Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 37th 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.
Richard Milhous Nixon is perhaps best known for being the only U.S. president to resign from office, but the man forever linked to the Watergate scandal also transformed federal Indian policy.
Eighteen months into his first term, Nixon delivered to Congress a landmark address on Indian Affairs, unveiling policies that ushered in the era of self-determination. In his July 8, 1970, address, Nixon called for a new policy of “self-determination without termination,” instigating lasting changes in federal-Indian relationships.
“The first Americans—the Indians—are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation,” he said. “On virtually every scale of measurement—employment, income, education, health—the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.”
Nixon’s remarks came 17 years after Congress approved House Concurrent Resolution 108, which called for an end to Indians’ “status as wards of the United States” and officially launched the termination era. During the next 10 years, the federal government terminated its relationship with more than 100 tribes, severing tribes’ rights to land, sovereignty and special protections.
Nixon called for congressional action to overturn House Concurrent Resolution 108. Indian policy too often was “ineffective and demeaning,” he said. Instead, it should “recognize and build upon the capacities and insights” of Indians themselves.
In his address, Nixon unequivocally rejected termination policy, claiming it was based on false premises and its practical results were “clearly harmful.” Instead, the special relationship between Indians and the federal government was based on “solemn obligations” or treaties.
“To terminate this relationship would be no more appropriate than to terminate the citizenship rights of any other American,” Nixon said. The United States “must make it clear that Indians can become independent of federal control without being cut off from federal concern and federal support.”
Nixon also outlined nine specific changes in federal policy, including restoration of some Native lands, funding for reservation-based health care programs, expansion of programs for urban Indians and creation of a cabinet-level position for an assistant secretary of Indian Affairs.
“Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us,” he said. “The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
Nixon began fulfilling his promises by the end of 1970 when he signed a bill returning the sacred Blue Lake in New Mexico to the Taos Pueblo. Six decades earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt grabbed the lake and 48,000 surrounding acres for the newly created Carson National Forest.
When he signed Public Law 91-550 in December 1970, Nixon restored Native access to a site the Taos Pueblo considered the heart of its culture. The law also set a precedent of self-determination for all Native Americans, Nixon said.
“This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done,” he said. “In signing the bill I trust that this will mark one of those periods in American history where, after a very, very long time, and at times a very sad history of injustice, that we started on a new road—a new road which leads us to justice in the treatment of those who were the first Americans.”
Courtesy National Archives
President Richard M. Nixon signs a bill to return the sacred Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, on December 15, 1970. Tribal leaders stand next to him at the White House.
One year later, Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which transferred 44 million acres of land to Alaska Natives. The act also called for $962.5 million in compensation and led to the incorporation of more than 200 indigenous villages.
Nixon’s Indian policy followed weaker attempts by presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to end termination, said Carole Goldberg, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. While Kennedy and Johnson both prioritized social programs that benefited Indians (along with other marginalized populations), they failed to recognize the special relationship between tribes and the federal government.
Nixon’s presidency signaled a “philosophical shift” in the way America viewed its indigenous people, Goldberg said. This shift was the hallmark of Nixon’s Indian policy.
“Nixon was the person who grasped the difference between self-determination and anti-poverty programs most effectively,” she said. “He articulated the difference between an anti-poverty agenda and a self-determination agenda.”
Born to a Quaker family in California in 1913, Nixon played football at Whittier College, where he formed a lasting relationship with his coach, Wallace “Chief” Newman, a member of the La Jolla Band of Mission Indians. In his memoirs, Nixon said his admiration for Newman was second only to what he felt for his father.
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“He drilled into me a competitive spirit and the determination to come back after you have been knocked down or after you lose,” Nixon wrote. “He also gave me an acute understanding that what really matters is not a man’s background, his color, his race, or his religion, but only his character.”
Nixon went on to study law at Duke University. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he represented California in the U.S. House and the Senate before being elected as vice president with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952—a position he held for eight years.
A Republican, Nixon narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election, but he ran again in 1968 and won. He was re-elected in 1972, but served only 19 months of his second term.
Nixon took office in January 1969, amid rising Native American militancy. In November of that year, a group of Red Power activists took over Alcatraz Island, reclaiming the land for its original inhabitants and occupying it for 19 months.
In November 1972, American Indian Movement activists drove from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., intent on delivering to Nixon a list of Indian grievances. But Nixon was out of the country and the activists instead occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building for 72 hours.
In February 1973, one month after Nixon started his second term, AIM leaders and about 200 activists occupied the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in an armed takeover that lasted 71 days. The occupation ended in May after two Indians were killed and a deputy marshal was wounded.
AP Photo/Jim Mone, File
In this March 3, 1973 file photo, a U.S. flag flies upside down outside a church occupied by members of the American Indian Movement AIM), background, on the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D. AIM's occupation of Wounded Knee triggered a violent standoff with federal authorities.
Nixon continued to advocate for Native Americans, signing 52 legislative measures to support sovereignty. In December 1973, he signed the Menominee Restoration Act, ending the tribe’s termination status and restoring its right to self-determination. He also increased the BIA budget by more than 200 percent, doubled funds for Indian health care and created the Office of Indian Water Rights.
One of Nixon’s greatest contributions to Indians, however, came after he left office. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, signed in January 1975, officially reversed Indian termination and authorized government agencies to work directly with tribes. Championed by Nixon, the act was designed to “provide maximum Indian participation in the government and education of the Indian people.”
Nixon resigned in 1974 and his vice president, Gerald R. Ford, completed his term. He died in 1994 at age 81.