This is the 34th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, was already famous, having won several Olympic gold medals and called the greatest athlete in the world by the king of Sweden. The November 1912 football game pitted the Army school against American Indians in a competition reminiscent of historic rivalries.
Eisenhower took the skirmish personally, Lars Anderson wrote in his 2007 book Carlisle vs. Army. Ever since he learned that the flagship Indian school’s football team would be playing at West Point, Eisenhower and his teammates made plans to stop Thorpe.
“A cadet would become famous, the Army players believed, if he knocked Thorpe out of the game with a hit so powerful it kidnapped Thorpe from consciousness,” Anderson wrote. Eisenhower, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed athlete, had been looking forward to the game for months and “fully expected to be the chosen one—the player who was going to deliver the knockout blow that would send Thorpe out of the game and into a hospital bed.”
The hit came early in the game. Eisenhower and another linebacker teamed up against Thorpe, throwing themselves as hard as they could at Carlisle’s most valuable player. Thorpe fumbled then writhed on the ground in pain, clutching his shoulder as Eisenhower celebrated.
But Thorpe recovered, and in a subsequent play he sidestepped when Eisenhower and a teammate again charged at him. The two linebackers collided violently and were removed from the game. Carlisle won, 27-6.
As President of the United States more than four decades later, Eisenhower took a similar stance toward Natives. During his tenure in office, Congress enacted three assimilation programs that dramatically changed the federal government’s relationships with Indians: terminating tribal sovereignty, relocating Indians to urban areas and transferring federal law enforcement jurisdiction on Indian reservations to the states.
Born in Texas in 1890, Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915 and pursued a career in the military, serving in both world wars. During World War II, he commanded the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa and then orchestrated the 1944 D-Day landings in France, returning to the United States a national hero.
Both political parties sought him as a presidential candidate in 1948, but he refused, deciding instead to serve as president of Columbia University. A member of the Republican Party, he was elected as the 34th president of the United States in 1952 and served two terms, from 1953 to 1961.
When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, he inherited a country in the grips of the Cold War and Indian termination policies choreographed by his predecessor, Harry S. Truman. Although Eisenhower did not play a direct role in implementing them, he agreed in principle with the goals of termination, said Aaron Mason, professor of political science at Northern Oklahoma State University.
“Eisenhower wasn’t really a hands-on Indian policy guy,” Mason said. “Really, in a lot of ways, Truman began the policy of termination and Eisenhower inherited the momentum that was already going.”
Six months after Eisenhower took office, Congress enacted House Concurrent Resolution 108, declaring it policy to abolish federal supervision over tribes as soon as possible and to “make the 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.” Approved August 1, 1953, the resolution called for an end to Indians’ “status as wards of the United States” and gave rise to the government’s process of termination, or complete assimilation of Natives into mainstream society.
Termination called for an end to tribal sovereignty and to reservations, which would be divided into private ownership. It also called for abolishment of all Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and an examination of existing legislation and treaties to determine the most efficient ways to terminate federal responsibility for tribes.
Two weeks later, Congress signaled the beginning of termination by enacting House Resolution 1063, which turned criminal and civil jurisdiction of Indians over to the states of California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin. Voicing “grave doubts as to the wisdom of certain provisions,” Eisenhower asked Congress to amend the measure to require states to consult with tribes and obtain federal approval before taking over jurisdiction.
Congress did not respond to his request and in August 1953 Eisenhower signed the resolution, which became Public Law 83-280. In a statement accompanying his signature, Eisenhower said Indians in the five states had “enthusiastically endorsed” the bill as a way to safeguard tribal customs—as long as customs were consistent with general laws of the states.
“Its basic purpose represents still another step in granting complete political equality to all Indians in our nation,” he said of the bill. “The Indian tribes regard this as a long step forward in removing them from the status of ‘second class’ citizens.”
Three tribes were excluded from the law: the Red Lake band of Chippewa in Minnesota, the Warm Springs tribe in Oregon and the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin. Ten months later, in June 1954, Eisenhower signed the first termination bill, calling for the Menominee to be removed from federal supervision by December 31, 1958.
Eisenhower extended warm commendations to the Menominee who “have already demonstrated that they are able to manage their assets without supervision and take their place on an equal footing with other citizens,” he said. “In a real sense, they have opened up a new era in Indian affairs—an era of growing self-reliance which is the logical culmination and fulfillment of more than a hundred years of activity by the Federal Government among the Indian people.”
During the next 20 years, the federal government terminated 109 tribes, despite growing opposition from groups like the National Congress of American Indians. In early 1954, the NCAI adopted a Declaration of Indian Rights representing the sincere “Indian feeling” of 183,000 individuals from 43 tribes in 21 states and sent it to Eisenhower, arguing that termination bills pending in Congress constituted a violation of treaty rights.
“These proposals, if adopted, will tend to destroy our tribal governments … leave our older people destitute … (and) force our people into a way of life that some of them are not willing or are not ready to adopt,” the declaration states. “If the Federal Government will continue to deal with our tribal officials as it did with our ancestors on a basis of full equality; if it will deal with us as individuals as it does with other Americans, governing only by consent, we will be enabled to take our rightful place in our communities, to discharge our full responsibilities as citizens, and yet remain faithful to the Indian way of life.”
This Indian way of life took another hit under Eisenhower’s administration when Congress in 1956 approved Public Law 989. Also known as the Indian Relocation Act or the Adult Vocational Training Program, the law appropriated $3.5 million per year to transport adult Indians to urban centers where they could receive vocational training.
“When we consider the numerous difficulties which many Indians from reservations face in adjusting to the complexities of life in our larger cities, this stands as a highly remarkable record,” BIA Commissioner Glenn Emmons wrote. “It shows what Indian people can do in taking their place alongside citizens of other races if they are only given a reasonable opportunity.”
Eisenhower left office in 1961 and was succeeded by John F. Kennedy. He died in 1969 at age 78.