Lucy Friedlander Covington (1910-1982) was born in Nespelem on the Colville Indian Reservation and was a lifelong advocate for Colville tribal rights and land, becoming well-known and nationally respected for her fight against the federal policy of termination. The Colville Tribes are a confederation of twelve distinct bands of Indians; Lucy was descended from five of those bands as well as from a German Jewish merchant. After attending school in Nespelem she transferred to the Haskell Institute in Kansas, where she graduated from high school. Lucy returned to Washington and in 1933, during the Great Depression, went to work as a cook in a Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division forestry camp on the Colville Reservation. There she met John Covington (1913-1958), and the two married in 1936. In the 1940s they moved to Portland to work in shipbuilding, and after the war returned to the reservation and bought a ranch. By 1954 Lucy had replaced her ailing brother George (1904-1977) on the Colville Business Council. Lucy's legacy reaches across time and place; in 2015 Eastern Washington University posthumously conferred an honorary doctorate on her and announced the creation of a tribal research and student center in her name.
Deep Tribal Roots
Lucy Friedlander Covington was a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a leader, both culturally and as an elected official on the Colville Tribal Business Council, where she was the first woman to hold the position of chair. After a dynamic life fostering tribal people and protecting tribal sovereignty, she passed away on September 20, 1982, on her family's ranch, very near where she had arrived into the world on November 24, 1910, an infant with deep roots in the tribal community.
In the following genealogy the tribal affiliations of the named persons are in brackets. Lucy's father, Louis T. Friedlander, Sr. [Nez Perce/Okanagan] also had German Jewish ancestry. Louis's father, Hermann, married Skn-wheulks [Entiat], who was baptized as Elizabeth by Father Urban Grassi, a Jesuit priest. Lucy's mother was Nellie Moses, a granddaughter of Chief Moses (1829-1899) [Columbia/Sinkiuse] and a granddaughter-in-law of Chief Kamiakin (1800?-1877) [Yakama/Palus]. Nellie was named Sinsinq't, for a sister of Chief Moses who had died in an accident on the Columbia River near the mouth of Moses Coulee. Nellie's mother also carried the name Sinsinq't and the name would be passed down to Lucy as well, as is common with family names among Columbia Plateau tribes.
Chief Moses, Lucy's great-grandfather, had five wives in his lifetime, a common practice among prominent Columbia Plateau tribal families. By cultural custom, children of Moses, regardless of their birth mother, considered all of his wives as their mothers, and his grandchildren considered all of his wives their grandmothers. Mary Owhi (d. 1937), daughter of Chief Owhi (d. 1858) [Yakama], married Chief Moses, but had no children who lived into adulthood. Lucy recalled that when she was small, Mary Moses asked that Lucy come and live with her, and Nellie "turned [me] over to Mary Moses to be her companion" (Encyclopedia Britannica video). Mary, who was effectively Lucy's great-grandmother, became her primary caretaker and teacher. Through that relationship Lucy learned about her heritage and her history, and why the land and traditions were so important for their people.
Lucy later attended reservation schools in Nespelem before enrolling in the Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence, Kansas. She graduated from there in 1931 and returned home to Washington state, where she enrolled in classes at Kinman Business University in Spokane.
The Great Depression and War
As the Great Depression deepened, the federal government in 1933 created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and an Indian Division within it. Lucy was hired as a cook for an Indian CCC forestry camp on the Colville Reservation. While serving meals to the workers she met John Covington, a Colville tribal member of San Poil/Columbia heritage, working in the camp. They married three years later, in 1936.
In the early 1940s the Covingtons moved to Portland, Oregon, where they worked in the Kaiser Shipyards as welders. The Portland-area shipyards produced Liberty Ships, troop transports, and tank-landing ships, 455 vessels in all. Lucy Covington was used to hard work from her time harvesting foods in the ancestral tradition and from working in the CCC-Indian Division, and she was also used to seeing women in her community divide labor equally with men. As a result, she may not have been as surprised as other women shipyard workers to learn that they comprised 30 percent of the workforce and earned equal pay.
Once the U.S. entered the war, John Covington joined the newly established Navy Seabees, a battalion dedicated to construction of all kinds, from military bases to airstrips to roadways. Covington's experience operating heavy machinery in the CCC's Indian Division camp and welding in the shipyards made him a natural candidate for the Seabees, but when World War II ended he elected not to reenlist.
