Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 42nd in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Fifteen months after taking office, President William Jefferson Clinton made history by inviting tribal leaders to the White House.
Of the 556 leaders invited, 322 attended the meeting, during which Clinton fielded questions about economic development, tribal sovereignty, health care, education and government-to-government relationships. The April 1994 event marked the first time since 1822 tribal leaders were invited to meet directly with a sitting president of the United States.
In an afternoon speech delivered on the South Lawn, Clinton reaffirmed Native rights to self-determination.
“What you have done to retain your identity, your dignity, and your faith in the face of often immeasurable obstacles is profoundly moving, an example of the enduring strength of the human spirit,” he said. “In every relationship between our people, our first principle must be to respect your right to remain who you are and to live the way you wish to live.”
Clinton pledged to uphold the government’s trust obligations to tribes, vowing to “honor and respect tribal sovereignty.” That included federal protection of traditional religions and ceremonies, he said as he outlined three guiding principles for federal-tribal relationships.
The first principle was to respect “your values, your religions, your identity and your sovereignty,” he told tribal leaders. The second principle called for a full partnership between the federal government and tribal nations, and the third demanded that the government “improve the living conditions of those whom we serve.”
Clinton used his speech to announce that members of his cabinet would participate in unprecedented listening conferences in Indian country. He also publicly signed two memorandums upholding the religious rights of Native Americans—including expedited access to eagle feathers—and called on federal agencies to consult “to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law,” with tribal governments before taking actions that affect tribes.
“It is the entire Government, not simply the Department of the Interior, that has a trust responsibility with tribal governments,” Clinton said in his speech. “And it is time the entire Government recognized and honored that responsibility.”
One month after the White House meeting, in May 1994, Clinton signed Public Law 103-263, which prohibited the federal government from distinguishing between “historic” Indian tribes and “created” tribes—roughly 20 tribes that failed to sufficiently document their history. The law extended to all tribes equal autonomy, including the rights to levy taxes and handle law enforcement on Indian lands.
In October 1994, Clinton signed two more bills that ensured independence for tribes. Public Law 103-413 made policies of tribal self-governance permanent. Public Law 103-412, which came in the wake of criticism over the government’s historic mismanagement of Indian trust funds, allowed tribes to manage their own accounts.
The bills, signed during the beginning of Clinton’s first term, signaled a distinct change in the government’s attitude toward Indians, said Robert Miller, a law professor at Arizona State University.
“This was the President and the White House that really started to pay attention to Indian country,” said Miller, who is Shawnee. “Tribal governments got more involved and politicians really started paying attention to the power of tribes.”
Born in Arkansas in 1946, Clinton decided at age 16 that he wanted a career as an elected official. A Rhodes Scholar with a penchant for saxophone and rugby, Clinton attended college in the United States and England, eventually graduating from Yale Law School in 1973.
Clinton taught law at the University of Arkansas, but abandoned his post in 1976 when he was elected as Arkansas attorney general. In 1978, at age 32, he was elected as governor of Arkansas—a position he held for 10 years before making a bid for U.S. President.
Clinton defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election. A Democrat, he served two terms in office, from 1993 to 2001.
In a nod to both Native Americans and women, Clinton in August 1993 appointed Ada Deer as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Deer, Menominee, was the first Native woman to hold the office.
Clinton went on to sign numerous laws, memos and executive orders that restored sovereign rights to tribes. His administration also oversaw two formal apologies extended to indigenous groups.
In November 1993, Clinton signed Public Law 103-150, an apology to Native Hawaiians on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. In a September 2000 ceremony honoring the 175th anniversary of the BIA, Kevin Gover, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, apologized on behalf of the federal agency for the ethnic cleansing and cultural annihilation of Natives.
“I stand before you as the leader of an institution that in the past has committed acts so terrible that they infect, diminish and destroy the lives of Indian people decades later, generations later,” Gover said. “These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin.”
As he campaigned for reelection in 1996, Clinton signed two more measures that significantly benefitted Native Americans. In May of that year, he issued an executive order calling for federal protection of Indian sacred sites. Such sites, he said, are defined as “any specific, discrete, narrowly delineated location on Federal land that is identified by an Indian tribe, or Indian individual … as sacred by virtue of its established religious significance to, or ceremonial use by, an Indian religion.”
Five months later, in October 1996, Clinton signed the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, which recognized the federal government’s responsibility to provide housing to tribes and help improve infrastructure. The act, known as NAHASDA, also provided block grants so tribes could apply funds to building or renovating homes as they saw fit.
That same year, Clinton contended with the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed against the federal government. In June 1996, plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Salazar case sued the Interior and Treasury departments over the mismanagement of Indian trust funds. The case stretched through Clinton’s second term, spanned the entire presidency of George W. Bush and was finally settled for $3.4 billion in 2009—under President Barack Obama.
In July 1999, Clinton became the first sitting president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to visit an Indian reservation. During a discussion with tribal leaders on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Clinton asked questions about housing, unemployment, educational opportunities and economic development.
The following year, Clinton visited the Navajo Nation, where he spoke in halted Navajo and promised to bridge the digital divide. In a speech delivered to thousands of Navajo spectators in Shiprock, New Mexico, Clinton also pledged to “empower the tribes of our Nation.”
“There is nothing more important to me than getting this government-to-government relationship right, but getting it right in a way that will empower you to lift yourselves and your children to fulfill your potential and your dreams, not a patronizing relationship but an empowering one, not a handout but a hand up, a genuine partnership so that your children can live their dreams,” he said. “We have never had a better chance to build the right kind of relationship. We have never had a better chance to build new connections between people, between cultures, between nations.”
During his final year in office, Clinton helped pave the way for more development and employment opportunities on tribal land. In March, he signed the Indian Tribal Economic Development and Contract Encouragement Act, which encouraged development on Indian lands by disclosing sovereign immunity in contracts involving tribes.
In November 2000, with just two months left in office, Clinton signed an executive order titled “Consultation and Coordination with Tribal Governments.” The order sought to “establish regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials in the development of federal policies that have tribal implications.” It also strengthened the “unique legal relationship” between tribes and the federal government, Clinton said.
“Today, there is nothing more important in Federal-tribal relations than fostering true government-to-government relations to empower American Indians and Alaska Natives to improve their own lives, the lives of their children, and the generations to come,” he said. “In our Nation's relations with Indian tribes, our first principle must be to respect the right of American Indians and Alaska Natives to self-determination.”
Clinton left office in 2001 and was succeeded by George W. Bush. Now 70, he lives in New York with his wife—and 2016 presidential candidate—Hillary Clinton.