The Lawyer from Indian Country

John Bushman ’75, J.D. ’80 dedicated his life to fighting for the rights and autonomy of fellow Native Americans across the U.S.

Northeast Montana is a rural stretch of arid prairie land. It’s a place where the vast flatness of the earth makes the big sky look even bigger and almost domed at the horizon, as if the few people who live there exist within a giant snow globe. John Bushman ’75, J.D. ’80, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who was born and raised here, called it Indian Country.

“He’d let us know it wasn’t a glamorous life there. It was a hard life,” says Dan Malane ’78 of his friend. Indian Country was a place Bushman fought all his life to protect as a Native Rights attorney and advocate until his death from lung cancer in 2019.

Bushman spent his childhood in Wolf Point, a former fur trading post that once hosted Lewis and Clark, situated along the Missouri River bordering what’s now the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. He contracted polio as a toddler, just a few years shy of the invention of the polio vaccine. He endured several surgeries and was left with limited use of one of his legs and needed a cane to walk. Bushman loved sports, particularly baseball and basketball, and trains—an obsession held over from childhood when the train passing through Wolf Point about once a week was the biggest event in town.

John Bushman
John Stephen Bushman, 11/13/1947–1/29/2019, is survived by his wife, Naomi Goldstein; children Daniel Bushman, Annika Huston, Donald Bushman, and Eleanor Bushman; and extended family. Photo provided by Naomi Goldstein.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a place more different than the concrete slabs of public housing in San Francisco, where Bushman’s family moved when he was a teen as part of the American Indian urban relocation effort. The U.S. government established such programs in the mid-20th century hoping to assimilate Native Americans by moving them from largely rural reservations to cities with promises of money, vocational assistance, and better employment opportunities. In reality, numerous groups lost tribal status and the government significantly decreased subsidies to those who remained on reservations.

Bushman, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not a fan of his foggy new hometown. “It was quite a shocking transition,” Bushman’s wife, Naomi Goldstein, says. “He hated it there so after high school, he headed back to Northeast Montana as fast as he could, but quickly realized there were few opportunities for him there.”

So back to California he went, and from there found his way to Santa Clara. Due to his polio-damaged leg, he had to get creative in how he explored the Mission Campus. “He described pedaling his bicycle around campus with one leg,” Goldstein says.

Malane, who came to Santa Clara on a basketball scholarship, says Bushman volunteered as an assistant manager for a season with the team which included the great Kurt Rambis ’80. “He refused to do some of the standard tasks of a manager, like picking up the balls after practice. He insisted we do it ourselves,” Malane recalls. “He had this nickname, ‘Johnny Too-Bad,’ because he’d tell people what they didn’t want to hear… he wasn’t a pushover, he knew how he felt about things.”

It’s a theme that runs through so many stories about who Bushman was: He didn’t suffer fools.

Sam Jones Other Article
The move to San Francisco wasn’t all bad for Bushman, a lifelong sports fan. During his first season with the San Francisco Giants, pitcher “Sad Sam Jones” would sometimes visit Bushman in the hospital while the 12-year-old underwent ongoing treatment for polio. More than a decade later, Bushman returned the favor by flying to West Virginia to visit Jones in the hospital. Newspaper clipping courtesy Naomi Goldstein.

Native Rights attorney Michael Pfeffer remembers meeting Bushman not long after the latter graduated law school and was working at the time for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in far Northern California. “I had just started working as the managing attorney of California Indian Legal Services in Eureka. We were often suing the BIA at the time but John came into our office one day and introduced himself, wanted to see if he could help us with anything. It was a shock,” Pfeffer says. “At the time, the BIA was notorious for being disrespectful of the Indians it proclaimed to protect.”

The two became fast friends after that, and often worked together on securing legal rights for Native communities, Pfeffer from California and Bushman from Washington, D.C.

When Bushman was serving as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in the 1990s, Congress took up massive welfare law reform. Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which replaced the Depression-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children, power was shifted from the federal government to the states, which uses funds to operate their own programs. Since Native Americans are among the poorest populations in the U.S., how states administered these programs was of critical importance to tribal families.

In a 1997 article in Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, Bushman wrote that when welfare reform was first introduced, he was concerned that it would further imperil Native Americans: “My first thought was that Indian families have been in crisis since 1492.”

But, he wondered, how would maintaining a cycle of dependency on a governmental power structure that had been antagonistic towards Native peoples benefit Indian Country? “Welfare reform,” he wrote, “provides an opportunity for tribal governments to reclaim and exercise sovereignty. Welfare reform provides an opportunity to break away from the status quo of dependency and paternalism. … Indian tribes have been seeking this autonomy for decades.”

That opportunity came with the establishment of Tribal TANF, Bushman’s crowning achievement. Through TTANF, tribes apply for funds independently and administer their own programs. Bushman was named the first director, and traveled to reservations around the country giving trainings. As of 2018, there are 74 approved Tribal TANF programs, which serve 284 federally recognized tribes.

Around this time, Bushman met his second wife, Naomi Goldstein, who now works in the Administration for Children & Families within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

John Bushman 1
The profile of John Bushman’s private Instagram account reads: “Native rights attorney who will forever fight to protect native people and our sovereign rights.” Photo courtesy Naomi Goldstein.

“We met through the Washington Post—this was before or OK Cupid—you could run a tiny classified ad, there’d be a code to call and you could hear the voice of a person,” she says. “John said his friends said he was honest and kind, and I thought that was a good thing. We fell for each other pretty fast.” They adopted two children, Donald and Eleanor, who joined a son, Daniel, and daughter, Annika, from Bushman’s first marriage.

“He was kind of fearless, he didn’t mince words, he was always thinking about the Native perspective,” Goldstein says. Not that he was resentful about the “hard life” he came from in Northeast Montana. “I think his memories were quite happy there,” she says, and they informed his life’s purpose. “He always knew he wanted to work for his Native people. That’s what drove him.”

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