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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

Fifty years ago, Vine Deloria Jr. offered this prescription of sorts.

"In the long run, I think we are on our way back at the same time the rest of American society is going down,” he said in a 1972 interview. “Almost any book you read today on the social movements analyzes the total disintegration of American society. So I look for American Indians to be the winners in the long run. We must recognize it is a long distance run and we’ve got to keep at it.”

Of course, all of our policy debates today have roots in the past – and 1972 was one of those years when so many issues broke through the surface.

This was the year that the termination policy of the 1950s came to a jarring end. House Concurrent Resolution 106 in 1953 called for an end to federal services, reservations, and “full citizenship” for tribal members. The policy was an economic and human rights disaster. More than 100 tribes were terminated, resulting in the loss of more than 1.3 million acres impacting nearly 12,000 tribal citizens.

Further reading:
Lessons from a Census past
A century ago … so much like now
Blue Lake: Fight was never given up

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation had elected new leadership that rejected termination and took on more authority. In 1972, the tribes closed lands on the reservation to non-Indians because of “littering and loitering.” The tribe voted to take back law enforcement authority ceded in 1955 to the state under public law 280 beginning Feb. 1, 1972.

“We are a sovereignty within a sovereignty and we must be allowed to rule ourselves,” said the new chairman, Mel Tonasket. He was 31 years old.

And in Wisconsin, Ada Deer was elected as chairman of the board of trustees for Menominee Enterprises, Inc. The company had been created under that tribe’s termination legislation to control the assets. It was the beginning of the tribe’s restoration. The entire Wisconsin congressional delegation signed on to the effort, led by Sen. William Proxmire. The process would continue for the next several years and eventually lead to the enactment of the Menominee Restoration Act in 1973.

But the policy of termination was being replaced by self-determination.

Washington Sen. Henry Jackson, a Democrat and chairman of the full Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, proposed tribal self-determination as a policy in 1972. The measure, reflecting priorities from President Richard Nixon’s Message to Congress in 1970, would have allowed tribes to contract directly with the Departments of Interior and Health, Education and Welfare to manage federal programs. Jackson said that approach would end the “disproportionate impact” of the federal government on the lives of tribal citizens. It took three more years before self-determination became the law of the land.

Secret report calls for a new urban policy

On Jan. 15, 1972, representatives from six urban centers gathered in Oakland, California, to send a message that it was long past time for the country to serve urban Native populations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had responded to that conference by stating that “all federal funds will go to reservations.”

John Folster, who was head of the Bay Area Native American Council, said the coalition was not out to fight the BIA and “we don’t want any money directed to the tribes – only other currently unappropriated funds for our own needs.”

A couple of months later the National American Indian Council was formed by some 300 delegates representing 58 cities. The council met in Omaha, Nebraska, in March 1972 and called for “the extension of federal services for all Indians regardless of residence.

Lee Cook, Red Lake Ojibwe, president of the National Congress of American Indians, invited the new organization to join a broader coalition on Native issues. He said it was “practical and politically expedient to organize around needs as you define them.”

Under Cook’s leadership, NCAI revised its membership and included Native people living in cities. “NCAI cannot take a stand against its own people, whether or not they are urban,” said NCAI’s executive director Leo Vocu, Oglala. At one point the congress explored the idea of a national framework that included city chapter membership.

“Urban Indians are not getting their fair share of city services,” Vocu told the American Indian Press Association. “NCAI would certainly support them in seeing they get a fair share of the pie.”

In 1972, the Census Bureau estimated that 185,000 citizens of tribal nations lived in urban areas. Today, the Census figures that about 7 out of 10 Native Americans live in cities, topping more than 1 million people.

Richard LaCourse, Yakama, who was writing for the American Indian Press Association, said a “secret report” by the Interior Department recommended expanding eligibility of BIA services to the urban population. The report recommended spending $19.3 million and that it “be made clear that the BIA believes … services for Indians is applicable to federally recognized tribal or individual Indians ‘on’ or ‘off’ reservations.”

The report was prepared at the request of Rep. Julia Butler Hansen, D-Washington, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The report was authored by Ernie Stevens Sr., Alexander McNabb, and others in BIA leadership. “The American Indian – or the Native American, so called – has rights in the land which predate all subsequent rights which have accrued to European and other immigrants to the United States,” the report said. “The rights of Indians were steadily eroded with each new wave of settlers. Illegal and broken treaties, disease, war, manifest destiny and downright deception together with negligent performance of the federal trust have aided this erosion.”

