Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 33rd 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 of the most dramatic shifts in federal-Indian relationships occurred under the administration of Harry S. Truman.
When Truman took office in 1945, Indians had unprecedented autonomy under the Indian New Deal, enacted more than a decade earlier by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Indian New Deal abolished the allotment program, allowed tribal communities to organize their own governments and ushered in an era of hope.
Under Roosevelt, Indians enjoyed a 12-year reprieve from aggressive assimilation policies. They had breathing room to regenerate tribal governments and reclaim land.
But Truman’s presidency marked the end of this New Deal and the beginning of Indian termination, a series of policies that sought—once again—to assimilate Indians. Billed as vehicles to integrate Indians into the wider nation and protect them from racial discrimination in the post-World War II era, termination policies dismantled trust relationships, relocated Indians to urban centers and stripped tribes of land and sovereignty.
“Truman parted with Roosevelt and with the philosophies of the Indian New Deal,” said Samuel Rushay, supervisory archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. “He adopted the termination policy out of good intentions because he wanted to encourage racial integration.”
Truman supported termination because he saw it as a way to protect equal rights and improve Indian lives through full participation as citizens, Rushay said. It also lightened the economic burden Indian services placed on the federal government.
“It’s important to remember that Truman tended to conflate Native American rights with the rights of other minorities,” Rushay said. “He saw them as individuals who should have individual rights and freedoms, but he did not take into proper account the importance of tribal culture. He didn’t understand that tribal relationships were an integral part of culture and identity. He didn’t know that by relocating Indians to urban areas he was cutting off their support.”
Within the first decade of the termination era, policies that Truman supported terminated more than 100 tribes, severing their trust relationships with the federal government. Termination defined federal Indian policy for the next 25 years and forever altered the dynamics between tribes and the federal government.
Born in Missouri in 1884, Truman enlisted in the Army National Guard during World War I and served in both active and reserve positions throughout his political career. He briefly owned a clothing store in Missouri before running for public office.
Truman was elected as county court judge in 1922, U.S. Senator from Missouri in 1934 and vice president of the United States in 1944. A member of the Democratic Party, Truman took over as president in April 1945, after Roosevelt’s death. He completed Roosevelt’s fourth term and won re-election in 1948, serving as president for almost eight full years.
Truman’s termination policies called for a claims commission to hear land claims from “any tribe, band or other identifiable group of American Indians.” In August 1946, he signed the Indian Claims Commission Act, establishing a process for resolving long-standing disputes between Indians and the federal government by compensating Indians for lost land.
At the signing ceremony, Truman promised the measure would affirm Indian property rights in the same manner the federal government protected all citizens. The act, Truman said, removed a “lingering discrimination against our First Americans.”
In his statement, Truman denied that the federal government had confiscated Indian lands. Instead, he said, “we have purchased from the tribes that once owned this continent more than 90 percent of our public domain, paying them approximately 800 million dollars in the process.”
Truman vowed to correct any mistakes the government had made by allowing “impartial tribunals” to issue judgments.
“It would be a miracle if in the course of these dealings—the largest real estate transaction in history—we had not made some mistakes and occasionally failed to live up to the precise terms of our treaties and agreements with some 200 tribes,” he said. “With the final settlement of all outstanding claims which this measure ensures, Indians can take their place without special handicap or special advantage in the economic life of our nation and share fully in its progress.”
The act created a three-person commission that defined five categories of claims, including “claims in law or equity arising under the Constitution, laws, treaties of the United States, and Executive orders of the President” and “unconscionable consideration,” which awarded money for the governments’ taking of land without compensation. Yet the commission had authority only to compensate Indians for past grievances—not to return land.
The commission handled more than 600 individual dockets before it was disbanded in 1978. It issued awards totaling about $18 million in efforts to end federal obligations to Indians and resolve, once and for all, every outstanding legal and moral claim Indians had against the United States.
In 1947, Truman selected former President Herbert Hoover to head a commission seeking ways to reduce public expenditures. The subsequent Hoover Commission Report found that support for tribal cultures was based on unsound policy and that assimilation remained the best solution to the Indian problem.
“The basis for historic Indian culture has been swept away,” the commission wrote. “Traditional tribal organization was smashed a generation ago. …Assimilation cannot be prevented. The only questions are: What kind of assimilation and how fast?”
In 1949, the Office of Indian Affairs changed its name to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the following year Truman appointed Dillon Myer as commissioner. Myer introduced the urban relocation program, encouraging Indians to leave their reservations and seek education or work in cities far from home.
Truman’s policies were complicated, Rushay said. While he supported measures that ultimately were detrimental to tribes, he also acted with sympathy toward them. Truman signed legislation calling for the termination of tribes, but he also went out of his way to extend equal rights to Native Americans.
In 1949, Truman authorized Operation Snowbound, a large-scale relief effort that delivered food and supplies for people and livestock affected by severe snowstorms in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. The Blackfeet people later gifted Truman a war bonnet for his help.
In 1949, Truman authorized Operation Snowbound, a large-scale relief effort that delivered food and supplies for people and livestock affected by severe snowstorms in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. In this image, machinery was used to clear a path through snow several feet deep.
In response to a letter from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman in 1950, signed the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act, which appropriated $88 million for schools, hospitals and roads. When Winnebago soldier John Raymond Rice was killed in action during the Korean War in 1951, Truman intervened on behalf of Rice’s family and arranged to have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
When Winnebago soldier John Raymond Rice was killed in action during the Korean War in 1951, Truman intervened on behalf of Rice’s family and arranged to have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
But one of Truman’s administrative assistants later criticized Indian policies during the Truman administration. Philleo Nash, who served as commissioner of Indian Affairs under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, did a series of interviews in the late 1960s.
Harry Truman signed the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act in 1950 in response to this letter from Eleanor Roosevelt.
“At the end of the Truman administration the Indian people were worse off than they were at the beginning,” he said in a 1967 interview. Truman’s solution to the Indian problem was “to wipe out the reservations and scatter the Indians and then there won't be Indian tribes, Indian cultures, or Indian individuals.”
Truman left office in 1953 and was succeeded by Dwight D. Eisenhower. He died in 1972 at age 88.