Reflection and Appreciation: George H. W. and Barbara Pierce Bush

George and Barbara Bush after leaving office as President of the United States. (Bush Library)


President Bush made history for Indian Country and Barbara was no bystander

Suzan Shown Harjo

In looking back on the year 2018, it is fitting to offer a reflection on and appreciation for the contributions of George Herbert Walker Bush and Barbara Pierce Bush to the federal policy making and institution building affecting the lives and well being of Native Peoples. They both walked on in 2018; she did in April, at 92, and he followed seven months later, at 94.

Only two score of men before George H.W. Bush ever served as President of the United States (POTUS, in official Washingtonese), or “41” as he was known casually. Before serving as POTUS for four years, he was Vice President to President Ronald Reagan for eight years, as well as President of the Senate. Before that, he was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ambassador to the United Nations, a Member of Congress, an oilman in Texas and the youngest Navy aviator, a fighter pilot in WWII.

He and Barbara Pierce Bush were married for 73 years, the marriage of longest duration in presidential history. She was Second Lady and First Lady for a dozen years. They were parents of six -- including one Governor (Jeb Bush of Florida) and one President (George W. Bush, “43”) – and were only one of two presidential couples to be parents to a president, second only to John and Abigail Adams and their son John Quincy Adams.

Bush Made History for Native Peoples, and Barbara Bush Was No Bystander

Bush was the POTUS who signed into law the National Museum of the American Indian Act, the repatriation laws and the Native American Language Act, and she helped him with Native advocacy. That, right there, puts him in the stratosphere of presidents who made gains for and with Native Peoples.

In 2000, I wrote a column for Indian Country Today ranking the presidents who served between 1963 and 2000 in terms of tangible, substantive and far-reaching accomplishments, considering also how they used the bully pulpit, how long they were in office and what else they did with their time.

President Bush came in second of seven (the first two being one-termers), in this order: Jimmy Carter (D/1977-1981). George H.W. Bush (R/1989-1993). Richard M. Nixon (R/1969-1974). Lyndon B. Johnson (D/1963-1969). Gerald R. Ford (R/1974-1977). William Jefferson Clinton (D/1993-2001). Ronald Reagan (R/1981-1989). In the next iteration of the rankings, Bush likely will remain close to the top after consideration of those who served from 2000 to the present: Presidents George W. Bush, Barrack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

Bush “41” approved establishment of and appropriations for the National Museum of the American Indian, and the repatriation laws that are among the most important Native human rights policies in U.S. history.

Now 20 years old, the NMAI has offices and a permanent exhibit space at the historic Custom House at the tip of Manhattan in New York City; the Cultural Resources Center for housing, caring for and researching collections in Suitland, Maryland; and the stunning NMAI Museum on the Mall, which faces the U.S. Capitol and sits between the Botanical Gardens and the National Air and Space Museum.

Already a Capitol Hill destination lunch café of Native foods, the NMAI Mall Museum will open the National Native American Veterans Memorial in 2020.

The 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act contains the historic repatriation provision that mandated the Smithsonian Institution to return Native remains and cultural items, an agreement with Native Peoples that was prerequisite to nationalizing the vast collection of the predecessor in New York, the Museum of the American Indian.

Bush signed the sweeping 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which set a national process for all federal and federally-assisted museums, agencies and educational institutions to return human remains, funerary items, sacred objects and cultural patrimony to Native Peoples.

He signed the 1990 Native American Languages Act, the far-reaching law that declared: “It is the policy of the United States to—(1) preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages….”

It is the signature of “41” on a host of landmark laws: establishing the Indian Memorial at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (and dropping the name of Custer from the battlefield’s designation); promoting authenticity in Indian arts and crafts and bowing to Native Nations’ sovereignty; providing Native Hawaiian health care; promoting adult and child literacy; and protecting Indian children and preventing family violence.

Bush approved measures for Indian law enforcement reform, economic development, technology-related education and for tribal self-governance programs. And, the early, difficult implementation of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act fell to his Administration.

Much of what President Bush made legal mandates had to do with respect. Respect for the essential place Native Nations hold in this part of Mother Earth, in the international history of the hemisphere and in the United States formation and future. Respect for Native Peoples’ inherent sovereignty, as with the sole right of Native Nations to determine citizenship and secure the safety and well being of citizens and others in Native lands.

Both George and Barbara Bush were instrumental, mostly behind the scenes, in correcting federal policies of the distant past and during their own time. He often used his Capitol office as President of the Senate and others’ leadership rooms for meetings among Native leaders and Members of Congress -- including Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) and John S. McCain (R-AZ), and Representative Sidney R. Yates (D-IL) – who championed Native rights and had pivotal positions on Indian affairs authorizing and appropriating panels.

