50 years since Richard Nixon’s 'break with the past'

President Richard Nixon meeting with leaders from Taos Pueblo and the administration. (National Archives)

Mark Trahant

‘That was one of the most moving, wonderful experiences I've ever had at this White House’

Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

Leonard Garment wrote a memo to President Richard Nixon on April 17, 1970, urging White House support for a Senate bill to return Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.

The land was taken from the pueblo in 1906 and turned into a national forest. The pueblo refused compensation because it was determined to get the land back.

If the story has a familiar ring to it: It’s because the land was illegally taken by President Theodore Roosevelt, now a figure at Mount Rushmore on land that the Supreme Court said was also illegally taken. 

“Over the years, since 1906, this particular issue has snowballed,” Garment wrote. “It is now the single specific Indian issue and as such of major symbolic importance.” Garment underlined “the” to reinforce his point.

He outlined reasons for the bill and cited the opposition (both within the White House and especially in the Senate). “The question, however, is what position you as President should take, for both moral reasons and political reasons.”

The White House decided to go forward. Bobbie Kilberg, a White House fellow, was tasked with announcing the president’s support for Taos. It was nearly the Fourth of July, and more senior people were on vacation.

On her way to the White House Press Room she ran into Ken BeLieu. Literally. The two collided, papers flew around, and he told her in no uncertain terms that the statement could not be released. She told him the memo had been cleared. But he wanted to appeal.

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John Ehrlichman and President Nixon in the Oval Office. (National Archives)

So they went into John Ehrlichman’s office. Ehrlichman was the president’s domestic counselor (and in many ways, deputy president). BeLieu said New Mexico Sen. Clinton Anderson, a former secretary of agriculture, was against the return of any tribal lands. Give it to the pueblo, he argued, and you’d have to do the same for the Utes, then the Navajos, then the Cheyenne.

The politics were complicated. Anderson was the mentor to the Senate’s Interior and Insular Affairs Chairman Henry Jackson, and the Nixon administration was trying to win support for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The threat was that Anderson and Jackson could be “no” votes. Garment was firmly for the announcement and BeLieu against.

Ehrlichman went into the Oval Office to talk to Nixon. He returned with a big smile on his face. “We got it.”

“What happened?” Kilberg asked. “Well, John said Nixon got red in the face and said if he’s going to vote against the ABM treaty over Blue Lake, well, goddamnit, let him do it. You go out and do it.”

Nixon was in. The paper supporting Taos was suddenly elevated into a presidential message, rejecting termination and supporting self-determination. (The White House had already assigned Kilberg to work on the policy draft. She had spent the summer working on the Navajo Nation so had “experience” in Indian affairs.)

Garment suggested pueblo leaders be invited to the White House. The president immediately said it was a wonderful idea. He wanted to make a big deal of this.

The decision was made to release the message as a “state paper” as opposed to a presidential speech.

“A speech becomes distracting, becomes a personality thing,” Garment said.

“It didn't make sense to Nixon to make a speech about the history of mistreatment of the Indians in America, the importance of independence for Indian tribes and self-determination. Nobody would know what he was talking about. These state papers were addressed to a particular audience that's familiar with the social or political complexities of a nation that dealt them with some seriousness,” he said.

The message was released on July 8, 1970, and the leaders of the pueblo were invited to the White House.

“To the Congress of the United States: The first Americans - the Indians - are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation. On virtually every scale of measurement - employment, income, education, health - the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.”

"The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions,” the message said.

“This policy of forced termination is wrong, in my judgment, for a number of reasons. First, the premises on which it rests are wrong. Termination implies that the federal government has taken on a trusteeship responsibility for Indian communities as an act of generosity toward a disadvantaged people and that it can therefore discontinue this responsibility on a unilateral basis whenever it sees fit.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson had also published a message on Indian affairs -- and that too called for the end of termination as a policy. “I propose a new goal for our Indian programs: a goal that ends the old debate about "termination" of Indian programs and stresses self-determination; a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership self-help,” the Johnson message said.

One reason why the Nixon policy is remembered — and the Johnson message largely forgotten — is that much of Nixon’s program became federal law. Indeed the “golden era” of legislation was spurred by this message ranging from the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to the Indian Finance Act. Anchored by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Garment arranged for Taos leaders to be at the White House and for the meeting to be held in the Cabinet Room. “That was a big thing,” Kilberg said, because usually it was reserved for heads of state or governors.

Thus, the White House was recognizing the pueblo as such, sovereign governments.

Kilberg recalled who was in the room. The cacique, then 94-year-old religious leader, Juan de Jesus Romero. Paul Bernal, who was a secretary and translator. Unseen, she said, were two very important canes, one from the king of Spain and the other from Abraham Lincoln, given to the pueblo.

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Taos Pueblo leaders in the Cabinet Room. (National Archives)

In December the same leaders would come to Washington for the signing ceremony, the official return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo. The cacique thanked the president for being there. Then the president made remarks, and Bernal again had to translate for the cacique so this went on for 15, 20 minutes.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, am I going to be fired? Is this guy just furious?’ Because I knew he was late for … his next event,” Kilberg said. “But he seemed to be really engaged in it, and he lingered.”

At the end she was asked to join the president and walk to the East Wing.

“I said: ‘Mr. President, I really apologize. I know that took very long, and the translations can be very cumbersome.’

“And he looked at me and said, ‘Young lady, don't you ever say that.’ He said, ‘That was one of the most moving, wonderful experiences I've ever had at this White House. We did something good that you ought to be proud of. We did something important for the Indian community. And what the hell, HUD can wait.’ And then he went off.”

‘That was one of the most moving, wonderful experiences I've ever had at this White House’

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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Comments (2)
No. 1-2
Scoop87
Scoop87

Many Tribal members are unaware of Pres. Johnson words about our Tribes and the history of the further mistreatment of the Tribes that spurred a harsh look at the Tribes which brought about Pres Johnson recognizing ending the Termination policy and enacting Indian Self Determination. I'm glad Pres. Nixon recognized and supported ending the Termination policy and ushered in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act, to which Pres Ford signed into law. Knowledge is Power and our People must self educate themselves on our tumultuous history with the Federal Govt.


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