On May 31, 1988, President Ronald Reagan told an audience of Russian students and faculty that the United States had “made a mistake” in humoring its indigenous people.
Reagan’s speech, a “message of peace and good will” delivered at Moscow State University, ended with a 15-minute question-and-answer session, during which one student asked about Reagan’s failure to connect with Native Americans on home soil. A group of Natives had traveled to Moscow to meet with the President, claiming he would not see them in the United States.
Ronald Reagan responded with remarks that painted Natives as uncooperative in the government’s efforts to assimilate them into mainstream society.
“Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land,” he said. “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, Reagan said, had set aside federal land for reservations, established the Bureau of Indian Affairs and provided schools to educate Indians. But Natives still resisted, he said.
“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 said he welcomed visits from Indians, but claimed not to know of any grievances they might have. In fact, he said, some Indians were so wealthy they could have no valid complaints against the government.
“I’m very pleased to meet with them, talk with them at any time and see what their grievances are or what they feel they might be,” Ronald Reagan said of Indians. “And you'd be surprised: 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. And so, I don't know what their complaint might be.”
The remarks, which set off a firestorm among Native activists at home, were typical of Reagan’s attitude toward Indians, said Ross Swimmer, who served as assistant secretary of Indian Affairs under Reagan. Swimmer, Cherokee, said Reagan employed a hands-off policy when it came to Indian Affairs.
“He didn’t have any knowledge of Indian country,” Swimmer said of Reagan.” His Indian policy was really a delegation of authority. He wanted the secretary of the Interior and myself to handle Indian country.”
Two years earlier, in 1986, Reagan made similar remarks during a conversation with staff, Swimmer said. The President’s views on Indians “hearkened back to 1887” when Congress adopted the General Allotment Act and began dividing Indian land into individual allotments.
Reagan “used to say that the real problem in Indian country is that Indians don’t own their own land,” Swimmer said. “What he was trying to say was that there should have been a better way of assimilating the Indians, rather than isolating them on reservations.”
Seven months after the Moscow speech, on December 12, 1988, Reagan hosted a meeting with 16 tribal leaders, including Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Ivan Sydney, chairman of the Hopi Tribe; and Phillip Martin, chief of the Mississippi Choctaw. During that meeting—which lasted only 20 minutes—Ronald Reagan apologized for his Moscow remarks and praised tribes’ contributions to the nation.
“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.”
Swimmer, who attended an afternoon session with Reagan that same day, said tribal leaders worked for more than a year to set up the meeting. It came with just one month to spare before Reagan left office.
“I had wanted for a long time for him to meet with tribal leaders,” Swimmer said. “It took more than a year to get it scheduled, and then it was so small, so short. But that meeting was one of the last things we were able to accomplish.”