ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – At the outset of the 1970s, policy-wise the most consequential decade in Native affairs of the reservation era, Congress was still of two minds on federal Indian policy.
Self-determination was clearly gaining strength. Indian advocates had been pressing the case for it since at least the mid-1960s, and on July 8, 1970, President Richard Nixon delivered the celebrated “Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs,” launching the federal policy of self-determination with a momentum that lasted at least 30 years. In December of that year, Nixon sought to consolidate the gains envisioned in the special message with a spiritual gesture, a bill returning the sacred Blue Lake lands to Taos Pueblo. After emphasizing the historical justice and respect for Indian cultures that were at the core of the Taos-Blue Lake bill, Nixon went on: “And finally, this bill indicates a new direction in Indian affairs in this country, a new direction – in which there will be more of an attitude of cooperation rather than of paternalism, one of self-determination rather than termination, one of mutual respect.”
But while those turned out to be the lasting words on federal Indian policy, that outcome was never inevitable. A rear guard of “Bull Moose Republicans,” in Forrest Gerard’s phrase, still thought termination was the right policy, and they were campaigning hard for it behind the scenes. Like self-determination at that time, termination was not the law of the land. Termination had its standing in Concurrent Resolution 108 of 1954: a resolution has no standing as law, but expresses “the sense of the Congress.” And in the interval between the announcement of a new policy direction and the time it would be enacted into law, pro-termination Republicans formed a strong faction for their sense of congressional Indian policy.
As with so many policies that have proved hostile to tribes, termination was couched in friendly terms, terms designed to disarm foes and win over the well-disposed. Many tribes recognized early on that termination was a process of land and resource seizure, especially when Congress began to pay off timber-owning tribes in return for consent to end their recognition as a tribe by the federal government. Among these tribes were the Klamath in Oregon, whose enrolled citizens received $44,000 apiece for timbered lands. The large off-reservation populace of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington knew their reservation lands were also rich in timber. “And they saw what happened at Klamath, and by God we want the same thing,” Gerard related. “And the only way they could get it was to ask for termination.”
A provision of the constitution and by-laws permitting off-reservation enrolled citizens to vote in tribal elections, they promptly elected a pro-termination council and went to their senator, the late Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Jackson complied to the extent of introducing legislation that would have paid the Colville membership for their timbered lands, along the lines of the Klamath settlement.
The late Lucy Covington would turn the tide against termination at Colville, Gerard said, “almost single-handedly.” Jackson himself was quick to get the message and became in time an undoubted tribal ally.
But that’s another story. This story is Gerard’s, and all that background gets us to the day he sat before Jackson, Democratic chairman of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, interviewing for a staff position as the committee’s de facto Indian affairs specialist. Gerard’s previous 12 years in the nation’s capital, including a fellowship on Capitol Hill and strong connections to South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the future Democratic presidential candidate, recommended him for the position, as had attorneys in Jackson’s home state of Washington. Gerard, of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, would be the committee’s first Native senior staff member. But he wasn’t about to set the wrong precedent.
“I said ‘Well, I need to know something right at the outset, senator. Maybe we can have a very short interview. ... I’m challenged by what your subordinates tell me you want to do around here. But you’re not looking for a brown-faced Indian guy to front termination, are you?’”
Jackson didn’t have to think about it. “He said, ‘No, we want to be constructive.’”
Gerard went to work for the committee in February of 1971. He embarked on the express mission of getting the substance of Nixon’s special message into a law, a process that ultimately enacted the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Finance Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and an oft-overlooked law on sub-marginal lands that restored some 350,000 scattered acres to mostly northern Plains tribes.
(Continued in part three)