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Indian Country Deserves a Better Hero Than Richard Nixon

Bizarrely, Nixon was the closest thing to a White House champion America's indigenous populations have ever gotten.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You only need one hand to count the number of American presidents who could be considered vaguely positive, progressive partners for Indian Country.

Most of those lauded for defining the upper limits of America’s potential reserved their worst tendencies for the Indigenous population. Abraham Lincoln openly threatened Native nations and their citizens with violence on a regular basis. Theodore Roosevelt ratcheted up the implementation of Manifest Destiny with his support of the Dawes Act and public lands campaigns. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Indian Reorganization Act forced indigenous nations to adopt a governmental model structured to mirror America’s, moving them even further away from their traditional systems.

Even in the twenty-first century, as the reality of centuries of Native invisibility in mainstream media and popular culture is starting to be recognized, the offerings from the White House have consistently under-impressed. George W. Bush couldn’t even answer the most basic question about tribal sovereignty:

Obama, for all his hopeful progressive rhetoric and in-person visits to Native communities, still left much to be desired. In addition to backing pipeline projects which cut through tribal lands, Obama burned through most of his political capital on healthcare and the financial crisis, and never pressed Congress to deliver the necessary money for Indian Country programs that pre-existing federal treaties legally demand.

Since the creation of the office, the United States presidency has been occupied by men who have refused to hold the government they preside over accountable for the legal agreements their colonizing predecessors signed with Native nations. Surprisingly, there was one chief executive who managed to leave a relatively positive legacy in this regard. His name was Richard Milhous Nixon.

On January 20, 1969, bundled up and standing atop a podium in Washington, D.C., Richard Nixon placed his hand on a weathered Bible and swore his oath of office. At the time that Nixon took office, the United States’ position toward Indian Country embodied the infamous words of Carlisle School founder Richard Pratt: “Kill the Indian in him, save the man.”

At government-backed boarding schools like Carlisle, white religious teachers attempted to strip Native children of any remaining traces of their traditional economic or cultural practices. Starting with the Dawes Act of 1887 and continuing through the early twentieth century, the government sought to break up and steal tribal lands by privatizing them. Even when tribal nations retained these lands, the American legal system managed to bake in measures to obtain the resources it desired.

In 1906, for example, President Teddy Roosevelt stole (or appropriated, if you go by Congress’s language in declaring the land “public domain”) the Blue Lake from the Taos Pueblo, located in what is now northern New Mexico. Roosevelt designated the land part of the federal Forest Service, turning the tribe’s main water source and sacred site—Taos Pueblo belief holds that Blue Lake is the source of life and maintains the souls of those passed—into a national park.

With tribal nationhood already under siege, the arrival of House Resolution 108 in 1953 landed as a death blow. The legislation sought to make the entire Native population “subject to the same laws” as “other United States citizens.” To accomplish this, the House tasked the Secretary of the Interior with reexamining all existing Indian Country-related laws and treaties. Two weeks later, Public Law 280 sought to further bolster the aims of Resolution 108, shifting the jurisdiction to prosecute laws on tribal nation land from federal authorities to those run by states. More importantly, it abolished the ability of Native nation-backed law enforcement to prosecute crimes on their own land.

The idea undergirding all of these measures, from the Dawes Act to P.L. 280, was simple: The U.S., tired of being constrained by the legal agreements it signed with these tribal nations, wanted to assimilate Native peoples into Anglo-American culture and, in doing so, erase their status as citizens of separate, sovereign governments. In order to accomplish that, they had to deconstruct the legal instruments that had been put in place to preserve what is known as self determination—the ability of tribal governments to set their own laws, police their own citizens, and develop economic projects to build a sustainable presence.

From 1953 to 1969, in a period now known as the Termination Era during which over 100 tribes were stripped of their federal recognition statuses, the United States sought to rid itself of the Indian.

Two otherwise diametrically opposed political groups tend to be more scrupulous when it comes to fulfilling treaty agreements with Native nations: liberal progressives, anxious to avoid racist governance, and constitutional conservatives, who espouse a strict interpretation of the 1789 Constitution, which includes the declaration that, “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Nixon, seeing how his Democratic predecessors Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy had limply opposed the Termination Era policies, was determined to take action. Eight months into his tenure, Nixon made what was at the time a historic move. Louis Bruce, a citizen of the Mohawk Nation and a Republican, had long been a proponent of tribal sovereignty and a federal policy of self-determination. In August 1969, Nixon named Bruce the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, making Bruce just the third indigenous person ever to be appointed to lead the BIA since the office was created in 1824.

