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Rating the Presidents: Richard M. Nixon

One may search the mysteries of character for President Richard M. Nixon's commitment to Indian country. One may contemplate the moral shaping of his Quaker-influenced upbringing, or take him at his word when he maintained (in the autobiography "In the Arena") that next to his father, an American Indian was the most influential man in his life.

Wallace Newman, the football coach and philosophy professor at Whittier College in California, more or less affectionately known as "Chief" in those not-yet-ready-for-political-correctness years, instilled lessons of the "never say die" type that would serve Nixon well over the countless comebacks and reversals of a political career that seems more strangely epic with each passing year. In addition, according to Jerry Straus, a young attorney in the Nixon White House (now of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP, the veteran Indian litigation firm in Washington), the former president felt Newman would have been a great football coach on a grander stage than Whittier if not for racism attitudes of the time.

But if one focuses on policy, on the nuts and bolts of what the Nixon administration actually did to improve the lot of tribes and Indian individuals from the grand stage of Washington ? then rather quickly one's focus comes to rest on the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, only a year after Nixon's 1968 election to the presidency.

Full details of that dramatic insurrection and the ensuing siege must await another venue. There will be time and space then to properly consider whether that claim on the world's attention, or the later occupation of BIA headquarters at the very nerve center of national policy, deserves the priority for putting Indian self-determination before the American public in a way that could not be ignored.

But for now, one thing is clear: Alcatraz, for whatever reasons one may wish to seek in the character of seeming contradictions that was Nixon - Alcatraz put Indian claims to cultural identity and land rights before the Nixon administration in a way that would not be ignored. And from the Nixon administration came policy breakthroughs that are literally breathtaking in their number and impact, viewed in the long perspective of 30-plus years.

Adam Fortunate Eagle, a principal figure in the strategic plan for asserting Indian identity that settled on Alcatraz, points out that without the repeal of termination as federal policy, none of the necessary political traction would have built up behind the Nixon-era Indian policy reforms. The decks would not have been clear, so to speak; Congress and the administration would not have gotten the running start they needed for the virtual revolution they wrought in Indian policy between Nixon's Special Message to Congress on Indian Affairs of July 8, 1970, and the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. And the occupation of Alcatraz set the stage for the Nixon administration's successful effort to repeal termination as policy; for perhaps the major message of Alcatraz was that we're here on the land and you won't terminate us.

Brad Patterson, an official within Leonard Garment's civil rights shop in the Nixon White House, put it this way: "That crisis [Alcatraz] fell into our laps." But from then on, "We got very deeply involved in Native American affairs."

In particular, it seems that Nixon found a role for himself in Indian affairs - importantly, a role that appealed to him. Again in Patterson's words, "He had a warm spot in his heart for Indians." Politically, "Nixon saw that he could be a liberal on this," Patterson said.

Alcatraz, in the first years of the eventful Nixon administration, commenced a pattern of provocation and response that Patterson would often see repeated: "When aggressive, even violent protests arose ? the Nixon White House intervened strongly to curb excessive government counteraction and to promote negotiations."

Alcatraz was a non-violent protest. But even through the much more radical American Indian Movement occupations of BIA national headquarters in 1972 and Wounded Knee village the next year, "The Nixon doctrine in these crises was tolerance," Patterson said.

But Alcatraz established the pattern. The government administered the island as surplus lands, and the official with frontline authority had already mobilized to send in superior force - and use it. Patterson was there when Garment, acting with the full authority of the White House, ordered the infuriated official to "call off the police in favor of negotiators."

Negotiations dragged on, but by the time the occupation ended Nixon had delivered the Special Message to Congress of 1970.

The first fruits of that message, the return of sacred Blue Lake lands to Taos Pueblo, became the battleground for all the Nixonian accomplishments in Indian affairs that followed, according to Straus. In his view, that is largely because Nixon refused to back down from a Senate Interior Committee establishment that resisted his reforms. The late Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Washington state Democratic senator who wielded great power in the 1970s, had never lost a Senate "floor fight" before he went up against Nixon on the Blue Lake restoration, Straus said. Indeed one might add, only somewhat in jest, that Nixon rated doing the right thing by Indians above what became his greatest contribution to world peace. For he sent another powerful senator packing who threatened to vote against the Nixon-backed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty if Nixon didn't withdraw the Blue Lake restoration. The senator voted against him, but Nixon won on ABM and Blue Lake too. That opened the floodgates to a host of further Nixonian accomplishments in Indian affairs.

Patterson offers a further partial list of Nixonian laws and policies that favored Indian people to a more or less unprecedented extent :

* The Indian Financing Act became law.

* The Menominee Restoration Act became law, reversing the tribe's termination and restoring its lands to reservation status.

* The administration restored Mount Adams lands to the Yakima.

* The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act became law.

* "Indian desks" were established at the departments of Commerce, Small Business, Labor, Agriculture and Justice. Through these points of contact, Patterson said, "We made sure Indians got their fair share of surplus funds" and other direct assistance.

* The Department of Justice initiated the administrative practice of requiring that "split briefs" be submitted to all federal courts when Indian trust rights came under challenge, ensuring that Indians would get a fair hearing in cases where the trustee federal government and its agencies were credibly alleged to be the wrongdoers.

* Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, actively chaired the National Indian Advisory Council and assigned significant staff time to Native assistance programs. According to Straus, Agnew took an especially aggressive advocacy role in the Blue Lake restoration.

* The position of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, heading up the BIA, came into being at the Interior Department.

* Positive law on Indian health and education, as well as self-determination, also either passed during the Nixon years, or got a start then.

Speaking for a whole small circle of former Nixon officials, adversaries and constituents - Jerry Straus, Bobbi Kilberg, C.D. Ward, Robert Robertson and others, in addition to himself and Garment, the late president in his time and of course American Indians too numerous to individuate here - Patterson sums up the Nixon years in Indian affairs as "a time of legislative achievement ? We didn't look on this as Republican political. We looked on this as people who needed help, who had not been treated well in two centuries ? It was a time I look back on with great pride."

Straus seconds that with great feeling. "Absolutely. I feel extremely fortunate to have been involved in that, because it was a unique circumstance where real change was made."

Editor's note: In the first installment of the Nixon series (Vol. 23 Iss. 34) the American Indian Movement-inspired occupation of BIA headquarters was said to have occurred in 1970. The occupation occurred in 1972. We regret any inconvenience or misunderstanding the error may have caused.