Nixon let tribes control own futures
Last updated 9/23/2012 at 4:44pm
TULSA, OK—Tribes across the nation have been exercising inherent governmental powers since the 1970s. Nowadays, tribal sovereignty and self-determination are considered a part of everyday business.
But, when did tribes start really using their governmental powers and who helped this government-to-government relationship develop?
He is best remembered for political spying during the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s, but U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and his administration played a key part in bringing about the era of Indian Self-Determination.
That’s according to panelists in a retrospective forum hosted by the Gilcrease Museum. LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was part of a panel presentation last spring at Gilcrease, May 23, 2012. She spoke at a special forum called, “Native American Self-Determination from the Nixon Presidency to the Present Time.”
Harris lent her thoughts to the discussions of how Nixon helped to bring tribal governments the power to develop their own agendas, instead of having the Bureau of Indian Affairs dictate tribal policies.
Other panelists lending their recollections were Nixon administration members Bobbie Kilberg of the White House Domestic Council staff, and Bradley H. Patterson, Executive Assistant to one of Nixon’s Special Consultants. The Gilcrease Museum, the Nixon Foundation and The National Archives hosted the forum.
Harris was Executive Director of Americans for Indian Opportunity and wife of former Oklahoma U.S. Senator Fred Harris.
In the 70s, Harris remembers that Native leaders had the challenge of teaching the White House staff and other officials what federal Indian law meant and how it should be interpreted. “We always had to teach the decision-makers to interpret what the policy is for them, because they had no background in their educational experience to understand it. So, we called it, the ‘Indian 101’ program for them.”
People like Kilberg and Patterson took that message to the President, who lent his support to major policy changes and legislation that underlined the rights that tribes already possessed, but had not used to any great extent.
As for the mood of tribes around the Nation during that period, Harris said, they were depressed about social and economic conditions, but the landmark decision returning the Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo people set a new beginning for tribal self-determination. “There was a sadness at first, depending on what part of the country you were in. South Dakota was very depressing because of the way Indian people were treated there; Nebraska mistreated their (Indian) folks as well; and Gallup, New Mexico. These were three different locations where you didn’t want to be Indian. But the tribes themselves overcame those poor relationships.
The Winnebagos got rid of the sheriff that was arresting every one of them by voting him out of office. They got themselves organized and it’s changed. It was the encouragement that if the Taos Pueblos got their land back all of us could do better.”
Harris credits part of the emergence of the tribal rights program to the ‘War On Poverty’ programs of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson during the late 1960s. Landmark programs such as the Job Corps and Headstart programs were established then. Indian people all over saw the opportunities. Harris remembers, “People saw that they can make a difference and so they organized themselves. Then the ‘urbans’ started to organize. AIM (American Indian Movement) came out of the urban Indian centers, and the urban Indian centers began to organize without any practical help from us. You could see the movement. It was growing and people were thinking for themselves. It was a very rewarding time . . . people felt really positive about things.”
In retrospect, Harris admitted she was a bit surprised that so many positive developments came from President Nixon’s administration, but pointed out that Nixon staffers were willing to listen and act on their beliefs. “Yes, I was. But, getting to know his staff and people and working within the White House structure, they were just people and you can convince them or talk to them in the right way, it worked. It became a very wonderful relationship.”
She remembers that the Indian self-determination legislation came along, leading to the contracting of services to tribes themselves to perform, replacing paternalistic governmental policies. “Indian housing got organized, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), organized around assets like energy or housing. Then all tribes could belong and help each other make it happen so that they could change the policies in Washington. They could also change the policies back home on their own reservation. So, it really did work.”
Another panelist, Sam Deloria, director of the American Indian Graduate Center called the actions of President Nixon, the “gold standard” of support for Indian self-determination, because no one had ever gone so far in proposing sweeping change in federal Indian affairs, adding that he thought no other administration would be surpassed.
In his presidential papers, Nixon delivered a special message. The new direction of Indian policy which aimed at Indian self-determination was set forth in a special message to Congress in July 1970. Nixon condemned forced termination and proposed recommendations for specific action.
Nixon’s message said, in part, “It is long past time that the Indian policies of the federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”