“…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.
— Richard Nixon
Prior to Richard Nixon’s presidency, national policy regarding Native Americans was strictly an integrationist approach aimed at terminating tribal ties, though both presidents FDR and LBJ loosely advocated for Native American rights. It was not until Nixon assumed the presidency and steadfastly endorsed a self-determinism policy did federal Indian policy turn 180 degrees. Nixon promptly appointed Louis R. Bruce, a self-determination Mohawk, as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In a message to Congress on July 8, 1970, President Nixon stated, “the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny. Even the Federal programs which are intended to meet their needs have frequently proven to be ineffective and demeaning.”
Prior to the World War II era, New Deal reforms had given more recognition to tribal government and culture. After the war, these policies were replaced with an effort to terminate tribal life and assimilate Native Americans as individuals into mainstream society.
RN’s determination to strengthen the Native Americans’ sense of autonomy without threatening their sense of community eventually led him to plead to Congress to repeal the 1953 House Resolution, allowing the federal government to oversee the affairs of Indian reservations, not the states. Nixon also endorsed the Blue Lake Bill, effectively returning 48,000 acres, including Blue Lake, back to the Taos Indians, and 1640 acres surrounding the lake was reserved exclusively for Taos use.
In December of 1971, President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), one of the largest land claims settlements in United States history, authorizing Alaska natives to select and receive title to 44 million acres of public land and $962 million in cash as settlement for their aboriginal claim to land in the State.
In the Fall of 1970, Bruce Willkie, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), praised the Thirty-Seventh for his efforts calling him “the first U.S. President since George Washington to pledge that the government will honor obligations to the Indian tribes.”
Navajo tribal leader Peter McDonald affirmed that RN should “be viewed as the Abraham Lincoln of the Indian people.”
President Nixon’s Native American policies will be the subject of an upcoming Nixon Legacy Forum.
Photo courtesy of Corbis Media, original caption: Reno, Nevada: President Richard M. Nixon thanks Paiute Indians form Nixon, Nevada, who put on a war dance to greet him as he arrived here 8/2. With Nixon is his wife Pat (R). The Vice President kicked off his political campaign at the airport reception. here.