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Harjo: Remembering President Ford's imprint on federal Indian policy

Only a handful of people in American history have held as many important offices in Congress and the White House as President Gerald R. Ford. For a quarter-century, he filled a congressional seat from Grand Rapids, Mich., rising to his party's top position of Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.

When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, President Richard Nixon tapped Ford for the post. Ford carried out the duties of vice president and Senate president for eight months, until Nixon resigned in the midst of revelations about Watergate crimes. On Aug. 9, 1974, Ford became the 38th U.S. president and served until 1977.

Shortly before the national election that returned Ford to private life, he met with Native American leaders in the East Room of the White House. In formal remarks on July 16, 1976, he took pains to assure his audience that he was for Indian self-determination and against a termination policy.

The president described the federal government as having ''a very unique relationship with you and your people ... of a legal trust and a high moral responsibility.''

The trust relationship ''is rooted deep in history,'' he said, ''but it is fed today by our concern that the Indian people should enjoy the same opportunities as other Americans, while maintaining the culture and the traditions that you rightly prize as your heritage.'' He said that heritage ''is an important part of the American culture that we are celebrating in this great country in our Bicentennial Year.''

Characterizing Native American contributions as ''both material and spiritual,'' he said: ''Your ancestors introduced settlers not only to new foods and new plants, but to Indian ways of life and Indian values which they absorbed. This is a year for all of us to realize what a great debt we individually and collectively owe to the American Indians.''

It was important for Ford to reiterate his position for both policy and political reasons. Much of his career in the House spanned the period when Congress and the executive branch were most intent on terminating the federal trust relationship with tribes and people through specific laws and programs.

By the time Ford was selected for House leadership in 1965, federal Indian policy was moving away from termination and toward self-determination, and he had not sponsored any termination acts.

Native people wondered if he had a hand in termination policy from any of his seats on pressure-point committees on public works, appropriations or intelligence. There also were questions about his role, if any, in the federally recognized status of a number of tribes in his home state that had been disrupted or put on hold during his time in Congress.

Many tribal leaders said they believed that Ford demonstrated his current opposition to termination on Jan. 4, 1975, when he signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The new law promoted an end to federal paternalism in conducting Indian programs and changed the relationship between tribes and federal agencies.

''I am strongly opposed to termination,'' the president assured his guests in the White House. ''The 1970s have brought a new era in Indian affairs. In the last century, federal policy has vacillated between paternalism and the threat of terminating federal responsibility. I am opposed to both extremes. I believe in maintaining a stable policy so that Indians and Indian leaders can plan and work confidently for the future.''

Two months after his White House meeting, on Sept. 30, Ford approved the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. ''It's the health care law that is his crowning achievement for the field,'' said Forrest Gerard, who was one of the architects of the legislation. Gerard, a retired Blackfeet lobbyist, was a legislative staff assistant to Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., one of the bill's primary sponsors, along with Sen. Paul Fannin, R-Ariz.

''The Office of Management and Budget opposed the health bill and was pressing for a veto, and so was the Health, Education and Welfare Department,'' said Gerard. ''Brad Patterson and Dr. Ted Marrs in the White House were for the bill. The president overruled HEW and OMB and signed it.''

Bradley Patterson, a White House staffer in both the Nixon and Ford administrations, was Ford's coordinator for American Indian affairs. He remembers that OMB considered the health bill to be ''too expensive and recommended a veto.'' Patterson said he ''wrote a memo to Ford opposing the veto.''

Ford also approved the Indian Crimes Act, as well as legislation returning land to the Havasupai Tribe and making surplus federal property and submarginal lands available to Indian tribes.

No one in Washington attains federal Indian policy alone. In a future column, I will mention some of the myriad Native people who were responsible for the Ford Indian legacy, after the health care law is reauthorized.

Patterson remembers his former boss as ''a wonderful man of integrity and honesty.'' He recalls that it was a turbulent time for Indian people and policies, especially following the 1972 takeover of the BIA building in Washington and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

''There was a big backlash out of South Dakota, and politicians were accusing us of mollycoddling Indians,'' said Patterson, ''but I'm proud of the fact that we had an open-door policy.''

''Ford was a decent man,'' said Gerard. ''He signed some good laws and didn't do anything to hurt us.'' Gerard does not recall Ford having a role in any Indian legislation in the House. ''I do know that it was a more collegial kind of place when he was there.''

As a campaigner for the 39th president, Jimmy Carter, I hope our conduct was as collegial as I remember it. I don't recall even disliking Ford. It seemed that the contest was with Nixon. Our campaign for Indian votes was to have a solid set of Indian policy promises, all of which we kept.

It was lovely to hear in Carter's eulogy for Ford the depth of friendship and affection the former competitors had achieved.

I watched the arrival of the funeral cortege at the Capitol on television. When the cannon volleys shook my windows, I remembered I had a duty in my neighborhood. For a short while, I paid my respects by standing outside the House side of the Capitol, as the former president's remains and casket were in Statuary Hall.

Later I learned that W. Richard West and his wife, Mary Beth, also longtime Washington residents, stood outside the National Cathedral before the ceremony there. ''We wanted to pay him that small honor,'' said West, who is Cheyenne and the director of the National Museum of the American Indian; she is a retired State Department lawyer and diplomat.

West praised Ford's ''commitment to the public good. He embodied that. I found myself wishing for the essential middle of the country, of this town that is so hard to find, so hard to see, today.''

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.