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Two Quaker presidents

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During the 20th century, two Quaker presidents dominated the policy directions in Indian affairs. Herbert Hoover, although serving one term (1929 - 1933), cast a long shadow over Indian affairs for most of the century until 1970. In many ways, Hoover is the architect for termination policy and argued in direct opposition to the New Deal programs and policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 -1945). The most significant break with direct assimilation and termination policies came with the introduction of Richard Nixon's (1969 - 1975) self-determination policy.

Both Nixon and Hoover were raised as Quakers, a pacifist and egalitarian Protestant religious community. Quakers in the United States are tied directly to treaty events with American Indians during the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony. William Penn made treaties with local Natives, often with the Lenape Nation, and upheld a plan of respecting Indian culture, government and land rights. The Quaker plan in Pennsylvania was to buy Indian land to extinguish land rights, and if two tribal communities claimed the same land, the Quakers bought the land from both claimants.

As early as the 1750s, Quakers worked to aid and support American Indians. To this day, many active Quaker groups meet with Indian communities, support Indian policies, and exchange cultural views and interests.

Hoover's mother was a Quaker preacher, and he was brought up in strict religious training. One of the few presidents to have lived on an Indian reservation, he spent much of 1882 on the Osage reservation with his uncle, who was the Indian agent there. After becoming president, Hoover appointed fellow Quakers to the posts of commissioner of Indian affairs and secretary of the Interior Department. He asked them to study and re-evaluate Indian policy, and the Quaker policymakers recommended protection of Indian land and additional efforts to prepare Indians to join the economic and political life of the United States.

Hoover's policies tried to humanize previous polices of forced assimilation, land extractions and dismantling of tribal governments during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He insisted that Indian land be protected, and introduced legislation to support education among Indian students to ensure they gained skills to live and work in American society.

In Hoover's view, Indians should be educated and invited to join American society as full citizens, and abandon reservations and tribal membership. He thought the government spent too much time and money on Indian affairs.

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Hoover also believed that Indians needed a special court of claims, but did not think Indians should be granted land, and should only be compensated for the value of the land at the time of treaty agreement. He argued that the value of the land was a direct result of the labors of American citizens, and therefore that extra value should not pass to Indian claims. He also said that if the United States paid off all of its debts to Natives in payment for treaties, the federal treasury would be bankrupt.

In 1946, President Harry Truman, following Hoover's philosophy and not Roosevelt's New Deal policy, signed the law establishing the Indian Claims Commission. Truman and Hoover believed after the land claims were settled, Indians would have no further outstanding issues and then could be moved into full U.S. citizenship. The ICC was part of the general assimilation and termination policies that dominated the Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Richard Nixon also was raised in a strict Quaker family in Yorba Linda, Calif. At about age 10, the family moved to Whittier, Calif., and joined the Quaker church and community there. While before 1940, Quaker efforts in the Indian communities promoted assimilation, the close contact of Quaker organizations with Indian communities began to reflect Indian fear and disinterest in emerging assimilation and termination policies set out by the government already in the 1940s.

In 1953, Quaker national and Indian organizations opposed passage of House Bill 108, which created termination policy. The American Friends Service Committee, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Associated Executive Committee of Friends on Indian Affairs opposed termination legislation and were active in Indian communities by organizing events to discuss the possible effects of termination policy. Nixon was a dedicated and active Quaker for most of his life, and he would have shared the history of relations with Indians and the importance of land and treaty relations between the colonists and American Indians.

Nixon's self-determination policy is premised on treaty relations, government-to-government relations and the formal rejection of termination policies. No other modern president has based Indian relations on treaty agreements, rather than on minority group status and/or impoverishment. His policies helped set the stage for Indian communities to make community and individual economic progress and cultural revival without fear of termination or loss of indigenous rights to land and self-government.

In their own ways, the two Quaker presidents pressed the philosophies they thought were most beneficial to the nation and to American Indians. Nixon's self-determination policy has dominated Indian policy since 1970, while Hoover's assimilation and termination policies dominated for many years before 1970. The impact of the two Quaker presidents on Indian policy during the 20th century cannot be discounted.