John and Lucy returned to Nespelem after the war and started a cattle ranch, which would be operated by the family into the 1980s. Lucy was happy to be back home, where her fondest childhood memories were of feeling safe and secure on her family's land. She noted that they used to say to themselves, "Aren't we happy? Aren't we glad? Aren't we proud we're Indian? God was good to us. He made us Indians" (Encyclopedia Britannica video).
The Threat of Termination
Lucy's brother George Friedlander was serving on the Colville Business Council in the 1950s when the federal Indian policy of termination was introduced. Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108, also called the termination bill, in 1953. The legislation provided the foundation for ending, or "terminating," federal recognition of tribes, a policy which had devastating cultural, political, and economic impacts on the tribes that were terminated (67 Stat. B132).
George Friedlander and other tribal members grew increasingly concerned as the business council and other independent groups on the Colville Reservation began to view termination as a desirable option. The Colville Confederated Tribes had land and natural-resource assets, but the income produced was uneven, as is common with extractive industries. The Colville Reservation consistently experienced seasonal periods of high unemployment, and the prospect of termination -- which included a calculation of assets and then an equal division of them among all tribal members -- appealed to many tribal members who were in difficult financial straits.
Friedlander recognized the inherent dangers inherent of the policy, and he felt that the tribe must hold on to its land at all costs. However, he was in poor health due to a heart condition, and his doctor suggested he step down from the business council. He asked Lucy to run for his council position to continue the fight. She initially resisted because operating the cattle ranch was labor intensive, but she relented when Friedlander offered to help John Covington with the ranch.
Lucy Leads the Fight
Lucy ran for George's council seat for the Nespelem district and was elected in 1954, a victory that initiated one of the most significant chapters of her life and of Colville tribal history. More than 10 years later, in 1965, she testified in a Congressional hearing on termination. She wanted to communicate to members of Congress the importance of the reservation land base and tribal members' commitments to the United States, saying, "During WW II, Nespelem was deserted. Many were quickly trained and held jobs, and after the war those same people found themselves unemployed and back on their homeland, where they feel at ease" (Arnold, 88). It was important for people to have a place to return to, for security, for restoration, for matters of heritage.
Lucy Covington emerged as one of the strongest and most consistent anti-terminationists on the business council, a stance which left her in the minority until she gathered enough momentum among Colville tribal members to organize a slate of anti-terminationist candidates for the 1968 election. Scholar Charles Wilkinson observed, "Covington's slate swept the 1968 Colville tribal election, and the vote, resounding throughout Indian country and on Capitol Hill, dealt a death blow to termination" (Wilkinson, 182).
Frequently during her years on the council, Covington spent her own money as she worked to end termination. Drawing upon the resources of the family ranch, selling a cow from time to time, as well as "precious bloodline horses descending from Chief Moses" (Colville Business Council Resolution 2015-719) to fund her trips to Washington, D.C., Covington gained the respect of members of Congress for her determination and her commitment to Colville lands and people. In 1969 the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians passed a resolution honoring Covington's work against termination, noting that "she fought an uphill battle against the incumbent terminationists. They had control of the tribal organization with its newspaper and means of communication. She had to work the roads, the streets, and the fields, searching out and talking to tribal members" (Fahey, 195).
In arguing against termination, Lucy Covington emphasized new government programs designed to educate tribes on economic planning and resource development, and she argued that it would be a shame to end federal supervision before utilizing these programs to the fullest extent. She also noted that the tribe had been making great strides toward higher education for tribal members, that it and the government had allocated more money for education, and that many tribal members embraced the opportunity to go to school. Covington considered it a waste if improvements that forecast a brighter future resulted in nothing.
Spreading the Word
In addition to traveling to Washington and working the fields, Covington also founded a newspaper, Our Heritage, as an alternative to the tribally owned and operated Tribal Tribune. She worked with the nascent American Indian Press Association after she heard its founder, Charles Trimble [Oglala Lakota], speak at the National Congress of American Indians meeting in 1970. Of Lucy, Trimble observed, "She wanted a newspaper that would tell what a tribe means to its people, and its true worth to them in terms of land, natural resources, and most of all their cultural heritage. She ... even described the logo she wanted for the masthead. It would be a pair of hands holding together the shape of the Colville Reservation. The logo would signify that the future of their reservation, indeed their nation, was in the hands of the people, not in the U.S. Government or the State of Washington, or anyone else" ("Unsung Heroes: Lucy Covington ...")
