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Attention Party Indians and other Native American voters: Ranking the "modern" U.S. presidents

With the Nov. 5 election day fast approaching, seasoned vote counters say dozens of congressional races are too close to call and party leadership of the Senate and House is up for grabs.

In some states, both Democrats and Republicans are in a mad scramble for Indian votes and cash. In South Dakota, Indians often provide the margin of victory in congressional races, usually for Democrats, and Republicans are watching Indian voter registration like hawks.

South Dakota's high-volume charges of voter fraud in reservations are not helping Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who has a good Indian policy record and deserves Indian votes returning him to the Senate.

The scandal also could hand the state's only House seat to Gov. William J. Janklow (R), who deserves to be retired from his long career of disservice to Native Peoples and denied the opportunity to promote anti-Indian legislation in Congress.

Republicans in South Dakota say Indians there vote blindly for Democrats, irrespective of what's best for them. Democrats and a voter rights lawsuit say many Indians are discouraged from voting at all. In this year's congressional races, it is in the Indian interest to vote for the Democrats, sending Johnson back to the Senate and Stephanie Herseth (D), rather than Janklow, to the House.

Party politics are nothing new to Indian politicos. One of the most strategic was the late-Reuben A. Snake, Jr., (Winnebago/Sioux), a kindly leader who played hardball to better the lives of his people in Nebraska. In the 1980s, they suffered injuries and indignities under the regime of an entrenched local sheriff he dubbed "Small in the Saddle."

Snake convinced the Winnebago Democrats to switch parties and vote for the sheriff's opponent in the contest for the GOP nomination. The new Republican Winnebagos block-voted "Saddle" out in the primary and then counted coup by electing the Democrat in the general election.

The rule of thumb used to be that Indians would work on property rights when the Republicans were in and poverty programs under the Democrats. A more deadly political axiom was that Republicans exterminated and Democrats terminated. In fact, Indian genocides and slow-genocidal policies were carried out by leaders of all parties in power in the Capitol and White House, and the same holds true for efforts to reverse those destructive policies.

Now that some Indian nations have money, office-seekers and campaign fundraisers fawn over tribal leaders and shake the Indian money tree, even in places where coffers are full, seats are safe and Indians haven't lived for a century or two.

Democrats raised a bundle of Indian money in the 1990s, offering breakfasts and photo ops with Pres. William Jefferson Clinton for $150,000 per tribal leader. There was even a fire sale: three leaders of different nations could put on the feedbag for $50,000 each.

Presidents courting Indians is nothing new. Gen. George Washington recruited Indian nations to help win the Revolutionary War. As president, he maintained federal relations with the Indian allies, hedging against conflicts with foreign countries and the powerful states.

Pres. Abraham Lincoln courted chiefs from the Great and Southern Plains in an 1863 meeting in the White House, where he asked for and received their neutrality in the Civil War. They likely did not know that one year earlier, he signed the death order for 38 Dakota men at Mankato, Minnesota. Most Great Lakes Indians are Democrats, in no small part because Lincoln was Republican.

Pres. Andrew Jackson didn't court Indians; he killed Indians, mostly Muscogees (Creeks). He carried the campaign to Congress, where three Indian-fighting comrades chaired the Indian affairs committees before and during his presidency, greasing the way for Indian removal legislation. Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muscogees and Seminoles were marched at gunpoint to Indian Territory, and tens of thousands died on those Trails of Tears. Most citizens of these nations are Republicans, because Jackson was a Democrat.

Early in his presidency, Clinton stated publicly that Jackson was his favorite president. This appalled Muscogee Second Chief Shelly Stubbs Crow, a nurse on the First Lady's health task force, and she told the president so. Crow reported to other Muscogees that Clinton was shocked to learn of Jackson's Indian history.

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A few Indian Republicans say the Clinton administration was the most dangerous of all time for Native Peoples. This is no truer or less laughable than the claim of some Clinton Indians that theirs was the best of all administrations for Indians.

These same Indian Republicans claim the current administration is the best ever for Indians. No kidding. They actually say this out loud, usually during brown-nosing meetings with administration officials, but to other Indians, too, so they might believe it.

This claim is, at best, premature. Taking the optimistic view, Pres. George W. Bush's administration hasn't had enough time to do much of anything for Indians. At worst, the claim is preposterous, given the record as it stands now, what with the Interior secretary being held in contempt of court in the trust funds case and all.

Which administrations and parties have been the best and worst and what have modern presidents done for and to Native Peoples? I have ranked the presidents who served between 1963 and 2000 in terms of tangible, substantive, far-reaching accomplishments, considering also how they used the bully pulpit, how long they were in office and what else they did with their time.

Pres. Jimmy Carter is tops in my book. I confess bias (but not error), because I am a former political appointee in the Carter Administration and an unabashed fan of the former president. He made serious campaign promises to Indians and, amazingly, kept them. I fault him only for listening to campaigners who advised putting off Indian actions that might cost votes until the second term.