Second Lady Bush sometimes held teas or lunches for small groups at the Vice President's Residence at Number One Observatory Circle, two miles from the White House. As First Lady, she used her East Wing offices for gatherings, with the occasional unscheduled drop-in by her husband. Their arranged conversations were key to positive outcomes of certain appropriations and repatriation matters.

Barbara Bush may not have been present for every meeting or a party to any decisions, but her fine hand was evident in her husband’s actions, and her personal and official courtesies and kindnesses eased the way and were necessary and appreciated.

Bush Family and Apache Ancestors – Intersections

Bush’s father was Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush (R-CT, 1952-1963), who was a banker and policymaker. The elder Bush (1895-1972) was a Yale University graduate and member of Yale seniors’ secret Skull and Bones Society, as were his POTUS son and grandson. Skull and Bones meetings are said to be opened with the purported remains of Chiricahua Apache leader Goyathlay (1829-1909), popularly known as Geronimo.

A 1918 letter from one Bonesman to another claims that the 22-year-old Prescott Bush and friends robbed the grave of Goyathlay in 1917, eight years after he was buried as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill Army base near Lawton, Oklahoma, where the Bonesmen were stationed for military training. The letter states: "The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club ... is now safe inside the (Skull and Bones building, the “Tomb”) together with his well-worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.”

The letter is authenticated and the existence of a skull and bones confirmed, but the identity of the remains and the manner of acquisition have yet to be proved. What is not open to question is that generations of Bonesmen have participated in activities that tacitly sanction grave robbing and desecration of a human being’s remains, however, wherever and whomever obtained.

It’s important to recount this grizzly history here because it was told to Vice President Bush by reporters, historians and Native advocates, and because of what he did with the knowledge of rumors, lore and facts of his family history. A faithful son and Bonesman, he did not comment publicly on the matter. I don’t know about his conversations with others, but he asked what I believed.

I told the then-Vice President I believed that Skull and Bones had someone’s remains, but I had two reasons for disbelieving that they were Geronimo’s remains.

First: this history was related to me years earlier by Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chair Mildred Cleghorn (1910-1997), who was born into captivity as a prisoner of war of Goyathlay’s band. She said she knew the story was made up, because his relatives reburied him in Chiricahua homeland in present-day New Mexico shortly after his burial at Fort Sill. She did not rule out the possibility that the Bonesmen robbed the grave of another Apache person at the same cemetery.

Second, Cleghorn and her relatives, Chiricahua Artists Allan Houser and Bob Haozous, father and son sculptors, all descend from Membreno Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas (1793-1863), also known as Red Sleeves, whose head has been missing for more than 150 years. Tortured and murdered at Fort McLane, New Mexico, while in U.S. Army custody, the Chief was decapitated, his head measured, his brain weighed and his lye-blanched skull was sent to Washington for the Army Surgeon General’s Indian Crania Study.

There are several mentions in literature of the time about the fact that Coloradas had a big head. After noting that he was decapitated immediately after being shot and falling to the ground, the Army officer who filled out the bill of lading reported that the Chief’s head was smaller, but brain larger than that of Daniel Webster, which is a startling bit of information to have at a western outpost in the 1860s. This supports a family view that the Chief was murdered for his head.

A phrenologist in New York City published a detailed illustration of the skull ten years after Coloradas was killed. At the end of the 1800s, Europeans and Americans decided the study of heads was invalid, because it concluded that the French were not as bright as Cro-Magnons. The U.S. Army Medical Museum transferred at least 4,500 crania to the Smithsonian Institution, but its spokespersons say the head of Coloradas was not among them, despite its records of transmittal in the Smithsonian archives today. Some of his descendants think it is possible that Coloradas’ remains were stolen, bought or otherwise made their way to Skull and Bones.

Whatever the Vice President may have done, if anything, about the remains in New Haven, he pledged to support our efforts to achieve federal repatriation policy and a national Native museum. As President, he overrode Administration opposition and agreed to support new law to return Native Peoples’ ancestors and cultural items from repositories with a federal nexus. He greenlit the NMAI Act and the historic repatriation agreement regarding Smithsonian collections and the following year’s application of repatriation to entities throughout the U.S.

The path to establishment of the NMAI and repatriation laws involved numerous conversations in the mid- and late-1980s among Bush, as Vice President and as President, Representative Barber B. Conable, Jr. (1922-2003), Author/Theologian Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005), Chase Manhattan Bank Chair and CEO David Rockefeller (1915-2017) and me.

