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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

President’s Day is a funny holiday. Its roots celebrate two presidents — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — who have, well, complicated histories.

Washington, it could be said, was the first president to recognize the treaty process itself. In a message to Congress Washington wrote: “The general Government only has the power, to treat with the Indian Nations, and any treaty formed and held without its authority will not be binding.”

Washington even directly negotiated treaties, including the 1790 Treaty of New York between the U.S. and Muscogee Nations, some of which was treated with the Muscogee delegates over dinner at his home in New York City, then the U.S. Capitol.

Dinner was a key word for Washington. The first president often invited tribal delegations to his homes, according to historian Collin Calloway, author of "The Indian World of George Washington."

“In his first term in office, Washington dined, often more than once, with Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks,” Calloway wrote. “And he continued to dine with Indian delegates to the very end of his presidency: in the last week of November 1796, he dined with four groups of Indians on four different days.”

President Abraham Lincoln did not execute any generals or other top civil war leaders for treason or insurrection against the United States. But on December, 26, 1862, he ordered the death of 38 Dakotas by hanging in Mankato, Minnesota.

“Lincoln’s treatment of defeated Indian rebels against the United States stood in sharp contrast to his treatment of Confederate rebels,” wrote Jon Wiener in The Nation in December 2012. “He never ordered the executions of any Confederate officials or generals after the Civil War, even though they killed more than 400,000 Union soldiers. The only Confederate executed was the commander of Andersonville Prison — and for what we would call war crimes, not rebellion.”


There is another Lincoln story. Spain’s King had sent symbolic canes to the pueblos as a recognition of sovereignty. At the urging of the U.S. government’s agent to the pueblos, Michael Steck, 19 ebony canes with silver tips with “A. Lincoln” were presented to pueblo governors.

President Richard Nixon learned of the Lincoln canes and sent a new version to Taos Pueblo after the return of Blue Lake in 1970.


8 presidential moments


President Richard Nixon’s White House meeting with Taos Pueblo leadership on July 8, 1970, was symbolic for many reasons. Nixon put the weight of the presidency behind the return of tribal land taken by the U.S. Forest Service in 1906. The meeting was in the cabinet room. As Bobbie Kilburg, then a White House Fellow, told the Nixon LIbrary, that room was only for “Cabinet meetings, for governors, for heads of states.” She said “and so for President Nixon to use the Cabinet Room was a recognition that he was dealing with tribes, which were sovereign governments, that this was something extraordinarily important to him.”


President Barack Obama would pretty much own any presidential list of moments because his presence was more significant than any president since Washington’s dinners. The story starts with candidate Obama made a promise at Crow Agency in 2008 to initiate a government-to-government meeting at the White House. Turns out the White House was too small, but the meeting was held annually for eight years at the Interior Department. As Obama said at this last meeting: “I said that so long as I held this office, never again would Native Americans be forgotten or ignored. And over the past two years, my administration, working hand in hand with many of you, has strived to keep that promise.”



President Chester Arthur was likely the first president to formally visit a tribal nation. He traveled to Wind River, Wyoming, 1883, during a two-month fishing trip. This trip could have gone really badly. The president and his delegation met with Chief Washakie, Eastern Shoshone, Chief Black Coal, Northern Arapaho, to talk about a proposal in the Senate for an early version of termination and dividing up the reservation into “tenure in common” or private ownership. The response from Wind River was an unequivocal “no.”


President Theodore Roosevelt visited Arizona and the Havasupai in 1903. It could be argued that he may have been the most anti-Indian president in history. Roosevelt wrote: “This continent had to be won. We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”

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President Bill Clinton was the first president to invite lots of tribal leaders to the White House on April 29, 1994. He said: "My administration has worked in partnership with tribal leaders ... to protect American Indian religious freedom, promote tribal self-determination, preserve tribal natural resources and provide economic opportunities for Native Americans. I look forward to continuing this government-to-government relationship in order to build on the progress we have made in Indian Country."


President Obama made more visits to Indigenous communities than any other president. He visited Crow Agency before his election in May 2008. Then a visit to Standing Rock in June 2014. Obama said: “You see, my administration is determined to partner with tribes, and it’s not something that just happens once in a while. It takes place every day, on just about every issue that touches your lives. And that’s what real nation-to-nation partnerships look like.”

Obama also visited the Choctaw Nation for a Promise Zone related event in 2015.  

In September 2015 Obama made a trip to Alaska and is the first president to travel above the Arctic Circle. He talked about climate change and visited with Alaska Native leaders, elders and young people. 

The trip included Dillingham and Kotzebue.

He told the community in Kotzebue: “I want to thank our veterans who are in the audience, because we have so many Alaska Natives who serve our country and defend us. And in fact, I met some World War II vets, and Korean War vets. And we want to make sure that they know how much we appreciate everything that they’ve done on our behalf. We appreciate them very much.  And I want to thank everybody in Kotzebue for something else — which is taking such good care of my team over the past week. I know that when I come to town there are a lot of people who come first, and it's a big footprint. But all of them have told me incredible stories of your kindness.”

There is also the case to be made that President Obama visited Agua Caliente Reservation lands in California several times since the airport he used when he went on vacation was on tribal lands. The visits did include meeting tribal leaders but not an official visit.


Other presidential visits to Indigenous communities. Warren Harding was the first to visit Alaska in 1923, stopping at Metlakatla. Franklin Roosevelt visited at least three reservations, only once speaking on Indian Affairs. He traveled to Quinault in Washington state, Blackfeet, Montana, and Cherokee, North Carolina. (He was also photographed with a tribal leader in North Dakota.)

Harry S. Truman was president when he stopped on the Fort Peck Reservation in 1952 as part of his whistle stop train campaign. He was met by Assiniboine leaders. He was given a pipe to smoke. Montana Rep. Mike Mansfield, who was also on the platform, told the Indians, “The President doesn’t smoke. What he did here was for the first time.”

Ronald Reagan went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to meet tribal leaders in 1985. One extraordinary meeting was in the presidential suite at the Hilton where Reagan, Ivan Sidney and Peterson Zah talked about the Navajo-Hopi dispute.

President Bill Clinton made two trips, one to Pine Ridge and another to Shiprock, New Mexico.

There are two presidential trips that did not happen. The White House’s Brad Patterson wrote that Nixon ought to visit Taos Pueblo for a celebration for the return of Blue Lake. He did not and the administration sent the teenage daughter of Spiro Agnew instead. And Nixon was urged to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for Navajo Community College. The trip was planned as a stopover on his way from Washington to the Western White House at San Clemente.


Presidential trivia. President Herbert Hoover lived as a child in Pahwuska, Oklahoma. Hoover wrote in a letter: "I attended school with the Indians appropriate to my size. They were of course being taught English. I and my cousins were mostly interested in learning Osage."

At least two presidents can claim adoption. Calvin Coolidge in 1927 by Chauncy Yellow Robe, Sicangu, in Deadwood, South Dakota. And Obama by Hartford “Sonny” Black Eagle Jr, Crow Nation.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

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