The American Indian Press Association said it was clear that “the urban Indian question was rapidly becoming a burning financial question in the Capitol City as it was a burning political question on the reservations.”

The BIA report recommended spending $46 million on urban programs, out of a BIA budget of more than $1 billion.

However, the Nixon administration’s Frank Carlucci wrote Interior to say that the “BIA’s responsibility does not extend to Indians who have left the reservation.” He said there were other federal agencies that could fill that role.

Carlucci had been the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the very agency he said should be supporting urban Indian programs. That agency spent “a meager $600,000” on such efforts, according to the American Indian Press Association.

U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisolm, D-New York, shown in this campaign poster, entered the presidential race in January 1972. She was the first African-American woman to run, and she vowed to name an Indigenous person to head the Department of the Interior. (Photo via the Smithsonian Institution)
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One clear promise: An Indian to lead Interior Department

U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisolm, D-New York, entered the presidential race in January 1972. She was the first African-American woman to run.

“How about an Indian for Secretary of the Interior for a starter?” wrote Richard LaCourse for the American Indian Press Association. “The Chisholm candidacy is based on the principle of providing the strongest possible voice to the many small and powerless groups within the American society.”

She directly promised to appoint a Native American to lead the Interior Department as well as involving tribal people in far more decision-making positions.

“And I tell you I have blown some minds,” she told LaCourse. “When Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace talk about getting minority groups and women in their cabinet, do you suppose they were saying that before I started?”

There were no Native Americans serving in the Congress in 1972. However, there was a growing interest.

Rosebud Tribal Chairman Webster Two Hawk began an unsuccessful campaign for one of South Dakota’s two seats in Congress. He ran as a Republican and his campaign manager was former U.S. Rep. Ben Reifel, also from Rosebud. Reifel had considered a Senate run.

(Reifel once told me he ran as a Republican because he could win. And it’s extraordinary to think about that now because he retired from office as the BIA area director and then immediately won a seat in Congress. Hardly a recommended career path.)

Most of the action in politics in 1972 was at the presidential level. Both the Republicans and Democrats had committees of supporters from tribal communities.

South Dakota Sen. George McGovern promised to elevate the BIA to a White House special office. He said Nixon was “high on promises, but short on performance.”

McGovern won his first Senate race in 1962 by a margin of 597 in a state with more than 30,000 Native voters. “That victory is being accepted now by his aides as an index of McGovern’s indebtedness to his Indian electorate,” the American Indian Press Association reported.

McGovern said, “In 1972, it is still shamefully true that the Indians of the United States are not free. The first order of business is to clear the way – fully, quickly and without equivocation – for them to secure every freedom enjoyed by other Americans.”

At the Democrat’s convention in Miami, NCAI President Cook was nominated for the office of vice president.

“No group of people, no nation has given so much and received so little as the Indian people and the Indian nation of this country,” Cook told delegates.

“We would hope that this new reformed Democratic Party would likewise demonstrate a reformed sense of humanity, morality and justice toward our Native American community. Our minority platform would seem to be only a small gesture in this direction and we request your strong support …”

That party platform called for a rejection of termination, treaty rights, and the return of all surplus lands to American Indians on a first priority basis.

The ballot for vice president at the Democratic National Convention included more than 70 candidates at one point. McGovern’s pick, Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, didn’t win his spot until early in the morning and McGovern could not give his acceptance speech until after 2 a.m., long after the television cameras were turned off. Eagleton later withdrew from the campaign and was replaced by Sargent Shriver, a former Peace Corps director married to Eunice Kennedy.

The Democrats might have done better with Cook.


Richard Nixon’s campaign for re-election focused on the administration’s record.

“Our policy, as you know, is firm and unwavering: greater self-determination so that America’s Indians can manage their own affairs,” the president said in a message to tribal leaders. “We have returned certain lands to Indian people as one proof of our unbending intent that self-determination becomes a reality.”

The Nixon campaign appointed 12 coordinators to secure Indian votes, led by Sue Lallmang, Tonawanda Band of Seneca.

The 1972 election was a landslide. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew carried 49 states and won the largest popular vote tally in history.

The policy debates in 1972 mask some of the other extraordinary stories from that year that we leave for another day, such as the return of Mount Adams in Washington, the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder, the trail of Broken Treaties, and the legislation that defined the Navajo-Hopi land dispute.

Some of the policy proposals from 1972 came to be. Termination is no more. Self-determination continues to evolve. And the urban Indian programs are still largely underfunded and hold out for more to do. And in politics there is more representation than ever, including that half-century promise fulfilled for a Native Secretary of the Interior.

The long distance run continues.

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