Richard Nixon's influence on American Indian affairs

President Richard Nixon has been called the modern day "Abraham Lincoln" of Indian people. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Hartman

Modern American politics among various demographics can be traced along predictable lines when it comes to a two-party system, especially those of ethnic minorities. Although the civil rights movement enjoyed bipartisan support early on, it became split along regional lines with Southerners of both parties opposing it, resulting in the conservative Dixiecrats migrating to the Republican party. Today African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans are typically associated with the liberal agenda of the Democrats.

Historically, the conservative agenda of the Republican Party tended to be hostile to the needs of American Indians, especially during the mid-20th century, but ironically it was the Nixon administration that would bring much needed change to Indian country.

Crisis in the Wake of Termination

Decades of federal policy toward American Indians overwhelmingly favored assimilation, even when the government's prior efforts toward forced assimilation were declared a failure as a result of the Merriam Report in 1924. Despite policies designed to reverse some of the damage by fostering greater self-government and a measure of tribal independence in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the concept of improvement of the lives of Indians was still framed in terms of "progress" as American citizens, i.e. their ability to assimilate into the mainstream and evolve out of their existence as Indians. By 1953 a Republican-controlled Congress would adopt House Concurrent Resolution 108 which stated that "at the earliest possible time [Indians should be] freed from all federal supervision and control and from all disabilities and limitations specially applicable to Indians." Thus, the problem was framed in terms of Indians' political relationship to the United States, rather than a history of abuse stemming from broken treaties, perpetuating a relationship of domination.

Resolution 108 signaled the new policy of termination in which tribal governments and reservations were to be dismantled once and for all by giving greater jurisdiction over Indian affairs to some states (in direct contradiction of the Constitution) and the relocation program which sent Indians away from their home reservations to large cities for jobs.

During the termination years more Indian lands were lost to federal control and private ownership and many tribes lost their federal recognition, effectively eradicating the political existence and identities of thousands of individual Indians and over 100 tribes.

Activism, Uprising and the Nixon Administration

The ethnic nationalist movements among black and Chicano communities fueled the mobilization for American Indians' own activism and by 1969 the Alcatraz Island occupation was underway, grabbing the nation's attention and creating a highly visible platform upon which Indians could air their centuries-long grievances. On July 8, 1970 President Nixon formally repudiated the termination policy (which was established ironically during his tenure as vice president) with a special message to Congress advocating for American Indian "Self-determination. . . without the threat of eventual termination," assuring that "the Indian…[could] assume control over his own life without being separated involuntarily from the tribal group." The next five years would see some of the most bitter struggles in Indian country, testing the President's commitment to Indian rights.

In the latter part of 1972 the American Indian Movement (AIM) in conjunction with other American Indian rights groups convened the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan across country to deliver a twenty point list of demands to the federal government.

The caravan of several hundred Indian activists culminated in the week-long takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington DC. Just a few months later in early 1973, was the 71-day armed confrontation in Wounded Knee, South Dakota between American Indian activists and the FBI in response to an epidemic of uninvestigated murders and the terrorist tactics of a federally-supported tribal government on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The heightening tensions across Indian country could no longer be ignored, nor would the public stand for more armed interventions and Indian deaths at the hands of federal officials. Thanks to the momentum of the civil rights movement Indians had become "popular," or at least a force to be reckoned with and the Nixon administration seemed to grasp the wisdom of taking a pro-Indian stance.

Nixon's Influence on Indian Affairs

During Nixon's presidency a number of great strides were made in federal Indian policy, as documented by the Nixon-era Center Library at Mountain State University. Among some of the most significant of those achievements are:

  • The return of the sacred Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo in 1970.
  • The Menominee Restoration Act, restoring the recognition of the previously terminated tribe in 1973.
  • In the same year the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was increased by 214% to a total of $1.2 billion.
  • The establishment of the first special office on Indian Water Rights - A bill authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture to make direct and insured loans to Indian tribes though the Farmers Home Administration.
  • The passage of the Indian Financing Act of 1974, which supported tribal commercial development.
  • The filing of a landmark Supreme Court suit to protect Indian rights at Pyramid Lake.
  • Pledged that all available BIA funds be arranged to fit priorities set by tribal governments themselves.

In 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, perhaps the most significant piece of legislation for Native American rights since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Although Nixon had resigned the presidency before being able to sign it, he had laid the groundwork for its passage.

References

Hoff, Joan. Re-evaluating Richard Nixon: His Domestic Achievements. http://www.nixonera.com/library/domestic.asp

Wilkins, David E. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.