President Gerald R. Ford took office on Aug. 9, 1974, immediately following
the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, the first and only American president
The talk at the time was of a deal between the two - Ford's pardon of the
president for Watergate-related activities, in return for Nixon's elevating
him to the vice-presidency upon the resignation of the incumbent
vice-president, Spiro Agnew, over a separate bribery scandal.
Ford soon pardoned the former president. Both men denied that any deal had
Whatever the verdict of history on that point, Nixon the stalwart
Republican had other reasons to like Ford, not least being that the
Michigan senator had consistently voted for Nixonian proposals. That meant
And so it would prove out. Ford would sign into law two major bills that
got their start in the Nixon White House: the Indian Self-Determination and
Education Assistance Act of 1975, and the Indian Health Care Improvement
Act of 1976. The importance of these two laws alone - aside from several
other monumental initiatives during the Nixon years - can hardly be
exaggerated, and Ford's signature is on both.
By the time Ford left the Oval Office following his failed presidential bid
in the 1976 election, Indian issues had a presence on the national
political landscape that had seldom if ever been so positive. With it came
funding appropriations that gave traction to the self-determining policies
of the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Still and all, few have ever accused Ford of being more than a capable
placeholder for his predecessor. Whereas Nixon counted among his many gifts
a "built-in sympathy for Indians," in the phrase of Brad Patterson, a
point-man for the Nixon administration on Native issues, the most that can
be said for Ford is that he stayed the course - he "won't take any U-turns
for any Indian policies," as the American Indian Press Associated reported
at the time.
In fact, a small hint exists that Ford could have been trouble for Indian
affairs if left to his own discretion. The Indian Health Care Improvement
Act of 1976 would go far beyond the previous congressional authorization
for Indian Health Services, the Snyder Act of 1921. Enacted as Public Law
94-437, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act emphasized Indian health
care as a federal responsibility, authorized more than $1 billion "to
supplement, not supplant" the recurring Indian Health Service
appropriation, and provided a number of specific health benefits, according
to "A Political History of the Indian Health Service."
Ford's role in forging the bill and shepherding it through Congress was
limited. That task fell to a few "insiders" from the Nixon administration
such as Patterson and Dr. Ted Marrs, and above all Forrest Gerard and
Franklin Ducheneaux, American Indians in key staff positions in the Senate
and House of Representatives, respectively. Gerard and Ducheneaux typified
an emerging generation of Indian leaders who would truly work the political
system from within, following the radical attempts of the American Indian
Movement and others to buck the system from without. Of course, countless
Indian people before them had done so, but the social and political setting
around the Ford administration proved especially fruitful.
As only one example of this improved setting, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the
powerful Democrat who had been opposing Nixon's initiative to return sacred
lands to Taos Pueblo, had arrived at more enlightened views on Indian
issues. He would come to be, finally, a friend of Indian affairs in the
Senate. But for now, with Gerard on his staff, Ducheneaux working the House
side, a number of other overachievers hard at work and several other
factors lining up favorably - for now it was more than enough to get the
Indian Health Care Improvement Act to Ford's desk, rather against the odds
because of the billion dollar-plus authorization.
But once there, it wasn't a done deal. The Cabinet secretariat with
jurisdiction over health care, as well as the Office of Management and
Budget with its usual concern to curtail budgetary requests, both
recommended a veto. As noted by the multiple authors of "A Political
History of the Indian Health Service," Patterson and Marrs recommended the
president sign the bill despite disapproval within his own Republican
After an intense campaign from both viewpoints, Ford did so. But even here,
the political process surrounding this major legislation seems like a weak
solution of Nixonian showdowns on Indian issues. In retrospect, the clash
over the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reads like the situation
familiar to every president - 51 headstrong and intelligent people see it
one way, 49 see it another way, and the president has to disappoint one of
those large groups. Ford decided this one for Indians, and Indian health
care has been on an improving curve ever since. Its well-known shortcomings
and deficiencies must be measured against the immensity of the task, a task
Ford addressed with a stroke of his pen.
The other leading piece of Indian legislation from the Ford years was less
controversial. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act
of 1975 was so central to Nixon's initiatives, and so supported by tribes,
that opposition never reached the levels excited by the health bill. Once
enacted into law as P.L. 93-638, the act authorized tribes to manage their
own programs with federal funds under so-called "638 contracts."
Previously, federal agencies had managed Indian-specific programs, delaying
the day when tribes would implement their own solutions, expand the skills
and capacities of their own members, reinvest federal funding into their
own local economies, and develop their own equivalent of a civil service.
But if the passage of P.L. 93-638 didn't bring out the heat lightning other
Nixon-Ford initiatives had, the aftermath of its passage more than made up
for it - as played out during the Carter presidency, examined in the next
installment of this series leading up to the 2004 elections.