Conable, Deloria, Rockefeller and I were Trustees of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City and became Founding Trustees of the NMAI. At the same time, I was Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians and President of The Morning Star Institute, which funded the cultural rights agenda of NCAI. We all were trying to save MAI’s priceless collection, to return what should not be in any collection and to achieve what became the NMAI.

A Republican Representative from New York (1965-1985), Conable was ranking member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee for his last eight years in Congress. A Nixon supporter until the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, Conable famously dubbed as the “smoking gun” the tape of the President directing Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman to obstruct the FBI investigation.

President of the World Bank (1986-1991), Conable was appointed by Reagan, but promoted by Bush, and he and the Vice President shared priorities for the Bank of environment protection and promotion of women. He relinquished all board positions except his MAI trusteeship to assume the World Bank presidency. As MAI Chair, he skillfully led even the most recalcitrant Trustees to a position of unanimity on the first return of wampum belts to the Haudenosaunee, in 1988. He later served as Chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.

David Rockefeller, Sr. (1915-2017), a banker and philanthropist, was Chair and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank and a longtime supporter of the MAI. He selected the U.S. Custom House as NMAI’s New York site and hosted many meetings in New York and D.C. to jumpstart negotiations and untie political knots.

Rockefeller and Conable worked closely with Representative Charles B. Rangel (D-NY, 1971-2017), who was a 1971 founder and later Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and became the first African American Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee (2007-2010). The MAI was in Rangel’s congressional district in Harlem, which some MAI spokespersons called “Upper Manhattan.”

Together, they represented “the New Yorkers” and held periodic meetings with state, city and federal luminaries who were interested in the MAI collection and its future. Deloria and I were invited to one meeting for the purpose of striking a deal – the New Yorkers would support our repatriation and national museum goals in Washington and we would support their goal of maintaining a permanent museum presence and exhibitions in the City. The agreement and strategy were readily supported by NCAI and our alliance proved formidable.

Appropriations Battles

As Vice President, Bush was an important behind-the-scenes advocate with Congress and within the White House for restoring Native program funding. The Reagan Administration sent six annual budgets to Congress that proposed cutting one-third of the funding for Native Peoples across the federal government. Most federal funding for Native health, education, housing, economic development and other programs and services derive from treaties and from laws that strive to improve conditions in Indian country caused by detrimental and misguided U.S. practices.

Native people and allies found someone in the White House who would listen -- the Vice President -- who was shocked to learn some real life consequences that would result from many of the budget proposals. Bush was particularly appalled by the callous proposals to eliminate the Indian Health Service program for diabetes prevention and treatment, and to increase funding by the identical amount for amputations, most of which occur from diabetes untreated.

Bush and his staff quietly signaled to congressional members and staffers those items that the Administration would not defend, which helped advocates on the Hill with the heavy lifting to restore and fund the programs and services. Also part of this effort was First Lady Barbara Bush, who had policy chops and a network of astonishing reach.

While Native advocates defeated each of the draconian budget proposals, no new funding was added to compensate for escalating costs of running the programs, or to make up for turning Native parents, educators, health professionals, social workers and finance officers into crisis managers. And, the socio-economic indicators in Indian country worsened during the Reagan Administration.

Native Nations also were forced to expend time, energy and capital to battle the dastardly plans advanced by Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Ross O. Swimmer, former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief, to turn over Native schools and education programs to the states; to dismantle the federal underpinnings of land and other property protections; and to privatize the trust resources and monies under management of a handful of banks, including one from which he would have benefitted directly.

Swimmer opposed the election of Winnebago Chair Reuben A. Snake, Jr., as president of the National Congress of American Indians. The newly ensconced face of the Trustee United States held court at a home in Tulsa, near the convention hotel, granting meetings to tribal leaders who would wear his candidate’s campaign buttons. His reasons for not supporting Snake -- who also was a Native American Church Roadman and the candidate of then-NCAI and Quinault Nation President Jos DeLaCruz – was that Snake would back the NCAI priorities of a national museum, repatriation, sacred lands protection, Native languages preservation and sacramental peyote use, which Swimmer and his friends called “cultural crap.”

Bush eventually convinced Reagan to abandon the White House budgeteers’ failed efforts to slash Native funding and to forego the one-third cuts in his seventh and eighth proposed budgets. And, Bush did not wage anti-Native budget warfare during his own presidency.

