Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 40th 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.
With just eight months to go before the end of his two-term presidency, Ronald Wilson Reagan declared that the United States might have “made a mistake” in humoring the Indians.
His audience was a group of students and faculty at Moscow State University in May 1988. His speech was delivered nearly 5,000 miles from Washington, D.C., yet a group of Native Americans reportedly had traveled to the Soviet Union for a chance to bend the President’s ear.
When questioned about his failure to connect with the Indians on home soil, Reagan opined about the state of Indian affairs—and in the process revealed a gaping hole in his own understanding.
“Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land,” he began. “We have provided millions of acres of land” for reservations, and “they, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life.”
The government set up reservations, established a Bureau of Indian Affairs and provided education for the Indians, Reagan said. Yet some still preferred “that early way of life” over becoming mainstream American citizens.
“We’ve done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live,” he said. “Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us.”
Reagan also claimed ignorance about any grievances Indians might have.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “Some of them became very wealthy because some of those reservations were overlaying great pools of oil, and you can get very rich pumping oil.”
Reagan’s remarks set off a firestorm among Native Americans at home. Suzan Shawn Harjo, then executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said she was appalled and claimed Reagan “headed the worst administration for Indians since the days of outright warfare and extermination.”
Seven months later—and just days before Reagan left the White House—he apologized for his Moscow remarks. During a December 1988 meeting with 16 Indian leaders—which lasted only 20 minutes—Reagan praised tribes’ achievements and contributions. He also pledged commitment to policies of self-determination.
“Indians should have the right to choose their own life, the right to have a say in what happens in Indian country,” Reagan read from a prepared statement. “Our tribes need the freedom to spend the money available to them, to create a better quality of life and meet their needs as they define them. Tribes must make those decisions, not the federal government.”
Born in Illinois in 1911, Reagan’s first job was as a lifeguard. He attended Eureka College, a private liberal arts institution where he was a C-average student, then embarked on a career first as a radio announcer and later as a Hollywood actor and TV personality.
He served two terms as California governor, from 1967 to 1975, and made a bid for U.S. president in 1976—but lost the nomination to incumbent Gerald R. Ford. Reagan ran again in 1980 and won. A Republican, he served two terms, from 1981 to 1989.
Reagan, who decades earlier spoke out against communism, took office during the final decade of the Cold War. During his 1980 campaign, he ran a series of television commercials that urged Americans to look to a brighter future.
“We have to move ahead,” he said at the end of the ad. “But we can’t leave anybody behind.”
That philosophy included Native Americans, said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. Reagan rallied Americans to be self-reliant and grow the economy, and he extended the same appeal to Indians.
“Just about everything going on with the presidency during the Reagan years was cast in the shadow of the Cold War,” Shirley said. “Part of Reagan’s philosophy as a conservative president was self-sufficiency, and that applied to Native Americans.”
Two years into his first term, Reagan issued a statement that defined his administration’s policies toward Indians. The January 1983 statement came after Morton Blackwell, a Cherokee man who served as special assistant to the President, held more than 100 meetings with tribal leaders and compiled a list of concerns, including water rights, federal assistance and economic opportunity.
Reagan addressed all of the concerns in his policy statement. He also recognized the “unique political relationship” between tribes and the federal government.
“This administration believes that responsibilities and resources should be restored to the governments which are closest to the people served,” Reagan said. “This philosophy applies not only to state and local governments but also to federally recognized American Indian tribes.”
In his statement, Reagan upheld policies introduced in 1975 when former President Richard Nixon signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Arguing that there had been “more rhetoric than action” since Nixon, Reagan pledged to remove “excessive regulation and self-perpetuating bureaucracy” that stifled decision-making and “thwarted Indian control of Indian resources.”
Reagan outlined robust plans to restore tribal self-government, develop reservation economics, repudiate Indian termination policies, support direct funding to tribes and establish a Presidential Advisory Commission on Indian Reservation Economies to identify and remove obstacles to economic growth in Indian country.
Reagan’s plans came amid budget shortfalls that handicapped tribal economic progress. They also came as Interior Secretary James Watt criticized tribal leaders for their dependence on federal handouts.
In a television interview conducted less than a week before Reagan issued his Indian policy statement, Watt said Indian reservations offered a better example of the “failure of socialism” than the Soviet Union.
Watt described Indians as “incompetent wards of the government” and claimed reservations were hotbeds of unemployment, alcoholism, adultery, divorce, drug abuse and venereal disease. “Every social problem is exaggerated because of socialistic government policies,” he said.
Although he pledged support for Indians, Reagan oversaw severe budget cuts to social service programs that assisted tribes. His policies of self-determination focused on reducing tribal reliance on federal support.
“Reagan did much to alleviate the plight of American Indians, but I think he was just as stymied as any other president about what to do about Indian nations and tribes,” Shirley said. “He wanted them to have economic freedom and opportunity, and he wanted them to be able to take care of themselves.”
During his last months in office, Reagan signed two major bills affecting Native Americans: the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the Tribal Self-Governance Act. The first established a mechanism to govern Indian gaming, while the second dictated the transfer of federal programs to Indian tribes.
“Tribal self-governance allows tribes more freedom to design programs to serve the specific needs of their members,” Reagan said. But the Tribal Self-Governance Act also called for reduced funding to tribes “if so directed.”
Reagan left office in 1989 and was succeeded by George H.W. Bush. Reagan died in 2004 at age 93.