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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

"self determination without termination"

President Richard M. Nixon's Approach to Native American Policy Reform

The first Americans—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.

This condition is the heritage of centuries of injustice. From the time of their first contact with European settlers, 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 demanding.

President Richard M. Nixon began his Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs with these words. In this message, delivered to Congress on July 8, 1970, President Nixon laid out a nine-point plan urging Congress to reconsider federal Native American policy, citing centuries of oppression, abuse, and broken promises to Native American communities across the country. He also asked Congress to pass bills advancing autonomy for tribes and a resolution to repeal the United States’ termination policy.1 During his campaign and presidency, President Nixon advocated to overhaul Native American policy and worked to return land to Indigenous groups while facing mounting protests from the Native American community.

Nixon first introduced his plan for addressing concerns of the Native American community during his 1968 presidential campaign. At a speech to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Omaha, Nebraska, on September 28, 1968, he laid out his strategy to uplift reservations through economic development, as well as a rejection and reversal of the United States’ “termination” policy that had been law for fifteen years. Nixon centered on the idea of “self-determination without termination,” working to reverse nearly a century of policies meant to assimilate Native Americans into white society.2

President Nixon's vision of self-determination for the first Americans ended two centuries of destructive federal policies, ushering in a new era for American Indians to control their own destiny.

Richard Nixon Foundation

As the United States developed and expanded westward throughout the nineteenth century, many Native Americans were forced from their ancestral lands. Many groups signed treaties, some willingly and others because of coercion, with the federal government. These treaties, approved by Congress, created new territory borders and conditions, while establishing tribes as “domestic dependent nations” within the United States.3 However, beginning in 1871, Congress stopped federal recognition of individual tribes as domestic dependent nations, effectively ending the process of treaty making between tribes and the federal government.4

In 1887, the federal government enacted the Dawes Act. This law allowed the government to break up tribal lands to assimilate Native Americans into white American society by forcing tribes to adhere to standardized farming and ranching practices. Tribal lands were divided into individual plots of 160 acres of farmland. Native Americans were eligible to receive their plot of land if they enrolled with the Office of Indian Affairs. These lots were not sufficient, and many were unsuitable for farming. Prior to the Dawes Act, Native Americans had controlled some 138 million acres of land. By 1932, it is estimated they lost two-thirds of that land, nearly eighty-six million acres.5

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship act, granting citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States and further promoting assimilation. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration pursued the “Indian New Deal,” a reversal of allotment policy after the publication of the government’s 1928 Meriam Report which revealed the extreme poverty, death, and disease rates on Native American reservations. Under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, allotment ended, and some two million acres of land were eventually returned to Indigenous tribes.6

However, after World War II, calls for assimilation returned. In 1953, Congress enacted House Concurrent Resolution 108, which eliminated government responsibility to the tribes. This policy sought to dismantle the reservation system and reimpose assimilation. Federal programs in health, education, and other assistance programs ended or transferred to the states. Known as “termination policy,” the resolution sought to “as rapidly as possible to make Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.” A series of legislative acts followed to implement the policy and during this time, approximately 109 tribes and groups had their legal recognition and protections from the federal government terminated.7 In addition, another law, Public Law 280, also passed in 1953, enabled states to enforce criminal law on reservations, another attempt by the federal government to reduce its role in Native American communities.8

Termination policy was extremely unpopular among tribes and with state governments that did not want to assume jurisdiction over reservations. Nixon capitalized on this sentiment when he became president in 1969. His “self-determination without termination” policy ideas aligned with his political goals. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum during the 1960s, Black Americans demanded policies of integration such as equal rights, voting rights, and equal protection under the law from the United States government. Native Americans were generally less interested in integration and therefore many embraced Nixon’s efforts. By the late 1960s, many Native Americans argued for self-determination—that tribes should have autonomy and the opportunity to operate programs and services themselves. They were weary of further assimilation and integration attempts, citing their long history of broken promises with the United States government, as well as high rates of poverty, death, and disease on reservations caused by federal policy. Native Americans also argued for the return of lands taken from them and President Nixon was particularly supportive of these efforts.9

On December 15, 1970, Nixon signed H.R. 471 into law in the White House State Dining Room, before members of Congress, government officials, and a Taos Pueblo delegation, restoring 55,000 acres of land to the Taos Pueblo people after decades of struggle. The Taos Pueblo and their ancestors considered Blue Lake and its surrounding lands in New Mexico a sacred space for thousands of years. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt approved the permanent withdrawal of some 48,000 acres of land, including Blue Lake, for a federal national forest reserve. The Taos Pueblo fought back and eventually in 1927, an agreement was made between the Taos Pueblo and Secretary of Agriculture William Marion Jardine allowing Indigenous people greater access to the land. However, struggles for control continued and in 1965, the Indian Claims Commission ruled that the Taos Pueblo were owed some $300,000 in compensation for the land. The Taos Pueblo then proposed a deal, offering to waive the $300,000 in exchange for 55,000 acres of land surrounding Blue Lake. The fight continued for several more years, and on December 2, 1970, the legislation passed Congress.10

President Richard Nixon meets with leaders of the Taos Pueblo American Indian Tribal Council on July 8, 1970, in the Cabinet Room.

Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Nixon had referred to Blue Lake during his July 8, 1970 message to Congress and also spoke about the need to make these types of land agreements in order to build a relationship of “trust and confidence between the Federal government and the Indian people.”11 On the day Nixon issued his message to Congress, he met with leaders of the Taos Pueblo American Indian Tribal Council in the White House Cabinet Room reinforcing his commitment to returning their land. This group included spiritual leader, ninety-year-old Juan de Jesus Romero who had long fought for the return of Blue Lake.12 When the bill finally arrived on Nixon’s desk in December that year, he happily signed the bill, stating:

This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill…was taken from the Taos Pueblo Indians. And now, after all those years, the Congress of the United States returns that land to whom it belongs…this bill indicates a new direction in Indian affairs in this country, a new direction in which we will have the cooperation of both Democrats and Republicans, one in which there will be more of an attitude of cooperation rather than paternalism, one of self-determination rather than termination, one of mutual respect.13

President Richard Nixon signing H.R. 471 Blue Lake Bill Taos-Pueblo American Indian Land Deed with Taos Pueblo Governor Quirino Romero, Cacique Juan de Jesus Romero and Paul Bernal witnessing, December 15, 1970.

Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

True to his word, Nixon continued to work with Native American groups to return lands and settle claims against the federal government. The following year on December 18, 1971, Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) into law. This legislation transferred some forty million acres of land to Alaska Natives and over a billion dollars in payouts, marking the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history at the time. The act also represented the largest piece of Native American legislation enacted during the Nixon administration. The scope of the bill was so vast that White House Domestic Affairs Advisor, John D. Ehrlichman, specifically consulted and received Nixon’s support for the bill prior to Congress moving ahead with the legislation. Under this act, instead of returning lands to a reservation system like those in the lower forty-eight, ANSCA created twelve regional Alaska Native corporations and some two hundred smaller village, group, and urban corporations.14

Nixon also worked with the Yakima people in Washington State. In 1855, the U.S. government entered a treaty with the Yakima which set aside some 21,000 acres of land near Mount Adams. However, the government misplaced the map defining these boundaries, and Mount Adams was incorporated into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt. Although Congress was not eager to act on this issue and the Forest Service opposed any land changes, a Nixon administration team including Vice President Spiro Agnew, Secretary of the Interior Walter Joseph Hickel, and Attorney General John Newton Mitchell took a closer look at the dispute and recommended returning the land. Mitchell drafted an executive order to restore the land, framing its seizure by Theodore Roosevelt as “presidential error.” Agnew himself encouraged Nixon to issue the order and Nixon did so on May 20, 1972.15

Despite Nixon’s success in returning lands and settling claims, he also faced opposition. In November 1969, Native American activists took over Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The dispute began in 1964, after five Sioux briefly occupied Alcatraz and claimed it under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. By the end of 1969, over one hundred people protested on the island, including at least eighty Indigenous students from UCLA. After protestors settled on Alcatraz Island, they began organizing themselves into an elected council. Protestors demanded a deed to the island and to establish a university, cultural center, and museum. While the government denied these requests, they also adopted a policy of non-interference as they continued negotiations.16

This photograph depicts existing graffiti in 2010 from the 1969-1971 Alcatraz Island occupation by Native American activists.

Wikimedia Commons

At first Nixon’s advisors were outraged about the situation but continued to seek diplomatic solutions based on compromise. The administration sent the director of the National Council on Indian Opportunity, Robert Robertson, to negotiate, offering to build a park honoring Native Americans on the island. The occupiers rejected this proposal, insisting on possession of the entire island. As months dragged on, the White House refused to give in, but they also feared that the protest could spark another incident like the Kent State Massacre, where on May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State protestors that killed four and wounded nine.17 Their patience paid off. The protesters became divided over different issues, and they fought amongst themselves as well. At the same time, the public gradually lost interest and the protest lost momentum and visibility. On June 11, 1971, U.S. Marshals removed the final group of fifteen protestors, bringing an end to the conflict.18

Although this conflict ended peacefully, Nixon’s troubles were not over. While he found allies within the NCAI and among tribal leaders for his self-determination policies, the emerging American Indian Movement (AIM) opposed his efforts. This grassroots movement was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968 and sought to improve conditions for Native Americans living in urban areas.19 Members of this group and other similar grassroots movements argued for the federal government to renegotiate their treaties and reform the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Although Nixon tried to implement some reforms at the BIA, few changes were implemented, and some contended that he did not do enough to reform it.20

