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Building on Nixon's 'new' Indian policy

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A mystery of modern Indian policy is why President Richard Nixon introduced self-determination policy. Until Nixon's Indian policy, termination and assimilation ruled in Indian affairs. One might argue that federal Indian policy has not lived up to his vision.

During the 1950s and '60s, Indian activists lobbied hard against termination policies and for a new direction in Indian affairs. NCAI and Indian leaders were ultimately successful in organizing congressional opposition to termination policy. But they were less able to influence the Democratic and more liberal Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s.

Neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon B. Johnson were willing to make treaty relations the basis of Indian affairs, and neither were willing to reject termination policy.

Termination policy is formally defined as the severance of the government-to-government relation with Indian tribes, and the ending of the trust relation of the federal government toward Indian governments, Indian assets and indigenous rights. Stewart Udall, Johnson's Interior Department secretary, once indicated that the administration was not proposing immediate termination, but rather that their policies were geared toward long-range termination goals.

Kennedy and Johnson did not view treaties as the basis of Indian relations. They saw Indians as U.S. citizens but did not emphasize treaty rights, indigenous rights or trust relations. To them, Indians were a poor minority in need of government aid and civil rights. The reconfiguring of Indians as a minority group reflected an unwillingness during the 1960s to engage in Indian affairs from the government-to-government point of view. Anti-poverty programs were designed to lift Indian people economically and socially into American society, not to support indigenous identity or communities, or to recognize and strengthen government-to-government relations.

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Indian activism of the 1960s had little conceptual or substantive effect on the development of Indian policies. That is not to say that the anti-poverty and civil rights agendas of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations did not support tribal communities; many tribal communities took advantage of the government programs and worked for self-determination through sub-contracting, which eventually evolved into the present-day emphasis on contracting between tribal governments and federal agencies.

Nevertheless, the Kennedy-Johnson policies remained steadfastly in an American melting pot and political redistributive mode, where Indian communities were part of America's ''unfinished business'' of economically and socially including Indian people and communities into the American mainstream. Such policies were assimilative and did not overtly recognize or support indigenous rights while emphasizing American citizenship and economic inclusion.

Shortly after he took office, Nixon laid out a new direction in Indian affairs. He was the first president in the modern era to affirm treaties as the basis of the relation between American Indian communities and the federal government. This aligned American Indian policy with history, the legal reading of treaties, and the viewpoints of most American Indian community members who support treaties as the legal basis of agreed relations with the United States.

Nixon also suggested to Congress that termination policy be formally rejected. Indian communities should enjoy their legal and historical rights without the fear of termination. Economic success by an Indian community should not lead to termination. Nixon rejected assimilation as the primary focus of Indian policy, and was willing to recognize and support the building of stronger tribal governments that would express tribal culture.

During the 1950s and in the Eisenhower administration, Nixon was vice president. Eisenhower supported the termination policy that was orchestrated largely by congressional House committees. Vice President Nixon probably had little influence in Indian policy, but did not officially deny termination policy. However, in 1970, Nixon directly challenged and dismantled the termination policies of the Eisenhower administration. Nixon left a legacy of self-determination policy, but presidential policies since his time have made few conceptual improvements. Several administrations have only paid lip service to self-determination policy. Nevertheless, Nixon's Indian policy is the ground rule upon which every subsequent administration has had to recognize, if not actively implement.