Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 43rd 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.
One year before winning the election of 2000, George Walker Bush, then Texas governor and Republican frontrunner in the presidential race, championed for states’ rights, which he believed trumped the rights of tribes.
During a trip to Syracuse, New York, in October 1999, Bush, already an adversary to Indian casinos in his home state of Texas, advocated a position that contradicted both the U.S. Constitution and more than 200 years of federal Indian law.
“My view is that state law reigns supreme when it comes to the Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard on October 24, 1999.
Although Bush later reversed his stance and vowed to “protect and honor tribal sovereignty,” his initial comments set the tone for a lackluster presidency when it came to advancements in Indian Affairs. In fact, Bush spent the bulk of his two terms in office “actively ignoring” Indians and other minorities, said Scott Merriman, a history lecturer at Troy University.
“Where Bush was trying to make his mark on history was in foreign affairs,” Merriman said. “Domestic policy took a back seat. Minorities took a back seat. And Native Americans took a back-seat to other minorities when he did worry about them. Bush’s Indian policy was one of benign indifference.”
Born in Connecticut in 1946, Bush was raised in Texas in a political family, grandson to a U.S. senator and oldest son of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. Bush served in the Texas National Guard and attended Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree in business administration.
Like his father, Bush pursued a career in oil before entering politics. In 1994 and again in 1998, he was elected as Texas governor, a post he held for five years, abandoning it when he was elected as 43rd president of the United States in 2000. A Republican, Bush served two terms in office, from 2001 to 2009.
From the start, Bush faced a nation of uncertainty. The presidential election itself was disputed when Bush failed to win the popular vote and Florida initiated a recount.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally declared Bush the winner more than a month later, but his eight years in office were colored by other political, natural and economic disasters. He weathered the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the recession of 2008. Meanwhile, Bush ignored Native Americans almost entirely, said Michael Oberg, distinguished professor of history at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
“Of course Bush had the war on terror and other things that were absorbing his time, but he also was not interested in Indian policy at all,” Oberg said. “He didn’t know about the issues and had very little experience. Also, he just didn’t care.”
Despite contending with major national and international crises, Bush did take some minor steps to recognize Native Americans.
Six months after taking office, Bush led a ceremony to formally acknowledge the Navajo Code Talkers, presenting the Medal of Honor to the original Code Talkers and silver medals to those who served later. The Code Talkers’ mission was declassified in 1968, but most didn’t live to see the day the federal government officially recognized them.
“In war, using their native language, they relayed secret messages that turned the course of the battle,” Bush said of the Code Talkers in his July 6, 2001, speech. “At home, they carried for decades the secret of their own heroism. Today, we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago.”
Four months later, Bush declared November 2001 as National American Indian Heritage Month. In his proclamation, Bush credited Natives Americans for shaping the nation’s history and promised that his administration would “continue to work with tribal governments on a sovereign to sovereign basis.”
Bush also pledged to prioritize Indian education, honor tribal sovereignty and stimulate reservation economies. “We will work with the American Indians and Alaska Natives to preserve their freedoms as they practice their religion and culture,” he said.
As Bush campaigned for reelection in 2004, he stumbled over a question about tribal sovereignty, once again revealing a troubling ignorance of Indian issues. The comment came in August when Bush, speaking at a UNITY convention for journalists of color, responded to a question about what tribal sovereignty meant in the 21st century.
“Tribal sovereignty means just that; it’s sovereign,” Bush responded. “You’re a—you’ve been given sovereignty, and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.”
The comment, itself nonsensical, set off a firestorm of protest from Native groups that took issue with the word “given.”
Sovereignty is “the nearest and dearest, No. 1 issue in Indian Country,” Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians said in response to Bush’s comment. “It’s not something that was given to us. As tribes, we see sovereignty as something we’ve always had.”
Bush backpedaled, releasing a memorandum on tribal sovereignty in September 2004—six weeks ahead of the election. Signed in honor of the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, the Memorandum on Government-to-Government Relationship with Tribal Governments reiterated the “unique legal and political relationship” that exists between the United States and Indian tribes.
In his memorandum, Bush called on all federal departments and agencies to “adhere to these principles and work with tribal governments in a manner that cultivates mutual respect and fosters greater understanding.”
In late October 2004, Bush signed the American Indian Probate Reform Act, which overhauled the federal probate process for Indian trust land. The act also sought to reverse fractionation of Indian land—a consequence of the Dawes Act of 1887 and the allotment era—and consolidate Indian land ownership.
During his second term in office, Bush signed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, which called for revitalization of Native languages. The act, signed in December 2006, authorized grants to fund teacher training, curriculum development and instructional programs that immersed students in their Native languages.
But Bush also opposed the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s efforts to prohibit Native-themed mascots and tried to cut to zero his proposed 2009 budget for urban Indian health—a loss of $21 million. In 2006, lobbyist and Bush supporter Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges for his role in defrauding tribes out of more than $25 million.
In March 2008, Bush acknowledged the late Woodrow Keeble, a master sergeant in the Army during the Korean War and the first Lakota Indian to receive the Medal of Honor. During a ceremony held at the White House more than a quarter-century after Keeble’s death, Bush presented the medal to his family.
“Whatever the reason, the first Sioux to ever receive the Medal of Honor died without knowing it was his,” Bush said. “A terrible injustice was done to a good man, to his family, and to history. And today we're going to try to set things right.”
Bush left office in 2009 and was succeeded by Barack Obama. Now 70, he lives in Texas with his wife, Laura.
ICTMN reached out to Bush for comment on this article. His press team did not respond.