about time that someone around here is doing something I told them to do!”
I was happy that I was laughing and not crying when being honored. Dingell said he was happy standing to receive his Medal. I thought he was brave.
That was the last time I saw him. It was a sweet Washington moment, and the one I’m likely to remember more clearly than many other important ones over the decades.
I offer this appreciation particularly for young people who may not realize what a difference “Big John” made to the lives and histories of Native Peoples and the United States.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is an advocate for American Indian rights. She is a poet, writer, lecturer, curator, and policy advocate, who has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of tribal lands. After co-producing the first Indian news show in the nation for WBAI radio while living in New York City, and producing other shows and theater, in 1974 she moved to Washington, DC, to work on national policy issues. She served as Congressional liaison for Indian affairs in the President Jimmy Carter administration and later as president of the National Council of American Indians.
Harjo is President of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native American rights organization. Since the 1960s, she has worked on getting sports teams to drop names that promote negative stereotypes of Native Americans. In June 2014, the Patent and Trademark Office revoked the Washington Redskins trademark; the owner said he would appeal. By 2013 two-thirds of teams with American Indian mascots had changed them due to these public campaigns.
On November 24, 2014, Harjo received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.