Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, American Indian advocate and museum official, dies at 75

By Matt Schudel
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 9:28 PM

Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, 75, an American Indian activist who expanded educational opportunities and led efforts for greater self-determination by Indians, and who later became a top official of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, died Dec. 19 at her home in Ocean Pines, Md. She had complications from a stroke suffered last year.

Dr. Scheirbeck, a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, began working for the rights of American Indians in the early 1960s, when she was a staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She helped gain recognition for Native Americans in the War on Poverty of the 1960s and led efforts to establish Indian educational programs, from Head Start to tribal colleges.

Working with her onetime Senate boss, Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), Dr. Scheirbeck was a major force behind the passage of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which guaranteed that the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections would be extended to Indian tribes.

As director of the Office of Indian Education in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Scheirbeck was a key proponent of several legislative acts that broadened educational opportunities for Indians and gave tribes greater authority over their schools.

"She had a hand in every major initiative in Indian education for the last 40 years," Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said in a statement.

After serving as program director of the White House Conference on Children, Youth and Families under President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Dr. Scheirbeck devoted much of the next two decades to improving early childhood education for Indian children throughout the country. She spent the 1990s as national director of the American Indian office of Head Start, creating programs for Indian children from Florida to Alaska.

Among the first voices to call for the creation of a major museum commemorating Indian life in the United States, Dr. Scheirbeck was a member of the board of trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened on the Mall in 2004.

She held several high-level posts at the museum and played a key role in designing its educational, cultural and research programs and in developing subjects for exhibitions.

In more than 40 years in Washington, Dr. Scheirbeck became known for her ability to work the halls of Congress, gain powerful allies and make the causes of Indians known to a wider audience.

At the tribal and local level, she was a renowned public speaker who tirelessly organized schools and voter registration drives throughout the country and helped recruit young advocates for Indian rights.

"The country needs to understand the struggle of Indians to be Indians," she said in 2007. "Every tribe had a trail of tears."

Helen Delanor Maynor was born Aug. 21, 1935, in Robeson County, N.C., the historic cradle of the Lumbee people.

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