The top two administrations in this ranking, Carter and Bush 41, never got second terms and served only four years each. The last two, Clinton and Reagan, are the only ones with eight years in office. Ford's ranks just above those and had the shortest tenure, two years and five months. The administrations in third and fourth place, Nixon and Johnson, each served a little over five years.

It could be said that credit for certain accomplishments attributed to one president really should go to another -- that Pres. Richard M, Nixon laid the policy foundation for the self-determination act, even though Pres. Gerald R. Ford signed the law, or Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson ended terminations, even though Nixon signed the first un-termination law - but, both credit and blame even out rather neatly from each administration to the next.

The presidents' Indian policy rankings, from best to worst:

First: Jimmy Carter (D/1977-1981). Signed the groundbreaking child welfare, religious freedom and tribal colleges laws. Personally involved in eastern Indian land claims and signed the first settlement (Rhode Island) and the largest (Maine). Approved the first Indian water rights settlement and acts restoring, recognizing and/or returning land to 15 Native nations. Appointed the first Indians to serve as Interior assistant secretary and associate solicitor for Indian affairs. Advocated Pacific Northwest treaty fishing, tribal inclusions in international fisheries treaties and Alaska Native whaling and subsistence rights. Overruled his attorney general to advocate high standards of federal trust duties in legal and policy decisions and conduct of programs. Recognized Indian self-determination and human rights as international rights.

Second: George H.W. Bush (R/1989-1993). Approved acts authorizing the national Indian museum, mandating the Smithsonian to return Native remains and property and requiring nationwide repatriation and graves protection. Signed laws establishing the Indian memorial at the Little Bighorn monument (and dropping the name of Custer from its title), strengthening Native languages, promoting authenticity in Indian arts and crafts, providing Native Hawaiian health care, protecting Indian children and preventing family violence. Approved measures for Indian law enforcement reform and economic development and technology-related education, as well as three tribal restorations and settlements and two demonstration projects for employment and training services and for tribal self-governance programs.

Third: Richard M. Nixon (R/1969-1974). Signed the Indian Financing Act, the Navajo college and Indian education acts, the Alaska Native claims settlement and the first law reversing a federal termination and restoring the Menominee Tribe. Returned Mount Adams to Yakama Nation (by executive order), Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo and lands to Warm Springs and Payson Yavapai-Apache. Established environmental protection nationally, but did not recognize tribal governmental or jurisdictional rights. Myriad Indian people were placed under surveillance for advocating tribal sovereignty and Indian rights.

Fourth: Lyndon B. Johnson (D/1963-1969). Included Indians in the "Great Society" and "War on Poverty" laws and programs of general applicability for economic development, education, elders, housing, jobs, legal services and youth. Recognized tribes as service providers and community developers. Set up Indian desks in agencies and created the national council on Indian opportunity. Appointed the first Indian in nearly a century as Indian affairs commissioner. Advocated an end to federal terminations of tribes and signed the Indian Civil Rights Act.

Fifth: Gerald R. Ford (R/1974-1977). Signed two of the most sweeping federal Indian policies, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, which promoted an end to federal paternalism in conducting Indian programs and changed the relationship between tribes and federal agencies. Approved the Indian Crimes Act, as well as legislation returning land to the Havasupai Tribe and making surplus federal property and submarginal lands available to Indian tribes.

Sixth: William Jefferson Clinton (D/1993-2001). Signed the law for Indian religious use of peyote and an executive order on Indian sacred sites, but opposed substantive legal protections for sacred places and failed to even threaten to veto the desecration of Mount Graham. Issued orders on tribal consultation and Indian education, established the Office of Tribal Justice in the Justice Department and approved tribal justice and arts and crafts enforcement acts. Used the bully pulpit for positive statements about and images of Indians. Signed the Indian trust management reform act, under which his Interior and Treasury secretaries were sued and became the highest-ranking cabinet officers ever held in contempt of court. Tried to un-recognize "non-historic" tribes (two or more tribes the U.S. had placed on reservations), forcing an unnecessary congressional clarification. Approved land settlements and conveyances for six Native nations.

Seventh: Ronald Reagan (R/1981-1989). Signed laws regulating tribal gaming, mineral development and housing, as well as preventing and treating Indian alcohol and substance abuse and settling Indian old age assistance claims. Approved laws returning a sacred place to Zuni Pueblo and restoring, recognizing and/or settling claims of a dozen tribes. Tried to turn over Indian education to the states, but was stopped by Congress and eventually signed Indian education and tribally controlled schools acts. Tried to subject Michigan treaty fishing to state jurisdiction, but was stopped by the courts. Tried unsuccessfully for six years to cut one-third of the annual federal Indian budget. Used the bully pulpit in Moscow to deride federal Indian policy, saying the U.S. should not have "humored" Indians by putting them on reservations.