Assessing the Presidents; Ronald Reagan

Author:
Updated:
Original:

For much of Indian country and for many others, President Ronald Reagan
will always be the good-humor man because of remarks he made in Russia, in
1988, at Moscow State University. Here is the text of those remarks:

"Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our
land. We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called
preservations - or reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning,
announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had
always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth. And we set up
these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to
help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them -
schools on the reservations. And they're free also to leave the
reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us, and many do.
Some still prefer, however, that way - that early way of life. And we've
done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live.
Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that
wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have
said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us."

Even for unscripted remarks, coming from a president famous for
off-the-cuff versions of homespun history, this is all wildly misguided,
from the introductory mention of "our land" to those "provided" acres right
down to those "humored" wannabe citizens with their "primitive lifestyle."

It makes for hard reading even today, when Indians are several fold more
familiar in America than in 1988. Against the background of the times, with
the Reagan administration abetting violence against Native peoples in
Central America, it is a grim reminder of how official malignance can work
together with high crimes against humanity.

These remarks at the end of Reagan's two presidential terms dovetail with
the worst of his Indian-specific practices while in office. The "Reagan
Revolution" in politics led Republicans to a heavy emphasis on downsizing
the federal government, slashing the federal tax burden on citizens, and
restoring states' rights. Accordingly, the Reagan administration
recommended the wholesale dismantling of the BIA, publicly lamented the
expense of Indian-specific federal programs and proposed steep budget cuts,
and tried to expand the states' role in treaty fishing and tribal
education.

On all of these fronts except the budget, he faltered or failed, but only
because courts overruled him or a Democrat-controlled Congress put a brake
on his Republican agenda.

As for his cuts in the government's Indian-specific budget, they were never
as drastic as he hoped in terms of hard dollar figures. But because they
targeted the social programs that employed so many Indians on reservations,
they roared through reservation economies with an indirect dollar impact
that boosted tribal unemployment numbers almost across the board.

Even when Reagan succeeded in pairing a point of his agenda with the
desires of Indian country, he often managed to undermine the full benefit
for tribes by applying punitive conditions. Jason Manning, in his 2001
essay "Unleashing the Spirit: the Reagan Administration's Indian Policy",
describes a case in point:

"As a money-saving measure, the administration combined 10 BIA programs
into block grants, dispensing funds in lump sums to individual tribes so
that they could allocate the money as they saw fit. While this initiative
provided the tribes with more autonomy, it also required them to pay
indirect administrative costs such as bookkeeping and insurance after the
first year. Opponents claimed this violated the Indian Self-Determination
Act, which obligated the federal government to pay both direct and indirect
costs of programs administered by the tribes under contract with the BIA.

The dispute over contract support costs is still in the courts.

All in all, Reagan managed to inflame Indian feeling for most of his eight
years in office, so that his discourse in Moscow quoted above, along with
the stormy greeting it got worldwide, only contributed to the widespread
view of Reagan as an inveterate Indian fighter.

But that view doesn't stand up to historical scrutiny. On the one hand, he
tried to give teeth to tribal self-determination, enshrined in the Indian
Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 but little acted
upon under Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. By contrast, the Reagan
administration passed the 1982 Indian Tribal Government Tax Status Act,
authorizing tribes to tax reservation-based businesses and finance
enterprises through tax-exempt bonds; the 1982 Indian Mineral Development
Act, authorizing tribal joint ventures with off-reservation private sector
businesses; and new incentives for private sector investment on
reservations. All were flawed laws, whose deficiencies tribes are still
trying to correct; but at least they were a step away from government
provisioning, and so a small start on tribally controlled private sector
economic development.

Finally, leadership doesn't rest on being right about everything. It rests
on being right about the great things. Reagan, the principled Republican
many credit with turning the Cold War in the West's favor through sheer
conviction, and restoring a national economy through a feat of firm
management in the face of global stress factors - this
stand-on-principle-and-prevail type also had a pragmatic streak. His
willingness to act on it, even at the expense of principle, proved a
godsend for Indian country in at least one case, but perhaps the most
important one of them all - the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, over which
Reagan flew against the cherished Republican doctrine of states' rights.
Manning again:

"The administration deemed the law a satisfactory compromise between the
Indians who resisted any sort of regulation or oversight, for fear it might
dry up private sector financing, and states that opposed unregulated
gambling operations within their borders.