As President, Bush selected an Assistant Secretary who was more in touch with and respectful of Native Peoples, but Swimmer resurfaced as Interior Special Trustee for American Indians in the George W. Bush Administration, and again in the campaign and transition of Donald J. Trump, peddling his same agenda, which has found greater receptivity in the current White House.

Broad Bush Policies Supported by and Affecting Native Peoples

The budget battles produced a cadre of Native Peoples who were effective in making the case for fairness and countering injustice. Native Peoples proved invaluable to the overall lobby that achieved passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which President Bush signed into law in 1990. The U.S. was the first country to enact human rights law for people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications.

“This historic act is the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities -- the first,” said Bush upon signing the ADA. “Its passage has made the United States the international leader on this human rights issue.” Calling it “powerful in its simplicity,” Bush said it “will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream…Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Bush negotiated and approved the 1990 Immigration Act, the first sweeping revision of immigration law in a quarter-century. Introduced by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA; 1932-2009) and widely supported in Congress, the Act provided for family-based and employment-based immigration visas, a lottery for immigrants from “low admittance” countries, non-immigrant visas for highly skilled workers and fast-track deportations of criminals. It lifted certain English language testing of senior green-card residents and disallowed continued exclusion of homosexual immigrants as "sexual deviants" or on "mentally defective" or other prejudicial grounds.

In a provision with relevance to today’s situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Immigration Act contained an authorization, tailor made for El Salvador, for the U.S. Attorney General to issue temporary protected status visas to admit immigrants who could not safely return home, due to armed conflict, environmental disaster or other extraordinary circumstances.

Other landmark laws signed by Bush include the 1990 the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act and the Age Discrimination Claims Assistance Act Amendments; the 1991 Civil Rights Act; and the 1992 EEOC Education, Technical Assistance and Training Revolving Fund Act.

In approving the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment and backing its vigorous implementation by the Environmental Protection Administration*,* Bush placed the U.S. among world leadership addressing the hazardous and damaging effects of acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion and of mercury and other toxic air pollution from auto gasoline emissions and from fossil fuel (primarily coal) powered electrical plants and other stationary industrial sources.

The Amendments established the first national cap-and-trade program and stepped up national and international efforts to regulate, prevent, research, replace and enforce against chemicals that threaten and destroy the ozone layer and air quality. They contained provisions to control and abate noise pollution, as well.

Congress had passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in lop-sided votes, with only 25 in opposition in the House and 10 in the Senate, and widely approved Bush’s 1992 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. He praised it as the “most environmentally sensitive, the greenest free trade agreement ever negotiated.”

Bush also had broad congressional support for signing the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international agreement to deal with greenhouse emissions, and participating in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. led the world’s industrialized nations in ratifying the U.N. climate treaty, which Bush called the “first step in crucial long-term international efforts to address climate change.”

More Native-Specific Laws Approved by President Bush

As the President was working on broad environmental initiatives and laws of general applicability, he supported and approved an astonishing number and kind of Native-specific laws, such as the 1990 Indian Environmental Regulatory Enhancement Act and the 1992 Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental and Native American Public Policy Act.

He signed an authorization for every November to be “Native American Indian Heritage Month,” and proclaimed November 1990 as the first. He declared the year of the Columbus Quincentenary as the “Year of the American Indian” and signed the congressional enactment of 1992 as the “Year of Reconciliation Between American Indians and non-Indians.”

In 1990, he approved the recognition of criminal jurisdiction of Native Nations regarding citizens of other nations. In 1991, he signed the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Housing Program Reauthorization Act. In 1992, he signed the Indian Health Amendments, the Advisory Council on California Indian Policy Act and an extension of time for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to obligate funds for school operations.

Other laws ensured that funds under the 1986 Indian Alcohol and Substances Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act could be used to acquire land for emergency shelters, authorized self-governance demonstration projects and authorized a feasibility study for a Native American cultural center in Oklahoma City.

President Bush approved bills to restore, settle and clarify land, water, boundaries or jurisdiction of individual Native Nations, which secured rights and meant the world to the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Catawba, Cochiti Pueblo, Coquille, Fallon Paiute and Shoshone, Jicarilla Apache, Nez Perce, Northern Cheyenne, Ponca, Puyallup, Rumsey, San Carlos Apache, Seminole, Seneca, Shoshone-Bannock and Zuni Pueblo, along with others earmarked in appropriations acts.

While this is not an exhaustive record of actions, I hope it provides the reader with reason to appreciate the tremendous difference George and Barbara Bush made in the lives of Native Peoples.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. An award-winning Columnist for ICT and the Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.