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Ford's presidency found room for Indian country

WASHINGTON - As the tributes gathered around the reputation of President Gerald R. Ford following his death on Dec. 26, Indian country did not forget that his signature is on the most important Native-specific legislation of modern times.

One of the nation's largest tribes, the Navajo, joined others in flying flags at half-mast, closing offices and issuing statements in praise of the late president. Shoshone-Bannock editor Mark Trahant of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer devoted a column to the back-story behind Ford's ''personal review'' of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. And here and there on Capitol Hill, Ford's good deeds on behalf of tribes came up where Indian-issue professionals gathered over the holidays.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, taken together, made tribes more nearly the masters of their own programs than any federal action ever had since the advent of the reservation era. The enactment, upon Ford's signature, of the act as Public Law 93-638 authorized the federal government to sign the well-known ''638 contracts'' with tribes, permitting them to manage their own programs with federal funds. Previously, federal agencies had managed Indian-specific programs, delaying the day when tribes would implement their own solutions, expand the skills and capacities of their own members, reinvest federal funding into their own local economies and develop their own equivalent of a civil service.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976 went far beyond the previous congressional authorization for Indian health services, the Snyder Act of 1921. Enacted as Public Law 94-437, it emphasized Indian health care as a federal responsibility, authorized more than $1 billion ''to supplement, not supplant'' the recurring IHS appropriation, and provided a number of specific health benefits.

In addition, the American Indian Policy Review Commission set up shop during Ford's tenure as president, from August 1974 until the inauguration of Jimmy Carter on Jan. 20, 1977.

These and a handful of other initiatives got their start under Ford's predecessor, President Richard Nixon, whose Watergate transgressions led to the resignation that in turn put Ford, then the vice president, into the Oval Office.

Ford had more reason than most politicians for not making Indian country a priority. The crises on his plate were all-consuming by any account. Nixon's resignation was a first for any president, and the other disruptions of Watergate promised a political reckoning that strained the functionality of the state. Inflation had put the country in its worst economic condition, according to various indicators, since the Great Depression. And the Vietnam War wasn't over.

But if Ford left Indian affairs to their own course, he did nothing to oppose the Nixonian direction of federal policy. By the time he left office, federal policy had foresworn the termination era of the 1940s and '50s and embraced the tribal self-determination long demanded in Native communities. As challenging as the path toward tribal self-determination would prove, tribes would enter on it with good traction coming out of the Ford years.

Forrest Gerard, a Blackfeet senior staff member on the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee during the Ford years, said the Indian Health Care Improvement Act represented Ford's most extensive engagement with Indian affairs. At a time when Ford was using the veto power of the presidency to limit congressional spending in a dangerously inflationary economy, the cost of the IHCIA weighed in at some $1.6 billion. The late Caspar Weinberger, then secretary of Health Education and Welfare, opposed it along with other Cabinet officers, as well as the Office of Management and Budget and some influential congressional members.

But Rick Lavis, the Interior Department's first deputy assistant for Indian affairs, kept Congress on board of the new law, Gerard said. Simultaneously at the White House, he related, Bradley Patterson, retained from Nixon's staff as a point man on Indian affairs, took on the role of the vigilant insider as pressure mounted on Ford to reject the legislation. Patterson insisted the bill was of the first importance, Gerard said, and ultimately Ford agreed with him. The bill could not have become law without the president's active backing.

So curiously, yet again, in Indian country as everywhere else, the 38th president's highest legacy comes around to health. Following Watergate and the fearsome undertow of Nixon's overpowering political gifts, Ford's good-natured disposition, uncomplicated basic competence and, above all, his steady hand in stormy weather may indeed have healed the nation in an hour of urgent need, as countless eulogies suggested in the days following his death. For Indian country, though, healing was closer to home. It came with the stroke of President Ford's pen.