In 1972, AIM members joined the Trail of Broken Treaties, a symbolic walk from the West Coast to Washington, D.C. to demand the United States government uphold its treaties with Indigenous peoples. When AIM members reached Washington, they proceeded to take over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building. The group barricaded themselves inside and refused to leave. As they did with the Alcatraz Island takeover, the Nixon administration proceeded cautiously and with restraint. While the Justice Department secured a court injunction to evict the protestors, talks were opened with the protestors and eventually a compromise was reached. A panel would study their demands, including a review of Native American treaties. Then, the government paid $66,000 to transport the protestors back home and the occupation of the BIA ended after one week.21

This incident impacted Nixon’s support and commitment to the rights of Native Americans. He felt that he was affecting wider change and helping Native Americans and became frustrated that not everyone appreciated his efforts. Nixon, like many previous presidents and federal policymakers, assumed that all Native Americans felt the same way about their relationship with the federal government—but this was not the case. While these measures were progressive steps forward, they also in a way made the same historical mistake, treating all Indigenous peoples as one monolithic group with the same ideas, concerns, and demands, when in fact it varied by people, history, geography, and generation. Despite his frustration with the protests, Nixon did not reverse his Native American policy.22

Sculptor James Thomas Turner Sr. gifted this small bronze bust of a Taos woman to President Richard Nixon. The engraved plaque reads: "To the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in appreciation for the return of the Sacred Blue Lake to the Taos Indians."

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

On February 28, 1973, the Nixon administration faced their biggest challenge when two hundred Oglaga Lakota (Sioux) activists, along with members of AIM, took over Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of an 1890 massacre of Lakota by the United States Army. This group took over the town, took the residents hostage, and demanded that the U.S. government enforce their treaties.23 This incident was the culmination of frustration between elected tribal elders and members of urban radical groups like AIM. Some tribal leaders denounced these efforts, and in return AIM members accused tribal leaders of corruption and aligning themselves too closely with the U.S. government. When activists took over Wounded Knee, one of their goals was to oust Richard Wilson, tribal chairman to the Oglaga, who many considered corrupt due to terrible conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation.24

This time, the Nixon administration responded with more force than they had at Alcatraz or the BIA. U.S. Marshals, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and BIA police surrounded the town, while AIM members armed themselves with hunting rifles and explosives. For seventy-one days, the siege continued as the groups traded gunfire. The government cut off electricity and water and restricted food and ammunition from entering the town. Two Native Americans, Frank Clearwater and Lawrence “Buddy” Lamont, died in the conflict and individuals on both sides were wounded.25 Although the Nixon administration responded more forcefully to this incident, they still practiced restraint. Nixon did not want to use tear gas and did not authorize the deployment of troops to assist in ending the conflict.26 After Buddy Lamont, a local Oglaga man, was shot by a government sniper on April 26, tribal elders called to end the siege and began working with government officials. On May 5, an agreement was reached to lay down arms if the government would open an investigation into Richard Wilson’s management of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The siege finally ended on May 8.27

The incident strengthened Nixon’s commitment to self-determination policy because he wanted the publicity for his progressive record on Native American issues. According to historian Dean Kotlowski, the Nixon administration used the Wounded Knee incident to bolster support for Nixon’s proposed legislation and resubmitted it to Congress, chastising them for not acting on it sooner. As a result, between 1973 and 1975, Congress passed several significant pieces of legislation related to Native Americans including the 1974 Indian Financing Act.28

By this point, Richard Nixon found himself embroiled in the unfolding Watergate scandal and resigned from office on August 9, 1974. However, Congress continued to move forward, and after much debate, passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. This act rejuvenated tribal governments, allowed the government to contract with tribes for government services, and allowed Native Americans to operate their own schools. It was the culmination of many of Nixon’s policy ideas. Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford, signed the act into law on January 4, 1975, stating: “My Administration is committed to furthering the self-determination of Indian communities without terminating the special relationship between the Federal Government and the Indian people.” Although his advocacy efforts on behalf of Native Americans are often overlooked or forgotten, today, Native American policy still supports self-determination due to the efforts of President Richard Nixon and his administration.29

July 12, 2013: Members of Native American tribes from all over the country congregated in Taos, New Mexico, where they celebrated Richard Nixon's 100th birthday, and paid tribute to the 37th President for granting them self-determination after two centuries of mistreatment and destructive policies. The President's younger brother, Ed Nixon, accepted the recognition on behalf of the Nixon family and Foundation.

Richard Nixon Foundation