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Assessing the Presidents - Richard M. Nixon

(Over the ensuing months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, Indian Country Today will examine the Presidency and the presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush in terms of their Indian-specific decisions and the influence they exerted on behalf of, or in opposition to, Indian and tribal interests.)

WASHINGTON - Watergate, the resignation, secret bombings and the evacuation of Saigon in all of its peace-with-dishonor imagery of desperate Vietnamese dangling from the landing skids of U.S. helicopters at liftoff ? these are abiding albatrosses around the reputation of President Richard M. Nixon. They will not be easily shaken.

But they find several counterweights in one of America's most storied political careers. Today, as corporate America and a less formal phalanx of entrepreneurs anticipates the pent-up consumer demand of Chinese in their billions, Nixon's forging of diplomatic relations with Communist China stands out as a plateau of accomplishment. Likewise, but with much less magnitude on the visibility horizon, for the Nixonian policy of d?tente with the former Soviet Union, increasingly seen as a masterly middle passage between the planet-imperiling early Cold War and its delicate endgame in the 1980s.

But these global triumphs have always been a bit pale in American popular memory, especially by comparison with the domestic torments that beset the Nixon administration.

In one domestic arena of his presidency, however, Nixon's accomplishments may well rate the word imperishable. They are likely to grow in stature as long as the first citizens carry their cultures forward. They will not be forgotten for as long as tribes maintain their own governments within the framework of federal law.

Like it or not, Nixon was indispensable to contemporary tribal self-determination. And that isn't stating it half strongly enough. Only the light regard given Indians in American studies has permitted the eclipse of his monumental contribution to this high tide in modern tribal history.

Of course, Nixon didn't originate tribal self-determination. That came from Indians themselves, thousands of Indians who pressed the campaign for it throughout the 1960s and after. The American Indian Movement forced the issue into national prominence with their occupation of BIA Washington headquarters in 1970, and the case can of course be made that in the turmoil of those years, a president under siege went along with tribal self-determination grudgingly, as a gambit against worse developments on the domestic front.

But the historical record bears out a different interpretation, one that would derive Nixon's commitment to tribal self-determination from his Republican taste for local self-reliance and from his character itself, molded by modest beginnings, great dreams and the vestigial sympathies of a political outsider in high office.

No one who has experienced Nixon on the subject of trains sounding across the nighttime landscapes of his youth is apt to doubt his conviction on the subject of opportunity for all, perhaps most of all for the underdog. His Quaker upbringing may explain how that conviction came to encompass Indians so thoroughly on their own terms. But then again, such are the mysteries of character that we may never know.

The certainty is that Nixon could have responded to Indians in another way in the volatile political climate of the late 1960s. He could have treated them to the "benign neglect" infamously recommended for African Americans of the time.

Instead, Nixon "got it" when it came to Indians. He appreciated early on that the dominant theme in Native American affairs was tribal, as distinct from civil, rights. Here was something the federal government could do something about under-enlightened leadership. The Nixon administration, relying on the copious collaboration of tribes and Indian advisors, provided it in abundance. Not only did Nixon's "Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs" of July 8, 1970, launch the federal policy of tribal self-determination with a momentum lasting at least 30 years. It also recognized an end to termination as overt federal policy.

In addition, Nixon surrounded self-determination with practical economic measures and a symbolic spiritual emphasis. The economic measures came out of the Indian Finance Act and the Office of Economic Opportunity, which began to greatly increase the funding for Indian projects, from economic development to alcoholism and recovery, beginning in 1969 under Nixon. The symbolic spiritual emphasis came in the return of Blue Lake and its lands to Taos Pueblo.

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Speaking in December 1970, Nixon clearly meant to consolidate the gains envisioned in the special message to Congress, delivered only five months earlier. The Taos-Blue Lake bill, he said, "could be interpreted particularly in the Christmas season as one where a gift was being made by the United States to the Indian population of the United States.

"That is not the case.

"This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. And now, after all those years, the Congress of the United States returns that land to whom it belongs.

"This bill also involves respect for religion. Those of us who know something about the background of the first Americans realize that long before any organized religion came to the United States, for 700 years the Taos Pueblo Indians worshiped in this place.

"We restore this place of worship to them for all the years to come.

"And finally, this bill indicates a new direction in Indian affairs in this country, a new direction ? in which there will be more of an attitude of cooperation rather than of paternalism, one of self-determination rather than termination, one of mutual respect.

"I can only say that in signing the bill I trust that this will mark one of those periods in American history where, after a very, very long time, and at times a very sad history of injustice, that we started on a new road - a new road that leads us to justice in the treatment of those who were the first Americans ?"

Presidents before and since Nixon have tried to walk this road with tribes. But Nixon actually paved this road for tribes that might otherwise have remained by the wayside with AIM - capable of drawing the world's attention to Indians, but not experienced enough yet to guide it strategically afterward.

Nixon, one of the greatest international strategists of all presidents, did not stint in applying this gift to Indian country. The special message of 1970 still rings strong in many passages, prophetic still after the passage of more than 33 years:

"It is long past time that the Indian policies of the Federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions."

Nixon's special message buried termination as a federal policy and launched tribal self-determination in its place. By any reckoning, that makes it a foundation document in federal Indian affairs.

(Continued in Part Two)