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Indian voices and a new comprehensive Indian policy

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In the space of two years, between 1968 and 1970, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon made comprehensive and innovative statements on Indian policy. Together, the combined statements created the fundamental principles of contemporary policy, usually called self-determination policy. Neither president used the expression ''self-determination policy,'' but ''self-help,'' ''local tribal decision-making'' and ''self-determination'' were expressions used on both policy statements. No president before or after Johnson and Nixon has provided such comprehensive statements on Indian policy and relations between Indians to the United States.

During the early 1900s, Indian policy cycled back and forth between policies supporting Indian self-government, paternalism, or fostering of full citizenship, often called assimilation. Since the 1930s, all presidents have rejected the paternalism of the 1880s to 1920s. During the early reservation period, the Office of Indian Affairs took virtual control over Indian reservation communities and delivered a policy of forced assimilation. Indian children were shipped to boarding schools where Indian culture and language were discouraged. Indian governments were rendered powerless and land was broken up into small individual portions according to various allotment acts. The Miriam Report in 1928 outlined the failure of Indian department paternalism; it resulted in the loss of Indian lands, poor economic conditions, poor health and little direction for most Indian communities.

Between 1930 and the 1960s, presidents rejected paternalism, but had various solutions to Indian policy. The predominant policy was to provide Indians with the tools to become self-sufficient members of American society and economy, and called for an ultimate dissolution of Indian wardship status and federal trust relations. Presidents Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and the early Johnson offered variations of the transition to full U.S. citizenship to avoid the paternalism of government trusteeship and to have opportunities to enter and enjoy the fruits of American economy and life.

The clearest expression of the full citizenship policy was the termination policy of the 1950s. Termination refers to the ending of U.S. trust responsibility and wardship status for Indians, but also meant a denial of treaty rights and independent Indian governments and status. After the revelations of Nazi death camp racism in World War II and during the Cold War, international pressures from the United Nations and the Soviet Union underscored political and economic disadvantages for American racial minorities. Indian issues tended to be framed as racial minority issues, and presidents pressed policies of full citizenship through greater civil rights and greater economic opportunity as solutions to Indian wardship and federal paternalism.

The full citizenship policy had a fundamental flaw: it did not have the support or consent of most Indian communities and peoples. While the presidents believed they were working in the best interests of the United States and Indian people, they tended to develop policy without significant American Indian influence. Since the 1950s, U.S. presidents started to consult regularly with Indian leadership, but often did not adopt or incorporate Indian voices and ideas into the formulation of the full citizenship policy.

After the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 108 in the summer of 1953, Congress worked to implement the termination policy, in part because presidents did not work effectively to initiate a termination policy. Congress started to initiate termination policy with congressional acts and laid out the policy for the executive branch. During the 1950s, the National Congress of American Indians, newly incorporated in 1944, led many Indian communities in opposition to termination policy, and by the late 1950s had secured a strong coalition of states and tribal communities to stop termination. In total, about 110 Indian communities were terminated, although since then most have been restored under the self-determination policy.

Indian leaders and national organizations turned to alternative policy solutions during the Chicago Conferences of the early 1960s, and through the NCAI. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were actively engaged in listening to Indian recommendations for new policy orientations. Kennedy's Indian policy was based largely on full citizenship and anti-poverty programs. Early in Johnson's administration, he too advanced citizenship and anti-poverty programs, but by his 1968 Indian policy proposals, ''The Forgotten American,'' Johnson had gained considerable knowledge about Indian issues and needs. While he continued to advance a strong anti-poverty program, he now recognized that many Indian people wanted to remain in Indian communities. He suggested a policy of maximum choice, where Indians could choose between reservation life or work in urban areas. Early in his administration, Nixon consulted with Indian leaders and was well-informed in his 1970 Indian policy statement. Nixon rejected termination policy, and asked Congress to officially reject H.R. 108, which set out termination policy. Congress agreed. Nixon argued that Indians should have the right to develop and build reservation governments, communities and economies without the threat of loss of federal government-to-government relations. Furthermore, Nixon stated that federal support of tribal communities was not out of the goodness of the government to help a disadvantaged racial minority, but the basis of relations between Indians and the U.S. government were based on solemn treaties and agreements. The United States has a moral obligation to uphold the treaty agreements.

The most far-reaching Indian policy during the 1900s emerged when Indian people were actively engaged in policy construction. When Johnson and Nixon listened to the policy principles and needs of the Indian people, Indian policy much more clearly reflected the goals and needs of Indian people, and reflected the history of honoring treaties and other agreements.

The year 2008 is an election year, and we need the presidential candidates to listen again more closely to the needs and issues of the Indian people. The next president should be held responsible to consult and incorporate the needs and aspirations of Indian communities into a comprehensive Indian policy, for that will help Indian peoples confront the issues of the 21st century.