Reagan was betting that the states would find no justification for shutting
down most Indian gambling operations, and he was right." Here is the text of those remarks:

"Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our
land. We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called
preservations - or reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning,
announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had
always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth. And we set up
these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to
help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them -
schools on the reservations. And they're free also to leave the
reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us, and many do.
Some still prefer, however, that way - that early way of life. And we've
done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live.
Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that
wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have
said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us."

Even for unscripted remarks, coming from a president famous for
off-the-cuff versions of homespun history, this is all wildly misguided,
from the introductory mention of "our land" to those "provided" acres right
down to those "humored" wannabe citizens with their "primitive lifestyle."

It makes for hard reading even today, when Indians are several fold more
familiar in America than in 1988. Against the background of the times, with
the Reagan administration abetting violence against Native peoples in
Central America, it is a grim reminder of how official malignance can work
together with high crimes against humanity.

These remarks at the end of Reagan's two presidential terms dovetail with
the worst of his Indian-specific practices while in office. The "Reagan
Revolution" in politics led Republicans to a heavy emphasis on downsizing
the federal government, slashing the federal tax burden on citizens, and
restoring states' rights. Accordingly, the Reagan administration
recommended the wholesale dismantling of the BIA, publicly lamented the
expense of Indian-specific federal programs and proposed steep budget cuts,
and tried to expand the states' role in treaty fishing and tribal
education.

On all of these fronts except the budget, he faltered or failed, but only
because courts overruled him or a Democrat-controlled Congress put a brake
on his Republican agenda.

As for his cuts in the government's Indian-specific budget, they were never
as drastic as he hoped in terms of hard dollar figures. But because they
targeted the social programs that employed so many Indians on reservations,
they roared through reservation economies with an indirect dollar impact
that boosted tribal unemployment numbers almost across the board.

Even when Reagan succeeded in pairing a point of his agenda with the
desires of Indian country, he often managed to undermine the full benefit
for tribes by applying punitive conditions. Jason Manning, in his 2001
essay "Unleashing the Spirit: the Reagan Administration's Indian Policy",
describes a case in point:

"As a money-saving measure, the administration combined 10 BIA programs
into block grants, dispensing funds in lump sums to individual tribes so
that they could allocate the money as they saw fit. While this initiative
provided the tribes with more autonomy, it also required them to pay
indirect administrative costs such as bookkeeping and insurance after the
first year. Opponents claimed this violated the Indian Self-Determination
Act, which obligated the federal government to pay both direct and indirect
costs of programs administered by the tribes under contract with the BIA.

The dispute over contract support costs is still in the courts.

All in all, Reagan managed to inflame Indian feeling for most of his eight
years in office, so that his discourse in Moscow quoted above, along with
the stormy greeting it got worldwide, only contributed to the widespread
view of Reagan as an inveterate Indian fighter.

But that view doesn't stand up to historical scrutiny. On the one hand, he
tried to give teeth to tribal self-determination, enshrined in the Indian
Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 but little acted
upon under Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. By contrast, the Reagan
administration passed the 1982 Indian Tribal Government Tax Status Act,
authorizing tribes to tax reservation-based businesses and finance
enterprises through tax-exempt bonds; the 1982 Indian Mineral Development
Act, authorizing tribal joint ventures with off-reservation private sector
businesses; and new incentives for private sector investment on
reservations. All were flawed laws, whose deficiencies tribes are still
trying to correct; but at least they were a step away from government
provisioning, and so a small start on tribally controlled private sector
economic development.

Finally, leadership doesn't rest on being right about everything. It rests
on being right about the great things. Reagan, the principled Republican
many credit with turning the Cold War in the West's favor through sheer
conviction, and restoring a national economy through a feat of firm
management in the face of global stress factors - this
stand-on-principle-and-prevail type also had a pragmatic streak. His
willingness to act on it, even at the expense of principle, proved a
godsend for Indian country in at least one case, but perhaps the most
important one of them all - the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, over which
Reagan flew against the cherished Republican doctrine of states' rights.
Manning again:

"The administration deemed the law a satisfactory compromise between the
Indians who resisted any sort of regulation or oversight, for fear it might
dry up private sector financing, and states that opposed unregulated
gambling operations within their borders.

Reagan was betting that the states would find no justification for shutting
down most Indian gambling operations, and he was right."