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Return to ‘First Americans’ reason for pause

At the Tribal Nations Conference in early November, President Obama used the expression “First Americans” to address the American Indian leaders gathered at a Department of Interior building in Washington, D.C. The president used the expression as a greeting of respect and honor. He expressed support for greater visibility and direct access to federal agencies including the White House, and reiterated campaign promises of more funding in critical areas such as health and education.

American Indian policy, however, has not been a primary focus during the president’s senatorial career and public life. Most presidents have little contact with Indian Affairs policy, and President Obama, while not directly experienced, has indicated his administration will not forget about American Indians.

The Great Society programs considered American Indians as a minority group that was economically marginalized and in need of greater civil rights protection.

President Obama’s use of the term, First Americans, however, sets a tone that, although most likely inadvertent, casts a shadow over the first tribal meeting and discussions with the new administration. Both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson used “First Americans” when they met with Indian leaders in conferences and when addressing policy. Then, the introduction and use of the expression First Americans was conscious and deliberate.

After the 1950s, when tribal communities organized nationally to stop termination policy, Indian people, leaders, and friends met at the Chicago Conferences and other venues to discuss new policy directions for Indian Affairs. The results of these discussions were handed directly to President Kennedy in the White House at a meeting with the National Congress of American Indians. Indian leaders asked that the president consider the new directions in Indian Affairs. President Kennedy said that he and his advisors were watching closely the new developments. Kennedy, however, did not express support for the new policies that focused on greater recognition and exercise of tribal sovereignty and cultural renewal. President Kennedy was more interested in the national loyalties of the Indians. He wanted American Indians, first of all, to consider themselves U.S. citizens. He interpreted Indian nationalist programs as a possible move away from U.S. loyalties.

Both Kennedy and Johnson wanted tribal peoples to affirm that they were above all citizens of the United States. By calling Indians First Americans, both presidents intended to honor American Indians as the first people in the country of the United States. This is an unusual plea from both presidents, since Indians were granted citizenship only in 1924, and generally not by individual or collective consent, but rather through acts of Congress. Most American Indians were quite strongly committed to U.S. citizenship, but considered treaty and indigenous rights paramount. Calling Indians First Americans, implying they are the first citizens of the United States, is not only historically incorrect, but symbolically damaging to Indian efforts to renew tribal cultures and governments. First Americans, as first citizens, do not have indigenous rights that were preserved in treaties and were exercised before the United States became a country.

Obama expressed support for greater visibility and direct access to federal agencies including the White House, and reiterated campaign promises of more funding in critical areas such as health and education.

The policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations did not recognize or support tribal sovereignty or treaty rights. The Great Society programs considered American Indians as a minority group that was economically marginalized and in need of greater civil rights protection. During the 1960s, Congress did not officially repeal, neither did the presidents ask Congress to repeal, the termination acts of the 1950s. The Indian policies of the 1960s were a form of slow termination, where Indian communities and individuals would benefit from social programs and join American life. There was no place for treaty rights, or indigenous rights for the “First Americans.”

The reintroduction of the expression First Americans gives one pause at the very least. The administration outlined support for many needed programs and has already provided greater governmental access. Although he has taken measured steps down this path, President Obama has yet to articulate an Indian policy that reflects his take on Indian self-determination.