As of 1969, Congress had passed 5,000 laws for Indians. The effects of the laws had been to reduce the role of Indian tribal leaders and enhance the power of federal officials to regulate Indian people and their lives. The Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 set the stage for the development of positive Indian programs. We were against the “ations”—relocation and termination.
Alcatraz led to the most enlightened Indian policy of the last 100 years. President Richard Nixon said in July 1970 that Indians should have no more termination and should have self-rule.
Ada Deer’s contributions to changing Indian policy may have been the most important of all the visionaries. She quit her job teaching and spent the next four years doing everything she could to persuade Congress to reverse the termination of her tribe, the Menominee. She slept on people’s couches. She bummed airline tickets to Indian meetings all over the country. She literally lived on charity for several years. But she was determined to end termination for her tribe, and she succeeded.
Their termination had robbed them blind. They did not have control over their own lands and timber holdings, which the legislation from Congress had entrusted to some white bankers and business people in the local border towns. These people acted more like robber barons than they did trustees. Ada succeeded in getting legislation through Congress that restored the tribe’s federal status. Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act in 1973. It probably would not have passed without the Alcatraz occupation.
Ada served the first term as chairman of the restored tribe, and got their new constitution written, adopted, and approved. Then she went back to university teaching, only leaving to serve as President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997. She was a member of the steering committee for First Americans for Mondale in 1983-84, which I had initiated and chaired.
Among the many members of Congress who pushed positive Indian programs in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were Rep. Sydney Yates, Rep. Dale Kildee, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Sen. Teddy Kennedy, and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Cheyenne). Ben was the only Indian in Congress during his six years in the House and his 12 years in the Senate. Among the new laws and programs that Congress has passed and the President has signed since 1970 are:
The Administration for Native Americans (ANA) was the old Office of Economic Opportunity Indian Desk. In 1974 the Congress passed the Native American Programs Act that authorized a much-expanded role for the program. Its prior role had been job training and employment. Its role now is promoting self-sufficiency and cultural preservation. In recent years it has added a program to preserve Native languages and another one to deal with environmental concerns.
The Indian Health Service saw its budget more than doubled under Nixon between 1970 and 1975. The problem was that its budget had been below anemic. Its budget for FY 1970 was less than $107 million. The budget for FY 1975 was $235 million. The budget for FY 1976 was $4 billion.
The Health Care Improvement Act(P. L. 94-437) of 1976 aimed at improving urban Indian health and involving Indian people in the process. It includes a program of scholarships to Indians to study medicine, dentistry, psychiatry, nursing, and pharmacy. This program has funded over 8,000 Indian students in critical health care fields.
The Indian Health Service, which operates 180 Indian hospitals and clinics, still has a 35 percent vacancy rate for its professional positions. The life expectancy of Indians has improved in the past 50 years from about 45 to over 60, but it is still well below the national life expectancy rate of 75.
Urban Indians suffered the worst. Few Indians could afford to drive from San Francisco to Pine Ridge for an infected tooth or an eye infection. So they suffered. Belva Cottier, the First Lady of Alcatraz, led the fight during the 1970s to establish urban Indian health clinics, with San Francisco being one of the first. The leaders of the urban Indian health movement first had to get a bill through Congress to fund the program, which was new. The feds now report that 150,000 Indians use the 34 urban Indian health clinics and that their health had deteriorated before they had health care available.
The Indian Education Act was passed by Congress in 1972. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy launched a national study of Indian education in 1968. His brother Teddy introduced a bill in 1969 to improve Indian education; after three years, the bill was finally passed in 1972. It now provides funding to some 1,100 school districts for supplemental funding for Indian education.
Despite the supplemental help, Indian education is still the worst in the nation, with a 50 percent high school dropout rate, test scores that are almost always below the 20th percentile, and the lowest rate of college attendance in the nation (only 17 percent, compared to 67 percent for the nation).
The Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975 (P. L. 93-638) began the process of bringing self-governance back to Indian country. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington sponsored this legislation. Prior to 638, tribes had little power and authority. Scoop sponsored one of the first termination bills in the 1940s, but by 1972 had reversed himself and became an advocate for self-determination. He needed Indian help when he ran for President in 1976.
Before 638, it was the BIA that determined where Indian children went to school, what leases on Indian land, timber, water, and minerals were contracted, how the payments to individual Indians of welfare and other monies were made, and other important matters. The BIA ran things on the reservations, and the tribes just watched. After 638, tribes could contract to operate these services themselves. Everything from tribal government to tribal courts, jails, tribal enrollment, education, social services, and other functions could be included in a 638 contract.
Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), P. L. 95-341, in 1978. After outlawing Indian religions for a century, and punishing Indians who practiced their religions, the federal government stopped suppressing and prosecuting Indian people for practicing their religion. Among the specific things the government had outlawed were the Sun Dance, the Bear Dance, potlatches, give-aways, the use of peyote in religious ceremonies, the use of sweat lodges, the use of sacred sites, and the use of eagle feathers in Indian religious ceremonies.
The BIA created the Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) in 1978 in response to requests from tribes for reversal of the termination of their treaties, and in response to tribes seeking federal recognition for the first time. Without Congressional authorization, the BIA laid out the criteria for tribal recognition, and had it published in the Congressional Record, making the process official if not legal. One way to look at their actions is to view them as an attempt to stop terminated tribes from reversing their termination and to stop tribes that had never been recognized from gaining recognition.
In the next 20 years a total of 191 tribes and groups that claimed to be tribes applied for federal recognition. The BAR has never had Congressional authorization or approval, but it has assumed the power of life or death over recognizing Indian tribes. It laid out seven criteria that tribes had to meet to be federally recognized, even if they had been terminated.
Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community College Act (TCCA) in 1978. It authorized the operation of community colleges on Indian reservations. The first tribally controlled college had been established at Navajo in 1968. Originally called Navajo Community College, it changed its name to Diné College two decades ago. Within a decade there were a handful of tribal colleges, and today there are 38 of them. They have made important contributions to Indian country, including an employment rate of graduates that ranges between 85 and 90 percent, compared to only 55 percent employment in Indian country overall.
Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) (P. L. 95-608) in 1978 in response to a book edited by Steven Unger called The Destruction of American Indian Families. He documented that 25 to 35 percent of Indian children were taken away from Indian parents by non-Indians. They went to adopted homes, foster homes, and childcare institutions. This process started with the reservation system right after the Civil War, when the intention of the BIA and the missionaries was to destroy Indian tribes, Indian languages, and Indian cultures.
More about this topic next month. There are many more important things that have happened.
Dr. Dean Chavers (Lumbee) is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Indian students. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.
This story was originally published July 24, 2016.