This is the 38th 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.
When Gerald Rudolph Ford was sworn in as President in August 1974, he inherited a conflict that was already a century in the making.
Ninety-seven years earlier, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the federal government entered into an agreement with a small group of Sioux Indians. The February 1877 agreement called for the Sioux to relinquish their rights to the Black Hills, a range of sprawling, tree-covered mountains the Sioux had occupied since the 1770s.
In exchange for 7.3 million acres of land in the Black Hills—and rights to gold Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer discovered there in 1874—the government promised allotments in Indian Territory, along with “all necessary aid to assist the said Indians in the work of civilization.” It also promised rations of beef, bacon, flour, corn, coffee, sugar and beans, etc., “until the Indians are able to support themselves.”
Ten percent of the Sioux Nation’s adult male population signed the agreement, along with representatives from the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne nations. But the agreement, later passed by Congress, directly violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, in which the Black Hills, were “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians,” and determined that land would not be ceded without approval from three-fourths of the tribe’s adult male population.
Although the Sioux believed the 1877 act violated the 1868 treaty, they had no way to pursue litigation against the United States. That changed in 1946 when President Harry S. Truman signed the Indian Claims Commission Act, establishing a process for resolving long-standing disputes between Indians and the federal government.
The Sioux Nation filed an initial claim in 1950. Twenty-four years later, in February 1974, the Indian Claims Commission ruled that the United States took the Black Hills illegally. The commission also determined that the 1877 value of the land—and gold discovered there—was $17.5 million (inflated to $103 million by 1974).
Two months after taking office, Ford signed the Indian Claims Commission Appropriations Legislation, which he called an opportunity “to take clear and decisive action” to make things right. “Although we cannot undo the injustices from our history, we can insure that the actions we take today are just and fair and designed to heal such wounds from the past,” he said.
Ford called on the government to pay the monetary claim, but did not take action to return the land. The Sioux refused the money, which still sits in the U.S. Treasury, earning interest.
Born in Nebraska in 1913, Ford played football at the University of Michigan and earned a law degree from Yale. He served in the Navy during World War II and was elected 13 times to represent Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives, for a total of 25 years.
When President Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign over a tax scandal in late 1973, Nixon appointed Ford as his replacement. Ford became president 10 months later, in August 1974, when Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal.
A Republican, Ford is the only person in history to serve as both vice president and president without having been elected to either office. He served 29 months as president, from 1974 to 1977, and taking office as American Indian militancy was at its height.
In a resolution sent to Washington, the tribe claimed that the government had wrongfully taken 1.4 million acres of “aboriginal land” in eastern Idaho, western Montana and Canada. Citing a number of “misdeeds” on the part of the government, tribal leaders decided to assert “complete sovereignty over the area” and demand a negotiated settlement.
The tribe posted soldiers on the highway that ran through the small town of Bonners Ferry—located on the tribe’s former homeland—and charged drivers a toll. The Idaho governor reacted by sending 70 state troopers to Bonners Ferry, prompting the Kootenai to call on outside Indian activists for assistance.
Three months later, on January 3, 1975, Ford signed a similar bill returning 185,000 acres to the Havasupai tribe in Arizona. The following day, he signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which officially reversed Indian termination, authorized government agencies to work directly with tribes and gave tribes authority to decide how to use funds for children in public schools.
Ford called the act “a milestone for Indian people” and said it would give tribes unprecedented strength and sovereignty.
“My Administration is committed to furthering the self-determination of Indian communities without terminating the special relationships between the Federal Government and the Indian people,” he said, promising the act would enable the government to “work more closely and effectively with the tribes for the betterment of all the Indian people by assisting them in meeting goals they themselves have set.”
In his final months in office, Ford took several steps to ensure Indians had a brighter future. In September 1976, he signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, elevating the health status of Indians to the highest possible level and encouraging tribes to enter into self-determined contracts with the Indian Health Service. Ford signed the act despite strong resistance from his own advisers.
“Indian people still lag behind the American people as a whole in achieving and maintaining good health,” he said. “I am signing this bill because of my own conviction that our First Americans should not be last in opportunity.”
Eight days later, Ford designated the second week of October 1976 as Native American Awareness Week.
“It is especially appropriate during our Bicentennial Year to recall the impressive role played in our society by American Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts,” he said. “ In renewing the spirit and determined dedication of the past 200 years we should also join with our Native Americans in rebuilding an awareness, understanding and appreciation for their historical role and future participation in our diverse American society.”
“No domestic matter had given me greater pride than my administration’s record of turning around the discrimination and neglect that all Indians faced for so many years,” he said.
Ford left office in 1977 and was succeeded by Jimmy Carter. He died in 2006 at age 93.