A bright spot in the Nixon years: Return of Blue Lake

While the nation's press celebrates the 30th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate office building and the beginning of the political scandal that ended the presidency of Richard Nixon, the following excerpt by former White House Counsel Leonard Garment describes a much more positive side of the Nixon Administration, the development of an Indian policy based on self-determination. The passage comes from Garment's autobiography "Crazy Rhythm" (Da Capo Press, 2001). The narrative picks up after the end of the occupation of Alcatraz in 1971:

Paradoxically, although the protest failed to achieve its goals, it proved the catalyst for a historic change in American Indian life. The public sympathies generated by the drama made it possible for the White House to set in motion a sweeping set of proposals to improve the prospects of American Indians. In early 1970, the Nixon White House put together a legislative plan aimed at enabling Native Americans to reestablish functional, self-governing communities. We had John Ehrlichman's invaluable backing. Most important, we had Nixon himself, who credited his high school football coach, a full-blooded Cherokee named Wallace "Chief" Newman, with giving him his basic life training in how to confront adversity and survive loss. Aside from gratitude, Nixon felt an empathy for Indians, America's home-grown victims, losers, and survivors. I sensed from the start that he would support us.

I asked a few White House staffers interested in Indian affairs, Brad Patterson, Bob Robertson, C.D. Ward, the assistant to the vice president, and a White House fellow, Bobbie Kilberg, who was working for Ehrlichman, to dig around in the departments and agencies, particularly the Bureau of Indian Affairs and H.E.W., and assemble what they could in the way of concrete proposals. I thought these could be discussed with national Indian leaders and lead to a presidential Message to Congress on Indian affairs.

I told my collaborators that for a moment we had a rare combination of political circumstances: a sympathetic atmosphere, an absence of internal competition, and an unobstructed policy shot. We had to move quickly before this extraordinary alignment of forces ended. The staffers produced their individual pieces with wartime speed, and Nixon's speechwriter, Lee Huebner, assembled them in a draft message with almost exactly the right tone.

I was fiddling unproductively with Lee's draft one evening when Pat Moynihan came by to take me to dinner. I handed him a copy and he read it, looking like a cartoon of himself, gray hair in orderly disarray, half-glasses perched at the end of his nose, lips pursed in a schoolteacher's anticipatory disapproval. I was no longer surprised by his bottomless bag of political knowledge, so as he commented, I simply scribbled his suggestions in the margins of my copy.

When he finished reading, he said, "All it really needs is a stronger opening. May I borrow your typewriter?" Five minutes later the text was ready, and Nixon's July 8, 1970 Message to Congress on Indian affairs began with Pat's untouched words:

The first Americans, the Indians, are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation. On virtually every scale of measurement employment, income, education, health, the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.

This condition is the heritage of centuries of injustice ?

Even the federal programs which are intended to meet their needs have frequently proven to be ineffective and demeaning.

The message went on to endorse expanded self-determination, economic aid, and the creation of an Independent Indian Trust Counsel Authority to take over legal representation of the Indians from agencies whose interests often conflicted with those of their so-called clients. Finally, in a symbolically crucial concession, the message supported restoration to the Taos Pueblo tribe of Blue Lake and the 44,000 surrounding acres of sacred lands.

The part of Nixon's Indian Message that Congress enacted most quickly was the return of the Blue Lake and its surrounding forests and mountains. They had been a religious shrine for centuries before the Europeans' arrival; but nature-loving, Indian-hating Theodore Roosevelt had incorporated the lands in a national forest preserve in 1906. Indians of all tribes viewed this as one of the most egregious acts of federal imperialism, so Nixon's support for the Blue Lake restoration was a particular triumph for them. In July 1970, they held a ceremony of gratitude at the lake.

My prize for helping gain Nixon's support was an all-expenses-paid trip to Santa Fe in a small Air Force jet and, three hours later, a swell horseback ride to Blue Lake. The procession of horses, led by an Indian on horseback and shepherded by other Indians on foot, moved carefully up the long, narrow, muddy mountain trail in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe. I was wrapped in a yellow poncho, which provided scant protection against the chilly, wind-driven rain that had been coming down in sheets since our arrival. On one side of the trail soared a majestic forest. The other side fell away abruptly into a deep ravine. Every so often my horse slipped on a patch of wet rocks, which would spin off into space. How in God's name had I gotten involved in this? Me, of all people, a middle-aged, nature-hating New Yorker, a two-pack-a-day smoker who dreaded heights, scrupulously avoided physical danger, and had been thrown by the last horse he rode, a mangy hand-held pony in a Coney Island amusement park in 1932?

Finally we arrived at the lake. Strong hands helped me off the horse and laid me on the ground. I was given food, drink, and time to recover. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and the lakeside religious ceremonies that then took place made up for the morning's miseries. The high mountain air was crisp and bright. Indian chants sounded over the Blue Crater Lake, which in the sunshine reflected the forest, sky, and white puffs of cloud like a giant mirror. As the prayers ended, a twinkling of trout rose everywhere to feed, dimpling the lake's surface. They seemed, at that moment, to be joining in the festivities.

(Reprinted with permission of the author.)

Leonard Garment, acting counsel to President Nixon in 1973, is now of counsel to the Washington, D.C., law and lobbying firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand. He is also author of "In Search of Deep Throat: The Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time" (Basic Books, 2000)