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Praise for an unsung hero

A major puzzle of modern Indian policy is why President Richard Nixon created the innovative self-determination policy that prevails today. Nixon rejected termination policy and established that federal-Indian policy was based on treaties rather than programs of social welfare.

Many suggestions are given for Nixon;s interest in changing Indian policy. Some say he wanted his administration to address minority and ethnic relations emergent during the Cold War. The Johnson and Kennedy administrations addressed civil rights, race and ethnic relations, but did not uphold or support indigenous rights based on treaties and government-to-government relations. Nixon's Quaker background, with its history of honoring treaties, tribal land ownership, and engaging social and political support for Indian communities, significantly contributed to his psychology and understanding of the world. Indian activists during the 1960s and '70s say that Indian protests and visibility created a political environment that forced the U.S. government and the Nixon administration to recognize Indian treaty rights and social needs.

All of these factors most likely contributed to the development of Nixon's innovative Indian policy, but perhaps the most intriguing impact may have been a personal relationship with his Whittier College football coach, Wallace Newman.

Newman was a member of the La Jolla Band of Mission Indians, whose reservation is located in southern California. His mother was of Basque and Luiseno Indian descent. Newman was well-versed in the traditions and history of the La Jolla community. He spoke the Luiseno language fluently and mastered family and tribal customs that he learned from his great aunt, ''Yela'' Maria Antonio Nelson.

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Newman was well-known for his quick defense of Indian people, history and rights. In response to a comment about ''lazy Indians,'' he defended his community by pointing out that the Indian missions of California were built by Indian labor and hard work. Attending local schools as a young man, Newman excelled as an athlete. His football ability attracted the attention of the University of Southern California Trojans coach Elmer Henderson.

As a captain of the USC squad, Newman led the Trojans to victory over Penn State in the 1923 Rose Bowl. After graduating, he took a job as a football coach at West Covina High School and was later invited to coach at Whittier College, then a Quaker institution. He coached the Whittier Poets from 1929 to 1951 (Nixon played for him from 1932 to 1934). By all accounts, Newman was popular among his players, and gained considerable respect as a mentor and teacher of football and good character.

Nixon, a substitute tackle, did not get much playing time, but was on the team for three seasons. Newman admired and respected Nixon as a student, friend and politician. In practices, Nixon often got roughed up, but he did not complain and always came back to meet the next plays. Nixon did not play enough while at Whittier College to earn a letter, but years later Newman had the honor of presenting the president with an honorary letter. Newman supported Nixon's political campaigns, from his 1946 run for Congress through to the 1968 presidential election, and remained a close friend after Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974.

Newman had a long-term and significant influence on Nixon as a man, and most likely provided some first-hand knowledge of Indian people and life that few modern presidents have had. In his memoirs, the former president said that other than his own father, Newman was the person who had the greatest influence on his life. His interest and policy proposals in Indian affairs often puzzled his group of immediate advisers, who probably did not share the same interest.

Newman provided leadership, inspiration, teachings and mentorship in ways that were traditional within Indian communities. He led by example and deed, and thereby sought to inspire others to do the same. He might be the unsung hero of modern American Indian policy.