6 Things JFK Did—or Didn’t Do—for Natives Before His Death

How did John F. Kennedy's short presidency affect Native Americans?

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas more than 50 years ago. How did his short presidency—he was only in office from January 1961 until his death on November 22, 1963—affect American Indians?

He Sought the Native Vote

In a letter to Oliver LaFarge, president of the Association of American Indian Affairs, dated October 28, 1960, he outlined 10 ways he would help the Indian population if elected. Kennedy was a senator at the time and said his administration would not “write Indian reservations and their population off as not worthy of any help.”

Art Shay

Photojournalist Art Shay described John F. Kennedy as his favorite subject, he once told a reporter, “You can’t take a bad picture of that guy.”


He Spoke to Delegates from the American Indian Chicago Conference

On August 15, 1962, Kennedy spoke to delegates from some 90 tribes on the South Lawn at the White House. He told them: “I hope that this visit here, which is more than ceremonial, will be a reminder to all Americans of the number of Indians whose housing is inadequate, whose education is inadequate, whose employment is inadequate, whose health is inadequate, whose security and old age is inadequate—a very useful reminder that there is still a good deal of unfinished business.”

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

President John F. Kennedy greets a group of delegates to the American Indian Chicago Conference, August 15, 1962. White House, West Wing Lawn.

He Knew Natives Were Misunderstood

Kennedy wrote the introduction for the The American Heritage Book of Indians (American Heritage Publishing, 1961). In it he said: “For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all.”

He Started Public Housing on Reservations

In an effort to provide “for the housing needs of all segments of our population” a loan of $30,000 was made to the Oglala Sioux in September 1961 from the Public Housing Administration to build 150 low-rent homes on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “I am disappointed and surprised that the public housing program was not adapted to the housing needs of Indian communities… until the Kennedy Administration took office,” said PHA Commissioner Marie McGuire in a press release. “Many reservation Indians are living under appalling conditions of utter privation.”

Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

President John F. Kennedy announces the first public housing planning grant for an Indian reservation in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C. Kennedy congratulates the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Oglala Sioux Housing Authority. Pictured, from left, are Deputy Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency Jack T. Conway; President Kennedy; Public Housing Commissioner Marie McGuire; Chief Johnson Holy Rock of the Oglala Sioux Tribe; Attorney for the Oglala Sioux Tribe Richard Schifter; Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs for the Housing and Home Finance Agency Fred Forbes.


He Didn’t Stop the Kinzua Dam

Construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania began in 1960 and flooded 10,000 acres of Seneca Nation land. The flooding forced 600 Seneca to relocate to Salamanca, New York. The American Civil Liberties Union urged Kennedy to halt construction, but Kennedy refused, citing the need for flood control. According to The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation Through Two Generations (University of Nebraska Press, 1998) by Joy A. Bilharz, “the president punted responsibility for an increasingly unpopular action to the court. As several leading Seneca politicians pointed out, the Supreme Court merely said the damn could be built, not that it had to be. This fine but important distinction was ignored by both Eisenhower and Kennedy. Kennedy, did, however indicate concern for the Seneca Nation by instructing the Army Corps to explore the recreational potential the dam might provide the Senecas, to seek out additional land for the Nation, and to provide for special damages and assistance to relocatees.”

Read a letter the president sent to Basil Williams, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians at the time, here.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library

The Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1960 and 1965. The dam provides flood control on the Allegheny and Ohio rivers, and hydroelectric power production. The dam impounds the Allegheny Reservoir, also known as Kinzua Lake. It also misplaced 600 Senecas when built and flooded 10,000 acres of Seneca land.

He Worked Toward Tribal Self-Determination

Kennedy served as president at the beginning of the Tribal Self-Determination Era. As Thomas Clarkin put it in his book Federal Indian Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1961-1969 (University of New Mexico Press, 2001): “The 1960s were a decade of transition, of moving toward Indian self-determination. To demand significant achievements in the early years of any policy era would be unrealistic.” Those beginnings led to the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, giving tribes more administrative responsibility for federally funded programs.

This story was originally published on November 22, 2013.