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In Memorial of Dr. Rudolph C. Ryser

By December 1, 2023No Comments6 min read

IREHR is saddened to learn of the recent passing of Dr. Rudolph C. Ryser of the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS). We send our deep condolences to his family, friends, and those at CWIS who worked by his side.

Dr. Ryser worked for more than 50 years to advance the cause of genuine tribal sovereignty and self-determination. This included serving as a specialist on the U.S. government’s federal administration of Indian Affairs on the American Indian Policy Review Commission; leading the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington; serving as a Special Assistant to World Council of Indigenous Peoples President George Manuel; advising tribal leaders in the Pacific Northwest; and founding CWIS in 1979 with George Manuel.

Read CWIS’ Memoriam for Dr. Ryser here:

CWIS continued and expanded Dr. Ryser’s works. Over the years, CWIS has addressed myriad issues confronting indigenous societies around the globe. CWIS’s work ranges from supporting food sovereignty and traditional medicines, including examining the impact of climate change on these and other critical tribal resources, promoting clean energy policies informed by indigenous knowledge, and conceptualizing forms of governance and tribal strategies to attain political sovereignty.

For a look at CWIS’s substantial legacy and ongoing contributions, please visit their website and support their important work:

My own path crossed Dr. Ryser’s when he worked with civil rights groups and leaders to counter organized white supremacist activity, serving from 1987 to 1990 as chair of Puget Sound Task Force on Human Rights.

I met Dr. Ryser in 1991 when I became involved in tracking and attempting to counter the organized white supremacist movement. Dr. Ryser was involved with citizen hate crimes hearings in Seattle’s University District in a project that included the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR). The hearings focused on recent neo-Nazi skinhead activity in the area, and I was immediately taken with Dr. Ryser’s efforts to steer the discussion toward finding concrete ways to counter their activities.

Some years later, when I worked with the Coalition for Human Dignity in Portland, our organization began seeing the same characters we tracked – organized white supremacists and the Christian right – showing up at events targeting tribal sovereignty.

We quickly learned that the foundation for understanding this confluence had already been laid in Rudolph Ryser’s Anti-Indian Movement on the Tribal Frontier, the first detailed examination of the organized anti-Indian movement. Mr. Ryser tracked its emergence in the 1970s in opposition to efforts of tribal nations to govern their territory; examined the development of treaty rights as a key movement target; outlined the movement’s creation of national networks and peak organizations; and documented its ties to elected officials, the burgeoning property rights movement and organized white supremacists.

In the Prologue to a 1992 edition (I believe our first edition at CHD was 1994), Dr. Ryser thanked the Center for Democratic Renewal for “substantive contributions” to the report. At the time, IREHR founder Leonard Zeskind worked as the research director at the CDR.

Dr. Ryser’s work had a lasting effect on how I and others at IREHR understood our anti-democratic foes and the context in which they operated. Ryser’s seminal report laid the groundwork for understanding this movement and its place in the broader far right. It paved the road we aimed to traverse, leaving little more for us to do than update the direction he had set and continue to watch developments in this movement.

IREHR continued to track the anti-Indian movement and its place in the far right – seeing the kinds of organizations Dr. Ryser documented decline in centrality as they won key victories in the courts (especially in the area of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians on reservations) and lost important cases addressing treaty rights. And, we watch as key leaders of the organized anti-Indian movement continued to provide “expertise” to far rightists, from the John Birch Society, to northern California secessionists and property rights groups, to armed activists, when they encountered tribal issues.

Over the years, I have returned numerous times to the Anti-Indian Movement on the Tribal Frontier to check my facts, think through the nature of changes we saw, and refresh my understanding of this movement’s more profound connection to America’s settler colonial past and present.

In this latter arena, Dr. Ryser’s work perhaps had the most profound effect on my own thinking. As I grappled with how to understand organized anti-Indianism and the context in which it operates, I again found his insights key. From his work on the notoriously colonial U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brendale v. Yakama to his 2012 book Indigenous Nations and Modern States, Dr. Ryser’s work drove home for me that ongoing settler colonialism in American law and politics continues to shape the landscape in which tribes struggle for self-determination and the strategic terrain of anti-Indian racists.

And, given anti-Indianism’s deep roots in our country’s history of racism, Dr. Ryser’s work also made clear that supporting and allying with the indigenous struggle for genuine political sovereignty must be part and parcel of our own movement’s struggle for civil rights and economic and environmental justice in the U.S. and globally.

At the time of his death, the Center for World Indigenous Studies describes that Rudolph C. Ryser’s ongoing projects included a documentary project on the struggle for indigenous self-determination and working to establish protocols for accountability under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On his last trip to our region, we had planned to meet about the CWIS documentary project. Unfortunately, his arrival in Seattle coincided with a bout of COVID-19 in our household, and we could not meet before he left. I will always regret that.

As we move forward in our struggle for human rights and equality, including the equality of indigenous nations, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Dr. Rudolph C. Ryser is one of them.

Chuck Tanner

Author Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner is an Advisory Board member and researcher for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. He lives in Washington State where he researches and works to counter white nationalism and the anti-Indian and other far right social movements.

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