A tale of ‘what if’ … impeachment and Indigenous policies

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Donald Trump is the fourth president subject to a congressional impeachment inquiry; recalling the Nixon era

The two most haunting words in the English language are often found side by side: “What” and “if.”

What if. Words that stir the imagination with both regret and gratitude.

It’s been more than a week since Sen. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced an official impeachment inquiry for President Donald J. Trump that is looking into violations of law.

The president who after taking office ordered the building of pipelines in the North and who decided to significantly shrink the Bear Ears National Monument in the South.

Sacred sites (protected under law) were less important than energy development in the Trump worldview.

So …

What if? What if Trump wasn’t elected president? What if John Quincy Adams beat Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election? Maybe the Indian Removal Act would not have been signed into law. Who knows?

Presidents circulate through this country like clockwork. Every four years. And that clockwork has only been disrupted three times in U.S. history after Congress officially launched impeachment investigations, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.

The most recent time an impeachment inquiry significantly affected Native issues was in the 1970s when federal Indian policy made a turning point, according to Suzan Harjo, Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She had just moved to Washington, D.C., in 1974 when Ford replaced Nixon as president.

“On the big picture side, if that hadn’t happened to [Nixon] then his hand-picked successor, President Ford, would not have run. It probably would’ve been someone else and President Carter would not have been elected president,” she said. “And we would not have had the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act. We would not have had the Eastern Land Claims. We would not have had the Tribally-Controlled Community Colleges and Assistance Act.”

All of those “big, big, big pieces of legislation” were mostly opposed by Nixon, Ford, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she said.

One year before Nixon resigned, his vice president Spiro Andrew had to leave his post after the Justice Department found that he had taken bribes during his time as governor of Maryland.

But Nixon got to hand pick Agnew’s successor under the 25th Amendment ( which was ratified in 1967) after reviewing a long list of names he selected the then House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, a Republican from Michigan.

Nixon had eight nominee suggestions from Congress that included former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush who was then chairman of the Republican National Committee, former Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a few women and more. Outside of Congress, recommendations also included former Governor Ronald Reagan of California, according to the National Archives.

Ryan Winn wrote in the Tribal College Journal that we learned Reagan’s views of tribal nations when he became president in 1981.

“He supported states’ rights over the rights of reservations, implemented budget cuts which severely handicapped tribal programs, believed tribes should enter the world of enterprise to reduce their dependence on federal funding, and in 1988 infamously stated, ‘Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored [American Indians] in wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle,’” wrote Winn. Reagan was in Russia at the time. Indians equal socialism.

And in 1983, his Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, described Natives as ‘incompetent wards of the government’ and claimed that reservations were examples of ‘the failures of socialism.’”

After considering all of the options in a retreat in Maryland, Nixon chose Ford who then became president after Nixon resigned because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Nixon about to board flight
Former President Richard Nixon leaving Washington after his resignation.(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Frank Ducheneaux, who worked on Capitol Hill for 18 years, remembers the day Nixon left Washington.

“I was sitting in my office on the hill on the day that Nixon’s helicopter took him from the White House to the Air Force base. I saw the helicopter go by out of my window as he was leaving town,” said Ducheneaux with a laugh.

Nixon left Washington in disgrace. He was not impeached; resignation was his escape.

Nixon peacing out
Former President Richard Nixon leaving Washington in a helicopter for the last time.(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux, served as counsel on Indian Affairs to the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, which is now known as the Natural Resources Committee.

“The Ford administration was not that much different from the Nixon administration in terms of Indian matters,” he said.

The Nixon administration was “fairly sympathetic” toward Native issues, he said.

The former president restored Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and signed an executive order to return Mount Adams to Yakama Nation.

Alan Parker, a colleague of Harjo, also said the impeachment inquiry of Nixon didn’t affect Native issues or federal Indian policy.

Parker served as the chief consultant to an independent committee on Indian Affairs after Nixon left. Parker saw the Indian Child Welfare Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act be developed in D.C. After he became the chief of staff for the Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

“I didn’t see any real direct impact,” he said over the phone from Washington state. “Despite the fact that he has a well-deserved reputation for his conduct during the Watergate era and impeachment process, as far as Indian policy, policies have to do with our tribal nations, Nixon was a real champion I thought.”

People remember Nixon being friendly toward Native people.

But during the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, John Ehrlichman, a counsel and assistant for domestic affairs to Nixon, recounts something different from the president.

Harjo interviewed Ehrlichman after he got released from prison for the Watergate scandal. She asked him if he remembered anything Nixon said about Indian policy or Native issues.

After some time of thinking about her questions, Ehrlichman told Harjo that during the BIA Takeover in 1972 he remembers Nixon saying, “Get those goddamn Indians outta town.”