Nixon underscored his commitment to upholding the nation’s treaty responsibilities when he stood in front of Congress and delivered a “special message on Indian affairs” on July 8, 1970. In that speech, he admonished the two chambers’ actions during the Termination Era. “We must assure the Indian that he can assume control of his own life without being separated involuntary from the tribal group,” Nixon said. “And we must make it clear that Indians can become independent of federal control without being cut off from federal concern and federal support.”

Nixon followed the speech with a flurry of efforts to reshape and refocus the federal government’s Indian Country policies, using both his executive power and his influence in Congress. Reversing Roosevelt’s decision to steal Blue Lake, Nixon returned the land to the Taos Pueblo in 1970. He more than doubled the budget of the BIA—the first and only time that has happened in U.S. history. Nixon established the special office on Indian Water Rights and signed the Indian Healthcare Act. Striking back at the Termination Era, he championed and signed the Menominee Restoration Act, which restored the Menominee Tribe’s federal recognition.

Nixon not only spoke about the need for tribal nations to determine their own future, but repeatedly went out of his way to ensure that Congress would deliver these rights back to the sovereign nations. Even with Nixon now disgraced and carved into history as first a huckster and then a virulent racist, his legacy on indigenous rights, then and now, stands above all other presidents. Peter McDonald, the only four-term chairman in Navajo Nation history, deemed Nixon “the Abraham Lincoln of the Indian people.”

The majority of modern Americans won’t learn about this side of Nixon from their high-school history classes. Due to his unhealthy obsession with maintaining power by any means necessary, Nixon was not in office when his most important project—the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act—was signed into law in 1975. Instead, the act was credited to Gerald Ford.

Two important lessons are worth highlighting from this period in American history.

The first is that Nixon did not suddenly decide to help Indian Country. That desire started where it always does: in Native communities, with Native people. The list of grassroots champions behind Nixon’s efforts of self-determination is a long one. Founded by numerous tribal leaders, governments, and federal employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians was created in 1944. Throughout the Termination Era, NCAI offered legal assistance to tribes combatting the federal government and loudly opposed H.R. 280, holding a press conference attended by hordes of international media members.

On an individual level, hundreds of tribes sent leaders to Washington to protest and convince Congress that what they were doing was wrong. Paul Bernal of the Taos Pueblo had been pushing for the return of Blue Lake throughout the early 1960s before speaking in front of Congress in 1969. A year later, Nixon returned the land. Also in 1969, Vine Deloria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux published Custer Died for Your Sins, detailing the media’s chronic inattention to Native people. Later that year, ten months after Nixon let his inaugural words slip into in the frigid D.C. air, Lanada War Jack and 88 other Native American activists in the San Francisco area hopped on a boat and initiated what would become the 17-months long Occupation of Alcatraz.

The Alcatraz crew, calling themselves the Indians Of All Tribes, called on the American government to honor the treaties it signed with the Native nations and reorganize the BIA to be more than a thin funnel through which tribes had to squeeze to obtain funding. When Nixon ignored that portion of their demand, the American Indian Movement started the Trail of Broken Treaties, a protest that ended with the occupation of BIA headquarters in D.C. and the resignation of Commissioner Bruce. In 1973, AIM, still upset with the lack of action on self determination, took a building at Wounded Knee; two years later, Ford signed the Self Determination Act.

From Standing Rock to Chaco Canyon, from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis to Elouise Cobell’s fight to compensate Native communities for the oil and gas and coal money made off their stolen land, every single Native issue that has broken through to the public eye and been championed by a federal politician has started with a Native person standing up for their community.

The second lesson should be obvious: The fact that the bar for proper public service toward Indian Country is set by Richard Nixon is abominable. Nixon’s truncated time in office should have been the start of a new American effort to fund treaty-secured programs. Instead, he has been followed by a string of chief executives comfortable with allowing him to be the exception. The past four decades have featured a string of ambivalent, and now openly antagonistic, commanders-in-chief.

With multiple Democratic 2020 candidates touting plans to help Indian Country and honor treaties, there is hope. But America’s indigenous populations have had 243 years of hope. They need action—of the kind that Nixon wasn’t afraid to champion. Until that arrives, Tricky Dick will remain the best presidential friend Indian Country has ever had.