Cushing, OK

Grace Thorpe: The Wind Before the Storm

Debbie Walker

She blew as a steward of Native land rights and the environment.

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

From ancestral beliefs to modern advocacy, Oklahoma’s ties to our Native history are self-evident. We’ve shed tears on the trail of relocation and lost tribal territories to greedy land runs.

However, despite our tenuous connections to the land, Oklahoma has also produced great Native champions of the earth. Grace Thorpe is one of those people.

Every student of the early history of this state is aware of the Thorpe family name. Grace’s father was the legendary Jim Thorpe, a famed Olympian, and professional athlete. Grace also contributed to the family legacy in her work as an environmentalist.

But first, let’s get to know a little about Grace — herself. Grace was born in Yale, Oklahoma, in 1921 of Sac and Fox and Cherokee heritage.

She also bears the Native name, No Teno O Quah — the power of the wind before a storm or Wind Woman. Grace’s power blew as a steward of the rights of indigenous peoples to return and retain their Native lands and as an anti-nuclear activist.

Native Land Rights

I first heard of Grace Thorpe when I was ten years old during the occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1970. I remember the protest was broadcast continuously on the nightly news proclaiming land rights by the American Indian Movement (AIM).

However, the protest group called themselves, Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) proclaiming under the Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Lakota tribe that all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal land was to be returned to the Native Americans who occupied it.

Since Alcatraz penitentiary was closed in 1963, and the government declared the island as surplus federal property in 1964, a number of activists felt it qualified for reclamation by Native Americans.

The occupation garnered national support from Native Americans, reporters, photographers, newspapers, and celebrities. Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, and Grace Thorpe helped bring the protester’s demands to the forefront of American society. Grace physically occupied the island for three months and coordinated the press releases.

Life After Alcatraz

After the occupation of Alcatraz, Grace rode the wind to Washington, D.C. to work as a lobbyist on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians, working to further economic opportunities for Native families on reservations by prompting factories to locate on Native land.

Then in 1971, Grace co-founded the National Indian Women’s Action Corps, a group that focused on empowering Native women and strengthening indigenous family units. She told a journalist in March 1971, “We Indian women decided to start beating the drum for ourselves… We want all Indian women who want to be active to join us in finding solutions to our problems.

Grace interned for Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota in 1974 working and interacting on a Congressional level. During her time in Washington, she also served as a legislative assistant for the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

As a forceful wind that heralds a storm, Grace’s work in Congress helped impact legislative action on nuclear waste on tribal lands.

Nuclear-Free Activism

In 1992, Grace learned from a Daily Oklahoman article that the Sac and Fox tribe had accepted a federal grant to study the placement of radioactive waste on tribal land. The Department of Energy’s Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) program was offering $100,000 to study the possibility of temporarily storing used nuclear rods on tribal land before moving them to permanent storage on government land.

The Sac and Fox, as well as sixteen other Native American tribes, accepted the grant, believing that the money would help ease their high unemployment. To me, this is reminiscent of the broken treaties of the past.

Grace was hesitant about the agreement and researched nuclear waste and its footprint on the tribes and the earth. She also discovered most of the money would go to lawyers and consultants. Grace finally convinced the Sac and Fox tribe to withdraw from the nuclear waste program with 11 other tribes following suit.

Grace continued the fight to preserve the land from what she called environmental racism. In the fall of 1996, Grace wrote an article for the Natural Resources Journal outlining the history and effect of nuclear waste dumps. This article brought awareness of that issue and helped the tribes to create Nuclear-Free Zones.

Grace passed away in 2008. In response to her passing, the state of California recognized in an official document Grace Thorpe’s achievements and important contributions in environmental justice and awareness to the Native American communities. The proclamation stated, “These contributions will not be forgotten.”

We will not forget either, No Teno O Quah. Your wind has come to rest at your ancestral home, the land you also loved, Cushing, Oklahoma, the place of my birth.

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