“From the time of their first contact with European settlers, the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny,” President Nixon wrote to Congress on July 8, 1970. “Even the Federal programs which are intended to meet their needs have proven to be ineffective and demeaning.”
He then articulated a new vision that would allow the tribes to govern themselves, while assuring them that the government would protect their property rights and natural resources, and provide them – like it would to any state, city, or community – Federal assistance for education, health care, and economic opportunity.
This vision was the subject of a Nixon Legacy Forum at the University of Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum on May 23, 2012.
The President’s words represented a clear break from two centuries of Federal policies that oscillated from broken treaties, isolation, and the appropriation of lands, to forced assimilation, and the aggressive termination of the U.S. government’s solemn obligation as a trustee to the nation’s tribes.
Revived during the Truman administration, the policy of termination was essentially what President Theodore Roosevelt exuberantly called “ a mighty engine pulverizing the tribal mass.”
“The idea was to break up the Indian reservations, and allot the lands and transform the Indians from hunters to farmers,” explained Reid Peyton Chambers, the forum’s moderator and former Solicitor at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “The reservation could be opened up for homesteaders…and within a generation basically, the Indians would simply be assimilated and the Indian tribes and reservations would disappear.”
For President Nixon, the policy of termination was wrong because it meant the United States would not honor its commitment to recognize tribal authority and property rights, even after Native Americans had surrendered vast amounts of land to the Federal government.
The first panel, featuring Nixon administration officials, focused on how RN brought liberty and self-determination to Native Americans.
As a consequence, its very prospect disoriented and impeded the progress of the “first Americans” who at the time ranked at the bottom of every social scale of measurement.
“The fear of one extreme policy, forced termination, has often worked to produce the opposite extreme: excessive dependence on the Federal government,” RN continued. “In many cases this dependence is so great that the Indian community is almost entirely run by outsiders who are responsible and responsive to Federal officials in Washington, D.C., rather than to the communities they are supposed to be serving”
Bobbie Kilberg, who served as a White House Fellow under President Nixon and later as Staff Assistant on the Domestic Council, noted that the President’s passion to right the injustice was rooted in his youth.
Wallace “Chief” Newman, RN’s football coach at Whittier College, was a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, and very influential in young Nixon’s life.
“I think I admired him more and learned more from him than any man I have ever known aside from my father,” RN would later write in his memoirs. “He drilled into me a competitive spirit and the determination to come back after you have been knocked down or after you lose. He also gave me an acute understanding that what really matters is not a man’s background, his color, his race, or his religion, but only his character.”
“He [Coach Newman] was discriminated against in those days when Native Americans and other minorities were simply not selected as coaches for major football programs nor selected for major honors as players,” Kilberg said. “The President believed – as he once told me – that coach Newman would have been a consensus all-American if it had been a different time and that he would have been a coach at a Big Ten school rather than Whittier.”
The capstone of the July 8 message was the return of Blue Lake and the surrounding sacred lands to the Taos Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, whose more than 40,000 acres were seized by the Roosevelt administration in 1906.
And its occasion proved as powerful as some of the statements it made, explained LaDonna Harris, Director of Americans For Indian Opportunity and an early leader in the movement for self-determination.
On the same day at the White House, the President met with the tribal council of the Taos people.
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