Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 41st 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.
Although he served only one term, George Herbert Walker Bush took some big steps to help promote Native American interests while in the White House.
The 41st president of the United States, Bush took office in 1989 after serving two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan. Ten months later, on November 28, he signed a bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The act, which called for the museum to be located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., created a home for more than 1 million Native artifacts already in the government’s possession.
The new museum was charged with the “collection, preservation and exhibition of American Indian languages, literature, history, art, anthropology and culture,” Bush said. “From this point, our Nation will go forward with a new and richer understanding of the heritage, culture and values of the people of the Americans of Indian ancestry.”
The act also codified the policy of returning human remains and associated funerary objects to tribes. It called on the Smithsonian to conduct a “detailed inventory” of such objects in its collections, to identify the origins of the objects and to notify appropriate tribes.
The act was the first of more than half a dozen passed during Bush’s presidency that directly benefited Native Americans. But Bush also contended with widespread corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1987, the U.S. Senate established a special committee to investigate Indian Affairs. In a report released in November 1989, the committee detailed pervasive fraud, corruption and mismanagement in institutions serving Indians—and inside tribal governments themselves.
After a thorough, two-year investigation, the committee assigned fault to Congress for “failing to adequately oversee and reform Indian affairs,” the report states. “The pattern of abuse is endemic because Congress has never fully rejected the paternalism of the 19th century.”
The report also found that the federal government maintained a “stifling bureaucratic presence in Indian country” and failed to deal with tribes as partners. The committee recommended a “new federalism” for American Indians that would allow tribal governments to “stand free, independent, responsible and accountable.”
Born in Massachusetts in 1924, Bush served as a Navy pilot during World War II and graduated from Yale University before starting a successful oil business in Texas. He represented Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives then served as an ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee and director of Central Intelligence.
During the 1980 presidential election, Bush made a bid for the Republican nominee, but became Reagan’s running mate instead. He served two terms as vice president before winning the election in 1988. A Republican, Bush served one term in office, from 1989 to 1993.
Bush, who focused much of his time on foreign affairs, was president when Eastern European nations renounced communism, the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated. The Cold War ended, but other wars began. In 1991, Bush sent U.S. troops to Kuwait in the military operation Desert Storm.
But Bush, who also presided over a country celebrating the quincentennial anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landfall in America, was largely mum when it came to the topic of American Indians. He failed for two years to announce his administration’s formal Indian policies.
In April 1991, a delegation of 17 Native leaders, led by Onondaga faithkeeper Oren Lyons, journeyed to Washington to ask Bush for a policy statement. Two months later, Bush finally complied, issuing a statement that simply reaffirmed the same policies of self-determination he and Reagan articulated eight years earlier.
“This government-to-government relationship is the result of sovereign and independent tribal governments being incorporated into the fabric of our nation, of Indian tribes becoming what our courts have come to refer to as quasi-sovereign domestic dependent nations,” Bush said. “Over the years the relationship has flourished, grown, and evolved into a vibrant partnership in which over 500 tribal governments stand shoulder to shoulder with the other governmental units that form our Republic.”
In his statement, Bush also firmly relegated “to the history books” the concepts of forced Indian termination and excessive dependency on the federal government.
“Today we move forward toward a permanent relationship of understanding and trust,” he said. “A relationship in which the tribes of the nation sit in positions of dependent sovereignty along with the other governments that compose the family that is America.”
Although it took Bush two years to announce a formal policy statement, he signed at least half a dozen acts during that same timeframe that fundamentally changed how the federal government viewed Native cultures, artifacts, languages and livelihoods.
Eleven months after Bush established the National Museum of the American Indian, he signed the Native American Languages Act of 1990, which sought to reverse the effects of previous policies calling for suppression or extermination of Native languages and cultures. The act, signed October 30, 1990, acknowledged these languages as unique and addressed the “widespread practice of treating Native Americans’ languages as if they were anachronisms.”
The act called on the federal government to work with tribes to ensure the survival of languages and cultures. It also declared it federal policy to “preserve, protect and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice and develop Native American languages.”
That freedom reached into BIA schools where Native languages could be used for classroom instruction, and into tribal governing bodies where Native languages were afforded official status. In a statement, Bush affirmed “the right of the Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages.”
Several more bills benefiting Native Americans landed, in quick succession, on Bush’s desk during the fall of 1990. In November, he signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required all federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return cultural items to lineal descendants; and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits the misrepresentation of products as Indian-made.
Bush in November 1990 also issued a proclamation commemorating the first Native American Heritage Month, established by an act of Congress to “enhance public awareness of—and appreciation for—these proud peoples.”
In December 1991, Bush signed a public law designating the following 12 months as the “Year of the American Indian.” The designation came as America prepared to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. In a March 1992 proclamation, Bush reflected on the half millennium since the arrival of Europeans explorers.
“The contributions that Native Americans have made to our Nation's history and culture are as numerous and varied as the tribes themselves,” he said. “This year gives us the opportunity to recognize the special place that Native Americans hold in our society, to affirm the right of Indian tribes to exist as sovereign entities, and to seek greater mutual understanding and trust.”
Bush left office in 1993 and was succeeded by Bill Clinton. Now 92, he lives in Texas with his wife, Barbara.
ICTMN reached out to Bush for comment on this article. Bush declined.