Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 31st 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.
Fifty years before Herbert Clark Hoover took office as the 31st president of the United States, he spent eight months living on the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, where he “learned much aboriginal lore of the woods and streams, and how to make bows and arrows.”
Hoover, who was six years old at the time, lived with an uncle who was an Indian agent. He attended “Indian Sunday-school” and “had constant association with the little Indians at the agency school,” he wrote in his memoirs.
Born to a Quaker family in Iowa in 1874, Hoover also had relatives who worked as Indian agents in Oregon and Alaska. He is the only U.S. president to have lived on an Indian reservation.
“Hoover had an empathy for the Indians,” said Matt Schaefer, an archivist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. “He had all these touch points with Indians as a child and young adult that led to this more enlightened Indian policy.”
Hoover pursued a career as a geologist and mining engineer, but transitioned to humanitarian work during World War I. His political career began in 1917 with his appointment to head the newly established Food Administration. He also served as secretary of commerce before being elected as president in 1928.
A member of the Republican Party, Hoover served one term in office, from 1929 to 1933. Although he contended with the Great Depression, Hoover’s presidency is often seen as a transitional period in Indian policy, bridging the gap between the assimilation era and a new era of Indian self-determination, Schaefer said.
“With Hoover, we begin to see a pivot away from segregating Indians on reservations and ignoring them as part of American citizenry,” he said. “He had a philosophical goal of integrating Indians into society through education and improved access to healthcare.”
Hoover appointed Charles Rhoads, a fellow Quaker and president of the Indian Rights Association, as commissioner of Indian Affairs and the two helped define federal Indian policies that would span the next four decades. Their plan sought to “make the Indians self-supporting and self-respecting,” Hoover wrote in his memoirs. It also promised to lighten the burden of Indian management.
“A certain amount of the time of every President every week, from George Washington down, has had to be devoted to Indian Affairs,” he wrote. “Certainly, our 400,000 Indians consume more official attention than any twenty cities of 400,000 white people.”
Hoover served with Vice President Charles Curtis, who was one-quarter Kaw and recognized as the first person with non-European ancestry to reach either of the nation’s top executive offices. Hoover and Curtis took office promising to support reforms detailed in the 1928 Meriam Report, a comprehensive study that found life on Indian reservations to be “deplorable” and encouraged Congress to allocate funding to Native communities, reform Indian policy and reorganize the Office of Indian Affairs.
Hoover criticized assimilation policies that were based on the government’s “fervid anxiety” for the Indians’ “moral and spiritual welfare.” These policies aimed to civilize Indians “whether they liked it or not,” he wrote in his memoirs.
For generations, Indian policy had vibrated between two extremes: “from a yearning at one pole to perpetuate the tribal organization and customs to a desire at the other pole to make industrious citizens of them and thus fuse them with the general population,” Hoover wrote. Meanwhile, Indian communities were “infested with human lice in the shape of white men” who illegally sold liquor or married Indian women to gain control of land and oil rights.
Hoover also decried the loss of Native land through the allotment policy—90 million acres since the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887—and supported legislation that affirmed treaty rights and protected tribes from further exploitation.
In February 1931, Hoover vetoed legislation that called for “fair and just compensation” for lands ceded in the late 19th century to the United States by the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. In his veto message, Hoover argued that “the value of such lands ha(d) obviously increased during the last 150 years” and that the government could not “undertake revision of treaties,” especially in light of subsequent events.
The following year, Congress passed the Leavitt Act, which canceled all outstanding debts “in such a way as shall be equitable and just in consideration of all the circumstances under which such charges were made.” The act relieved Indians of federal debts totaling millions of dollars.
Yet Hoover still sought for assimilation, Schaefer said. He saw Indians not as wards of the government but as potential citizens who, if properly prepared to function in mainstream society, might abandon their tribal communities.
“He spent money to build schools and hospitals on reservations at a time when federal spending was down,” Schaefer said. “His remedy for decades of failed Indian policy was to find ways to assimilate the younger generation.”
In a January 1930 statement on Indian Affairs, Hoover called for an increase of $3 million for better reservation schools and hospitals. The existing budget allotted only 20 cents per Indian child per day for food and clothing.
Hoover asked Congress to double the allocation so Indian children could be “maintained in reasonable health.” His request came even as America wrangled with the worst economic crisis in its history.
“The broad problem is to better train the Indian youth to take care of themselves and their property,” Hoover said. “It is the only course by which we can ultimately discharge this problem from the Nation, and blend them as a self-supporting people into the Nation as a whole.”
Hoover left office in 1933 and was succeeded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He died in 1964 at age 90.