The former president wanted the BIA takeover to be done, she said.

“So I thought that was an amazing insight though that’s all he could think of,” she said, adding that she figured it would’ve been a speech or a reading.

Former President Richard Nixon with his assistant of domestic affairs John Ehrlichman.(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

When Ford took office, he looked to do things for Indian Country, Harjo said.

While former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon both spoke about giving more power to Native people, Ford was the one “who made their vision the law of the land,” wrote Winn for the Tribal College Journal.

Ford signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act into law in 1975. A law that Nixon’s administration worked on and Nixon often receives credit for.

Nixon also addressed Congress in 1970 when he said Native people are “oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands, and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny.”

MORE: Richard M. Nixon: ‘Self-Determination Without Termination’

Before President Ford left office, he signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into law. An act that is referred to as “the cornerstone legal authority” of healthcare to Indian Country, especially Native people in urban areas. The law also started a scholarship program for Native students interested in medical professions, such as medicine, dentistry, psychiatry, nursing, pharmacy, and more.

Harjo said if Nixon was president, we’ll never know if he would have agreed to sign the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The Office of Management and Budget recommended that Ford veto the act because of its costs.

Indian Health Service did see an increase in its budget under Nixon and Ford. The budget was less than $107 million for the 1970 fiscal year and the budget for Ford’s last year in office, 1975, was $4 billion.

In 1976 Ford campaigned for a full term in office against 17 Democrats. (Sound familiar?)

America was looking for someone who wasn’t a liar, said Harjo, who volunteered for the Carter campaign outside of her job at the Morning Star Institute.

“Everyone was tired of the lies,” she said. “The country had enough of the lies and the people who brought the lies, the people who were associated with the lies.”

That’s how Carter got elected, she said. Carter was the Democrat nominee and Ford the Republican.

“I think candidate Carter won because he was probably the most honest person in the running. Not that others were dishonest. He wasn’t a liar,” she said. “People got that about him. He would just tell the truth even if it was to his own detriment.”

He went off script many times. She laughed. She knows. Harjo wrote his scripts and talking points when it came to addressing Indian Country.

He frequently told America: “I’ll never tell a lie.”

When he got into office, he signed many historic policies for Indian Country into law.

“So it was a big deal getting agreement from President Carter, or candidate Carter, that he would sign into law the Religious Freedom Act, that he would sign into law the Indian Child Welfare Act, and that he would not go with the recommendations that have been made before from Justice and Interior” during Nixon and Ford’s time, Harjo said.

Ducheneaux started working at a Native-focused lobby firm in 1990 until 1993 so he witnessed the Clinton administration.

“You know I have to say this, presidents don’t have time to mess around with Indian matters,” he said. “ You can say that Clinton was a good president for Indian tribes and people but he wouldn’t know an Indian from a telephone pole if it came down to it. It’s the administration. It’s what they do overall that makes them good or bad as an administration.”

Part of what made Clinton appear to be “good president” to Parker was recognizing that tribal nations had a right to exercise their tribal sovereignty.

Harjo was also in Washington during Clinton’s two terms. Despite the good things said about him, she said the impeachment process of both Clinton and Nixon caused “everything to slow down” when it came to practical matters.

Now that this fourth time around the impeachment process, Parker, Harjo and Ducheneaux agree that Trump needs to be out of the White House due to his record in Indian Country.

“A lot of Indian Country is physically being undermined or mined and destroyed and at least damaged significantly. So I hope a lot of the rotten policies right now do get slowed down,” she said. “I would love to see whistleblowers come forth, in connection with, every single one of these policies.”

Harjo says she’s ready for him to lash out and become “more strident” against his opponents and the press.

“All of these things he’s going to continue to behave and behave more and more like a cornered animal,” she said. “You put an animal in a position where they’re cornered and they will do anything to claw their way out and if you're in the way, they’ll try to destroy you.”

It’s a “very dangerous time” and Harjo believes that everyone must continue with clarity and not just think this is politics. This is a time that’s familiar to Indian Country.

“We’re on the edge of something we’ve not seen before because we’re seeing happen before our eyes something in the White House no one has seen before. Except you’d have to go back to Andrew Jackson,” she said. “This is that president. It’s just affecting people, not exclusively Native peoples as Jackson did.”

Parker put it simply: “Donald Trump will go down in history as the worst president that the American people have elected to office.”

Ducheneaux called Trump “a walking talking disaster” who “has not been good for Indian tribes.” He knows the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate will prevent further action.

“He should be impeached or convicted. He won't be. They simply will not challenge Trump,” he said. “The House may well impeach Trump but given right now the Senate will never convict him.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com