WASHINGTON - A July 11 editorial in Indian Country Today, ''Praise for an unsung hero'' [Vol. 28, Iss. 6], stirred deep memories for Charles Blackwell, the Chickasaw Nation ambassador in Washington.
Blackwell said he is certain that research somewhere in his files will show that on the night he was elected president, Richard M. Nixon telephoned Wallace Newman, the unsung hero of the editorial and Nixon's acknowledged mentor for life, and asked his advice. With the familiarity the older man always adopted toward Nixon, Newman immediately responded, '''Dickie, don't forget the Indians,''' Blackwell said.
Nixon proceeded to remember Indians to an extent that can still baffle students of his career, one of the most storied in American politics, ranging from the miracle comeback of the ''Checkers'' speech to detente with the Soviet Union and restoration of diplomatic relations with China, from disaster in Vietnam to Watergate and the only resignation of a sitting president to, finally, the unlikeliest comeback of all: as a kind of not altogether credible but still respected elder statesman.
Along the way, Nixon proved indispensable to contemporary tribal self-determination. Thousands of Indians and Alaska Natives pressed the campaign for it throughout the 1960s and after; and as Comanche advocate LaDonna Harris maintains to this day, Nixon's predecessor in the presidency, Lyndon Baines Johnson, deserves more credit than he has gotten for including Natives in ''Great Society'' anti-poverty programs that reached fruition under Nixon.
In any case, Nixon ''got it'' when it came to Indians. He appreciated early on that the dominant theme in Native 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 advisers, 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.
''I attribute all that to an old Indian's love,'' Blackwell said. Newman, a La Jolla Band and Luise?o descendant with a strong commitment to traditional ways and the old language of the Luise?o, showed Nixon the first outgoing affection and respect he had known, Blackwell contends.
''Richard Nixon grew up emotionally deprived, without a father.'' An older brother died young, and his mother was a stern Quaker disciplinarian, Blackwell related. Affection in the Nixon household held itself in check and was demonstrated through duty, not shown. But in traditional Indian communities, affection should also be shown, Blackwell said. Through Coach Newman, Blackwell believes Nixon encountered it at the right time in his life, when he went out for the Whittier College football team.
All accounts have it that Nixon was a lousy athlete, never lettering despite his best efforts. But coach Newman saw a lot else to like in the youthful Nixon, especially a spirit that tasted setbacks but would never traffic with quitting.
''Coach Newman was looking out for him ... Showed him some love for the first time in his life,'' Blackwell said, adding that Nixon never forgot it. ''So from coach Newman's love, for all the things he did do and didn't do, or did well or not well, President Nixon put American Indians on the road to governmental independence.''