On the night of May 9, 1970, President Nixon made an unannounced and unprecedented visit to the Lincoln Memorial after his decision to attack North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. He spoke to the youth who had been camped there preparing for the next day’s protests. It was just past four a.m. in the morning and the President, enduring a night of tossing and turning, spontaneously decided to bring his valet, Manolo Sanchez, and a small contingent of secret service agents to the Memorial. Egil Krogh, former Deputy Assistant to President Nixon for Domestic Affairs, was notified of the President’s doings and rushed to his location. Of the many topics President Nixon discussed, one made a lasting impression on Krogh—that of the American Indian.
In an interview with the Nixon Foundation last month, Krogh revealed what he heard on that night and told us his take on the administration’s American Indian effort. Krogh assisted the administration in resolving the Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover in November of 1972, and handled the law enforcement aspects of prominent demonstrations.
Though Krogh only had peripheral involvement in crafting the administration’s overall American Indian policy, he lent some insightful thoughts on the President’s stance.
“Nixon was a very strong proponent of self-determination, and wanted to make sure that his Indian policies were really his sense of giving much more authority and power to the Indian nation,” he said. “I think he wanted to really do all he could, to support the efforts to bring them back, bring them forward to much better, more decent lives as he indicated.”
On September 27, 1968 then Presidential candidate Richard Nixon indicated his early support to rethink the country’s American Indian policy. In a statement addressed to The National Congress of American Indians, RN boldly drew the line on America’s “unwise and vacillating federal policies and serious, if unintentional, mistakes.”
“The right of self-determination of the Indian people will be respected and their participation in planning their own destiny will be encouraged,” RN claimed in this statement. “Termination of tribal recognition will not be a policy objective, and in no case will it be imposed without Indian consent.”
RN’s address to The National Congress of American Indians, indicating his early support for American Indian self-determination. His determination to bring justice to the American Indian was representative of his presidential goal to bring the nation, hampered by unrest and dissent, together and to formulate policies based on the desire of all Americans. In his first inaugural address, President Nixon orated his resolve to do just that:
“We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices. ..We will strive to listen in new ways—to the voices of quiet anguish, the voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart—to the injured voices, the anxious voices, the voices that have despaired of being heard.” RN, First Inaugural Address
President Nixon, as Krogh inferred, felt very heavily about the condition of the American Indian community. As it appeared to the President in these years of harsh divisiveness, if peace were to be established at home, it should also be brought to the first Americans. “I think Mr. Nixon felt strongly that the government, over many years, had really not given the Indian nation their proper due,” Krogh reflected. “We simply had failed them miserably, and taken things from them and violated treaty rights.” Asked whether or not the President faced heavy Congressional opposition—he couldn’t specifically recall. But Krogh believed that the administration was able to move forward with all the various programs it wanted to implement. At the dawn of 1970, Leonard Garment, former special consultant to President Nixon, sent a memorandum to the President offering insights as to the primacy of a Presidential Message on Indian Affairs. Garment deftly pointed out the buildup of pending initiatives as a green light for the President to make a public announcement.
Memo from Leonard Garment, special consultant to the President, detailing the primacy of a Presidential Message on Indian affairs in 1970.
On July 8, 1970, President Nixon delivered his American Indian Message. By the end of 1970, President Nixon amended Executive Order No. 11399 with respect to the membership of the national council on Indian opportunity and signed a bill restoring the Blue Lake lands in New Mexico to the Taos Pueblo Indians. It appeared the timing of the special message had paid off. Many more initiatives had been proposed—including economic development legislation for the American Indian—but they fell victim to a historically stagnant 91st Congress.
When members of the American Indian Movement commandeered the BIA building, it was critical that the administration take all steps possible towards mitigating the demonstration peacefully.
“We did what we could peacefully,” Krogh said. “I felt, and I think others did too, that if anybody had been injured or killed there, it would’ve been a real serious blow to the President’s very enlightened policies. We did not want that to happen.”
The administration strived fervently to listen to the voices of the anguished, despite the danger posed by demonstrators. They applied that in the case of the BIA incident, and President Nixon’s American Indian legacy remained intact.
“On the subject of America’s terrible treatment of the American Indian, he said that, ‘We had taken a proud and independent race and virtually destroyed them, and that we had to find ways to bring them back into decent lives in this country,’” Krogh recalled of the early morning visit with the demonstrators.
“That’s a very powerful statement right there. The fact that he made that at the Lincoln Memorial tied those two together in memory.”