I have met a lot of people in my life, but no one like U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye. A soft-spoken son of Japanese immigrants, he rose to become a war hero and represented Hawaii in Congress from the time it became a state. But I always believed he was an Indian at heart.
My good friend for more than 30 years, he died Dec. 17 at 88. He served in the Senate for 50 years, the second longest term in United States history, and became one of the greatest champions for Indian people that we have ever seen.
Danny understood us and our issues in a way that many Americans cannot. I think it is because he knew what it was like to be different, to be someone who came from a people set apart.
As a 17-year-old, he rushed to enlist after Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in 1941. At a time when most Japanese Americans were rounded up and forced into internment camps around the United States, Inouye was fighting in Europe. In Italy he lost his right arm, and nearly his life, in actions that were later recognized by a Medal of Honor, our country’s highest military award.
Many might question why a Japanese American like Inouye would fight so hard for a country that treated his people so poorly. That same question could be asked of Indians, African Americans and many others. As a tribal member and a veteran, I can tell you that we did it for the greater good of everyone in the hope that things would get better.
But for Danny, and for many of us, it took a while for things to get better. On his way home to Hawaii while recuperating from his war wounds, he made a stopover in San Francisco. Wanting to look good for his homecoming, he stepped into a barbershop, but was told they did not cut “Jap” hair.
Despite the injuries he suffered and the racism he experienced, he was never bitter. He became a quiet giant in the Senate, always with an eye toward helping those in need of social justice. He worked tirelessly to support the sovereignty of Indian tribes across the country, and equally as hard to gain that same recognition for native Hawaiians.
During his time in the Senate he helped pass many pieces of legislation important to Indian people. Among them are the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, The Tribal Self Governance Act of 1994 and the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994.
Before enlisting in the Army, he was planning to be a doctor – a surgeon – someone who could help people. In the end, that is just what he did, but he helped many, many more people while serving in the Senate than he ever could as a doctor.
I will miss him deeply and so will all of Indian Country. One of the things I will miss most might surprise you. Danny was one heck of a piano player.
We will not forget this man who understood and helped Indian people like few in this country ever have, a man who worked so hard and endured so much to make our country a better place for everyone.
Billy Frank, Jr. is the chair of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.