Roland Morris, Sr., one of the nation’s true civil and human rights warriors is dead at 59.
by Howard B. Hanson
Roland Morris Sr. died in Ronan, Montana, on June 9 after a lengthy, courageous battle against prostate cancer. I was very privileged, as were many citizens from many states involved with the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, to meet and get to know Roland and his wife Lisa, when they showed up at one of CERA’s annual meetings over a decade ago. Ever since they became members they have helped our organization grow by teaching us how some bad federal Indian policies deny reservation area citizens their full civil, constitutional and human rights. All of the many friends Roland made throughout these years are in deep mourning for this giant of a man, who dared to take the stand very few dare to take, because of the unaccountable, destructive powers of many tribal establishments.
Roland was a full-blooded member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake, and was raised in the town of Cass Lake, Minnesota. Roland played guard in intramural basketball, loved to hunt and fish and was an accomplished musician, playing the guitar with friends at gatherings. He also enjoyed many seasons of gathering wild rice. Roland attended a two year college at Haskell, Kansas, to become an architectural draftsman. He practiced the trade of architecture for a few years before becoming a self-employed upholsterer. While he struggled with many difficulties in his early years, he was a perfectionist with his upholstery and it gave him gratifying work throughout his life.
Roland and Lisa moved to Ronan, Montana in 1992 to provide a much healthier lifestyle for their family. Many times Roland told us about experiences he’d had trying to break away from the control of the tribal establishment, and how the people in power do everything they can to keep control of their members and keep them in their grasp. He told us how he had watched many friends and relatives die physically, spiritually, and emotionally from alcoholism, violence, and suicide caused by bad federal Indian policies. Roland wanted the cycle of self-destruction to stop. His concern was for the overall spiritual, emotional and physical health of many tribal members, and he felt that the heartbreak going on was just a horrible symptom that was in need of a cure.
Roland’s conviction that much of the reservation system was destructive to Indian people led him to some amazing life experiences. He became an active proponent for change and joined a Western Montana organization called “All Citizens Equal.” He became its President, which in turn - thankfully - led him to us at the “Citizens Equal Rights Alliance”. There, he became deeply loved and respected for his steadfast beliefs, and active participation. He served on the CERA board for several years, then took the vacancy created by the passing of Scott Kayla Morrison on the Citizens Equal Rights Foundation board. In 1996 Roland held up his beliefs as a platform to be a candidate for the Montana House of Representatives in the Republican Primary. He testified before numerous state committees, and in 1998 testified before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. In 2000 Roland spent a day with citizens here in Minnesota testifying at meetings in Senator Paul Wellstone’s office and a joint meeting at the Capitol with representatives of the Governor and Attorney General’s staff. Because of his stand with CERA Roland and his wife, Lisa, have also had to deal with the harmful label of being called “racist” many times. They always publicly fought these ridiculous charges and forced written apologies at least twice that I can remember.
For Lisa and Roland the Indian Child Welfare Act was a personal affront and threat to their parental and custodial rights and responsibilities. Their fears were that because Lisa is Caucasian the children they have been raising - five of their own- and four of his grandchildren, could possibly be claimed by the Tribe upon Roland’s death. They eagerly participated in planning and attended each year’s CERA conference in Washington D.C., so they could hand out their written opposition to the Act and lobby face to face with politicians and agency officials. They told how Federal Indian Policies are designed for the welfare of unaccountable tribal governments instead of the welfare of the members and their children.
In preparation for this year’s D.C. conference in mid-May, Roland prepared an eight page fact sheet on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Although he was getting near the end of his battle with cancer and needed a wheelchair to conserve his strength and keep him going all day, he participated in his normal strong fashion during our two day conference. The directors of CERA/CERF presented him with a plaque made of Oak to honor the power and strength he had brought to our organizations for so many years.
I had the great privilege of spending the next two days in D.C. with Roland, his daughter, Therese, and granddaughter Melissa. We went to the Washington Post to seek editorial help but were turned down. We then went to the Washington Times where we were granted an interview by a writer who the next day attended our news conference and did publish an article, which in turn triggered another article that caused the tribal establishment in D.C. to have to answer some embarrassing questions about ICWA.
We also went to each member of the Minnesota Congressional delegation and asked for their support to allow all of the Morris’ children, who have lived together for eight years, to continue to be able to do so after Roland died. Roland was also insistent about meeting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning the Tribe’s attempts to get control of the National Bison Range and other Federal Refuges and Parks. We met with Mr. William F. Hartwig, the Assistant Director of the Refuge System, and had a very excellent and hopefully fruitful meeting. Mr. Hartwig spent many years in Minnesota, understood our fears, and did his best to assure us that the parks would stay under the control of all U.S. citizens. We also attended a very productive meeting arranged by Darrel Smith from Mobridge, S.D., with his Senator Tim Johnson, who will soon be on the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. After that meeting, his top aide on tribal matters met with Roland and his daughters and promised to help them through the ICWA maze. Roland was certainly on a mission knowing that he was giving it his last shot and he hung in there all the way.
On June 9 after four years of confusing inability to get papers filed granting legal custody of Roland’s four grandchildren to Lisa, their lawyer called and stated that he was e-mailing documents for guardianship to Lisa and that Roland also had to sign them in front of a notary and have them faxed back to him for filing in Lake County, MT that very day. He had, on his desk, a paper signed by the Tribe giving permission for Lisa to obtain joint custody of the children with Roland. Lisa called a friend at the local bank who was a notary. She came over when the documents arrived, notarized them and they were sent back to be filed the same day. That evening, surrounded by family, pastor and a close neighbor couple, Roland ended his many year battles against the dreaded Indian Child Welfare Act and the terrible cancer. He lost to cancer, but he may have won changes that will continue for the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Every once in a while we read in the paper about the passing of some noted civil rights activist and how they are being honored for their good works. Some of these stories are true and richly deserved, while others are very false and glorify people who have championed racist policies that are very destructive to the minorities involved. A lot of these so called civil rights leaders would be aligned with the people who called Lisa and Roland racists! When the true history books are finally written about the evil hidden agendas in the American Indian Movement, the true civil and human rights warriors will ascend to their rightful place in history. In my book, Roland Morris Sr. just took his place next to those of Scott Kayla Morrison, Jim Mitchell and Martin Luther King. Thank you Roland for all you contributed to make this world a better place.