How One U.S. President Became a Native Advocate

How One U.S. President Became a Native Advocate

Old tribal leaders will sometimes volunteer that the best time for Indian governments was during the Nixon administration. Richard M. Nixon, in his July 1970 address to Congress, asked Congress to honor Indian treaties, strengthen tribal governments, allow tribes to subcontract federal programs, and invite tribal communities to engage in decision making over their own futures. Nixon’s policy change toward tribal self-determination was a landmark initiative in Indian policy, and has characterized federal policy ever since.

Many observers find Nixon’s support of Indian self-determination puzzling. Nixon ran a very centralized White House administration, where few staffers were privy to Nixon’s policy decisions. Nixon’s interests and rationale for supporting Indian policy were not clear to his staff. Nevertheless, scholars speculate that Nixon was influenced by activism among minority groups, Alcatraz and Red Power, his Indian Coach Wallace Newman, and his Quaker background.

At the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, a conference was held on April 24-25 entitled “Self-Determination and Tribal Sovereignty: The Lasting Impact of the Nixon Administration: An Academic Conference.” In the keynote address, former Nixon staff assistant, Bobbie Kilberg, provided insight of a staffer at the Nixon White House. She addressed Nixon’s Indian policy, and how he relished achievements like the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo. Kilberg emphasized the close relation that Nixon had to Wallace Newman, who was a member of the La Jolla Reservation. Nixon thought that Newman was one of the best coaches in football, but because he was an Indian, he did not get the chance to coach for a big league school. Nixon was a football player while a student at Whittier College, then a Quaker institution. Nixon wrote in his memoirs that besides his father, Wallace Newman had the greatest impact on his life and values.

In a panel discussion, Robert Prezeklasa, doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside, added new information about Nixon and his relation to Wallace Newman.

Prezeklasa reported that Nixon had supported Newman for commissioner of Indian Affairs during the Eisenhower administration. Also during his own administration, Nixon suggested Wallace Newman for the position. In both cases, Nixon’s nomination of Wallace did not succeed, but the nominations indicate how highly he held Newman and expressed his confidence in Newman’s ability to manage Indian issues.

In the same panel, I gave a summary of the significant influence on Indian policy contributed by the two Quaker Presidents, Nixon and Herbert Hoover. Hoover thought that termination and full U.S. citizenship were the best policies for Indians. He was the architect of the termination policy during the 1930s, and well into the 1950s. Hoover was a Quaker, and like many religious groups of the time, they thought assimilation was the best policy. Quakers were engaged in Indian Affairs since the signing of treaties in the 1680s with the Lenape Indians for land in eastern Pennsylvania. Hoover wrote in his memoirs: “Quakers had always been the defenders of Indians since the beginning of American History.” Hoover also wrote: “It is the purpose of the U.S. government to do justice by the Indian and assist them to citizenship and participation in our civilization.”

Nixon, also a Quaker, was influenced by changing policies, and the rejection of termination by Indian nations. During the late 1940s, some Quaker organizations started to assist Indians in rejecting termination. Early in his administration, Nixon asked Indians to voice their views, and he listened to them. Indian voices were reflected in the new self-determination policy and rejection of termination. During the conference sessions, Roy Nixon, nephew to President Nixon, affirmed that “Uncle Dick” and his father, Donald Nixon, were often engaged in evening discussions about Indian policy and issues. Quakerism, Coach Newman, and political activism all had influence in forming Nixon’s self-determination policy.