The longest Walk Indians, now trickling out of Washington after a week of demonstrations against what they say is anti-Indian legislation in Congress, will be remembered in official circles here not so much for what they protested as for how they did it.
Hundreds of government officials, from White House aides and high-ranking Interior Department bureaucrats to police, military and National Park Service officers, raced to meet Indian demands for thousands of dollars in logistical support for their encampment and demonstration needs - in part to head off a possible confrontation with militant walk leaders.
With something akin to cross-cultural shock, government officials also struggled to keep up with the Indians' loose, nonbureaucratic and everchanging scenario of meetings, demonstrations and religious ceremonies.
The Indians came to protest 11 bills in Congress, including measures to abrogate all Indian treaties and reduce Indian water, fishing and hunting rights on Indian lands.
Area residents caught glimpses of befeathered native Americans marching stolidly across their evening television news screens. But congressional leaders including Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) had already given the measures little chance of passing, regardless of whether the Indians came to Washington.
Longest Walk coordinator Bill Wahpepah acknowledged this at a press conference Saturday.
"We know the bills have little chance of passing," said Wahpepah, "but we wanted to show up the (anti-Indian) backlash in this country" triggered by recent Indian successes in court cases upholding various water and land rights.
Official Washington was far more preoccupied with the tactics than the substance of the Indian protests here and was sometimes baffled by what appeared to be the vagaries of Indian demonstration planning. It was a week of delayed meetings, unanswered phone calls, last-minute switches and occasional misunderstandings as the Indians' fluid concepts of time and purpose washed against the paperwork fortress of government bureaucracy.
The Indians were invariably late for scheduled demonstrations and meetings, frustrating clock-watching police and Interior Department officials attempting to coordinate logistical support and traffic control. Indians and their supporters joked about "Indian time" and the white bureaucrat's perception of Indian tardiness.
"The bureaucrat's idea of a meeting," said a Carrier Indian from British Columbia in an interview, "is based on time, while ours is based on function.
". . . The bureaucrat says the meeting will start at 2 p.m. and end at 4 p.m. We say the meeting will start when everyone gets there and end when everybody's finished talking."
Some government officials bridled to the high-level White House and Interior Department decision to acquiesce to demands by the estimated 2,800 Indians and their supporters for massive logistical support in their Greenbelt Park encampment - tents, showers, extra water and sanitation facilities, field kitchens and refrigeration units.
The Indians based their demands on both the practical claim that they had no money and the rhetorical assertion that they are the "original l andlords" of this land with an unquestioned right to be here.
Interior officials said the arrangement to provide logistical support has historical justification in the 200-year-old trust relationship between the U.S. government and Indian tribes through treaties and special agreements.
Officials also acknowledged private concern that militant elements within the Longest Walk leadership may have planned unspecified confrontations, as they did in 1972 with the takeover and sacking of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building here. Officials said they hoped to minimize any pretext for disruptive action by acceding generally to Indian demands.
High-level Interior officials monitored the demonstrations closely. Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Hite was briefed daily by National Park Service observers and toured the Greenbelt Park encampment. Assistant Secretary for Indian affairs Forrest Gerard accompanied some of the demonstrations downtown.
The demonstrations turned out to be peaceful, and Longest Walk leaders, including numerous members of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM), all said they came in peace.
Many of the Longest Walk coordinators are well known AIM functionaries - Dennis Banks, the brothers Russell and Bill Means and brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt - but they deny they dominate the Longest Walk, a loose coalition of tribes and Indian organizations.
The Bellecourts and the Means freely acknowledge their militance. They speak of their deep suspicion of the FBI and pepper their speeches with references to "U.S. imperialism," the "rape of the land by the multinational corporations" and the "neocolonizers" - a reference to moderate members of various elected tribal councils.
The Indians' encampment at Greenbelt Park, from which they have been gradually leaving the last few days, has been a model of peacefulness and cooperation. Park rangers say generally there have been few difficulties. Some of them wince, however, at mention of an informal agreement: by which most control of the 600-acre encampment was given over to the Indians, including security checkpoints. U.S. Park Police agreed not to enter unless requested by the Indians.
A second highly vounted "spiritual camp" intended for 200 to 300 Indian religious leaders occupying 30 to 50 tepees in West Potomac Park near the Lincoln Memorial, turned out to be largely a joke. Only two tepees were set up and little activity occurred in the dusty, snow-fenced area.
"That was a political thing," scoffed Longest Walk coordinator Wally Feather. "We just wanted to show them (the government) we could get the place" - a reference to elaborate negotiations to suspend a no-camping regulation on the park ground for a four-day vigil during which religious leaders would be sleeping, eating, tending ceremonial fires, in effect, camping.