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The First Native American President

“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.

Their presence - and the media coverage it attracted- gave the greater Indian initiative momentum against even its fiercest opposition, including Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, a proponent of rancher’s rights who threatened to thwart the President’s efforts to forge an anti-ballistic treaty with the Soviet Union.

In 1971, the Nixon administration was able to garner bi-partisan support for the Alaska Claims Settlement Act, which not only abated the installment of an oil pipeline through aboriginal land, but also returned 40 million acres and paid out $1 billion in claims.

In 1974, Congress passed the Indian Finance Act, which allocated money and resources for economic development and small businesses.

Ultimately in 1975, the framework for today’s policy was established with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The United States would never again attempt to assimilate the Native population or terminate its trustee obligation.

“Most Presidents have issued Indian messages or executive orders after Nixon: both Bushes, President Reagan, President Clinton, President Obama, essentially embracing and carrying forward this policy,” said Chambers, whose Washington D.C. law firm specializes in Native American issues.

But, these changes didn’t come without challenges.

The second panel featured current policy makers and contemporary experts on Native American issues, evaluating the long term impact of the 37th President's policies.

Native oriented militant groups provided their share of the era’s civil unrest. White House Executive Assistant Brad Patterson explained how in November 1969, the Indians of All Tribes (AIT) occupied Alcatraz Island for nearly 20 months, while the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in October 1972, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Wounded Knee, South Dakota in February 1973.

In all instances, Patterson explained, the administration practiced restraint, and with the exception of two deaths and one injury at Wounded Knee, all ended peacefully.

Perhaps the strongest legacy is the empowerment of Native Americans throughout government and the judicial process.

Tribal leaders were given the authority to administer Federal programs, and Native Americans were appointed to high-level positions in the Department of the Interior for the first time in history.

The Nixon White House also urged the Justice Department to adopt the policies outlined in the President’s message; Native Americans can now protect their property and resources along side a powerful litigating partner in the U.S. Court system.

“The reason why the United States wins 95 percent of the cases it enters in litigation is because it speaks with dignity, authority, and the integrity of the legal process behind it,” said Wally Johnson, Assistant Attorney General for Land and Natural Resources in Nixon’s second administration.

“The ship of state turned, and essentially their voice, became the voice of the United States.”

Jonathan Movroydis is the Director of Communications at the Richard Nixon Foundation.