Lucy Covington sought to impress upon her fellow tribal members the importance of their land and their ancestry. "Termination is something no Indian should ever dream about ... It's giving up all your Indian heritage ... It's giving your eagle feather away" (Encyclopedia Britannica video). By 1971, she was elected a regional vice president for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), an organization that had joined the fight against Colville termination. This was particularly significant because the business council had withdrawn the tribe from membership in NCAI and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) because both organizations opposed termination. Covington's election by NCAI regional member tribes also reinforced Indian Country support for her and, even if the business council did not view it as such, support for the Colville Tribe as a whole.
Lucy Covington mentored several young Colville tribal members, including Mel Tonasket (b. 1940), guiding them to listen and learn in political settings, and always reminding them of their responsibilities to the tribe. Tonasket recalled how on their trips to Washington, D.C., it wasn't only members of Congress and their aides who respected Lucy. She was such a frequent flyer that one day she and Tonasket arrived at the Spokane International Airport a few minutes late for their flight. The pilots and airline crew were so used to seeing her that the pilots turned the plane around to pick up Lucy and Tonasket for their trip.
Winning the Termination Battle
The decisive 1968 anti-termination election was solidified in subsequent elections, and in 1971 an anti-termination majority won the business council. Before the end of the year, Lucy Covington would oversee the passage of a council resolution nullifying further consideration of termination. She had fought termination since the beginning, and she remained determined to protect the tribe from any further attempts after she left office. By this time, Congress had reversed its position on termination, focusing instead on self-determination through passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975.
Covington's legacy on the business council extended beyond termination to include economic development, land use and planning, education, and inter-tribal cooperation -- including restoration of the Colville Tribe's memberships in NCAI and ATNI. She served 22 years on the council, including one term as chair, the first woman to do so.
Although she had no plans to stop serving the tribe as an elected official, her health began to deteriorate in 1980 and she lost her reelection bid that year. She was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, hospitalized for a time, but returned to her ranch in Nespelem -- where she had been happiest as a child and where her family had observed that God had been good to them because he made them Indians -- before her passing on September 20, 1982. Her husband, John Covington, had predeceased her nearly 25 years earlier, in 1958. Lucy never remarried and the pair did not have children; instead, they cared for friends and family members as their own.
Remembering Lucy Covington
Lucy's niece Barb Aripa (b. 1932) noted that Lucy did not do her work only for her own family, but for everyone. "She had no children, and all these [Colville] people were her children. She loved them" ("Lucy Covington Legacy" video). Hundreds of mourners attended her services (both a Catholic service and an ancestral Seven Drum service), including tribal, state, and national officials, as well as people who knew they could depend on Grandma Lucy or Auntie Lucy when they needed help.
Covington's legacy pervades the Colville Reservation and the region. Colville business council member Mel Tonasket observed, "Without Lucy, we'd be done. She influenced a lot of other young leaders" (Camden). In 2015, by a unanimous vote, the business council named its new government center in her honor. The previous government center had been lost in a fire, and Lucy would have celebrated the opportunity to build in its place a new modern structure, designed to echo Columbia Plateau basketry. The center embodies values of the past -- home, community, serving Colville people -- while illustrating how far the Colville Tribe has come and how it works to define new directions for the future.
The Lucy Covington Center
In 2015, Eastern Washington University recognized Lucy Covington's impact with the posthumous award of an honorary doctorate of humane letters. As a tangible acknowledgement of her contributions, EWU opened the Lucy Covington Center to create a place of education for the next generation of Native American leaders, provide a community of scholars and tribal leaders, and serve as a gathering place for Native students, faculty, and communities. Jo Ann Kaufman, former EWU Board of Trustees chairperson observed, "Her work happened in such a humble way, and yet, when you walk around Eastern Washington ... you say 'here is the legacy of this woman'" (Caudell).
EWU noted that the initiative to create the Lucy Covington Center further demonstrates the university's commitment to Native American communities in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation. With the center, the university aims to enhance its practices to recruit, nurture, and retain Native American students, and to prepare Native American students for careers and for leadership. "The Lucy Covington Center will be instrumental in shaping the next generation of tribal leaders who will continue, in the spirit of Lucy Covington, to protect and enhance the welfare of their tribes" ("About Eastern Washington University").
Lucy Friedlander Covington was raised by two generations of parents, and her commitment to family, community, and homeland will inform generations of Native American students and leaders who can continue Lucy's work to preserve and protect tribal rights and tribal lives. She was proud to be Indian, and those who fulfill her legacy would make her proud, too.