Richard Nixon’s Indian Mentor

Courtesy Nixon Foundation / President Richard Nixon released a Self-Determination Policy on July 8, 1970. Nixon formed a bond with Coach Wallace Newman, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, while attending Whittier College.

Wallace “Chief” Newman had an affect on Indians probably more than anyone else in the 20th century.

He was Richard Nixon’s football coach at Whittier College in the 1940s. But he stayed with Nixon when he was Congressman, Senator, Vice President, and President. He made personal appearances with Nixon throughout these campaigns, starting in 1946.

Even though he was a third stringer, he adored Coach Newman. And he said Newman taught him as much as his dad did. Nixon wrote, “I think I admired him more and learned more from him than any other man aside from my father. He drilled into me a competitive spirit and the determination to come back after you have been knocked down or after you lose. He also gave me an acute understanding that what really matters is not a man’s background, his color, his race, or his religion, but only his character.”

Nixon remembered the coach saying, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Those words stuck by Nixon the rest of his life. He lost the presidential race to John Kennedy in 1960, but came back to win in 1968 and 1972. He also lost the governor’s race in California in 1962.

Newman taught Nixon more than anyone else about Indian affairs, treaties, termination of Indian treaties, and the condition of Indians living on reservations. When 78 of us Indian college students took over Alcatraz Island in 1969 to try to end the termination of Indian treaties and the forced relocation of Indians into the cities, it was Newman who gave Nixon the background he needed to understand the situation. So one of the most conservative presidents came out with the most enlightened Indian policy of the past half-century.

When I first read the Nixon Indian policy statement of July 1970, I saw Browning Pipestem’s writing all over it. Browning was the Alcatraz lawyer, and had gone to law school with one of Nixon’s White House attorneys. But once I read it a few times, I saw Newman’s writing all over it, too.

Courtesy Northwestern Oklahoma State University Browning Pipestem served as a lawyer during the occupation of Alcatraz Island.

Newman was head football coach at Whittier College from 1929 to 1951. He was a full-blood Luiseno Indian from the La Jolla Reservation. Nixon said many times that if Newman had a chance, he would have achieved great things in college football and pro football. But because he was an Indian, he was shunted to the back of the pack for playing and coaching. Instead of getting USC or UCLA, he got little Whittier College, a place with just a few hundred students. He never got a mention or even a look from the National Football League, even though the first NFL Commissioner was the great Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian. Thorpe put the league together in 1920.

Whittier, a little Quaker college in southern California, was way out of the top ranks. Newman had to be content to be a coach in this little college for his career. Nixon, who weighed 140 pounds, was not big enough to play. So he was a bench warmer, coming in now and then when it didn’t matter.

Courtesy nixoninwhittier.com Richard Nixon was mostly a bench warmer while on the football team at Whittier.

Newman was a super athlete. He coached football, basketball, and baseball at Whittier when it had only a few hundred students. He had 103 wins, 67 losses, and 13 ties in his 19 years of coaching football, for a .598 winning percentage. (The college did not field teams for three years during WWII.) Two future NFL coaches, George Allen and Don Coryell, both had winning records at Whittier, but nothing as good as Newman. But both of them made it to the NFL Hall of Fame as coaches. There is no doubt in my mind that Newman would have made it as an NFL head coach if he had gotten a chance. But no Indians were hired to be head of anything in those days, except at little Whittier, a Quaker college. And Quakers had been pro-Indian since their early days in Pennsylvania.

As a Quaker, Nixon had a natural interest in Indian affairs, which he frequently discussed with his dad, Donald Nixon. He advocated for Newman to be head of Indian affairs in the Eisenhower administration, when he was Vice President, and again when he was President. But his advocacy did not succeed, probably because Newman didn’t have any government experience, and because there were no Indians heading anything in government at that time.

Courtesy Nixon 100 Coach Wallace “Chief” Newman coached a young Richard Nixon at Whittier College in the ‘40s.

Utah Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins insisted from the time he was sworn in that Indian treaties were relics and should be eliminated. His House colleague from Utah, Reva Beck Bosone, introduced a bill in 1947 that would have eliminated Indian treaties, but Watkins had it tabled. He wanted all the credit for termination, which he got in 1953 when both Houses of Congress passed HCR 108, which called for the end of all treaties with Indian tribes.

Congress had approved 388 treaties over the years, only stopping Indian treaties in 1871. As my next book documents, Congress actually terminated the treaties of 179 tribes. Only about 40 have had their termination reversed.

The people who took over Alcatraz had suffered from the effects of termination and relocation. Mickey Gemmill, the chairman of the Pit River Indian Tribe, was also an enrolled student at San Francisco State College. The BIA had basically neglected his tribe, even though they had not been formally terminated. They were extremely poor, and had lost hundreds of their people in the flu epidemic of 1918.

Ramon (Ray) Billy, Hopland Band of Pomo, had been terminated. Ray, curious about his status, had gone to the BIA offices in Sacramento in the early 1960s to check his records. On the outside of his file was a huge tag that said “Non-Indian Status.” And he was a full blood Pomo.

LaNada Boyer (Shoshone-Bannock) had gotten kicked out of three BIA schools for impertinence and sent back home to Fort Hall. At the age of 17 she got sent to San Francisco on relocation and at the age of 20 became the first Indian admitted to UC Berkeley. When I got there in 1968, Lee Brightman (Lakota) and Patty Silvas (Blackfeet) were also there. I made the fourth Indian student on the campus. There were none at SF State, none at Chico State, none at Sacramento State, none at UC Davis, none at San Jose State, and three at Cal State Hayward. LaNada was the real leader of the Alcatraz occupation, staying with it the entire 19 months. She earned her doctorate in political science in the 1980s and taught college for awhile. She retired as executive director of her tribe a couple of years ago.

Bill Schaaf (Ojibwe) had been in the Bay Area, working at the General Motors plant, for over a decade. He entered UC Berkeley in 1969. He eventually got his MA degree. He is retired and living back home at Onamia, Minnesota.

After Nixon declared termination dead, a few dozen tribes got reinstated with their treaty rights. I call that unterminated. My tribe, the Lumbee Nation, got recognized at the worst possible time—1956. So even though we got federal recognition, we were terminated in the last section of the bill, which says, “Nothing in this act shall make these Indians eligible for any federal services because of their status as Indians.” We are the only tribe treated this way.

Most of the remaining 130 tribes that were terminated are still terminated. If the U.S. were to live up to its constitutional duties, all of them would have their treaty rights restored. Over 60 tribes from Oregon were terminated, and 41 from California were terminated.

Most people have no idea what deep and meaningful changes came about because of the Alcatraz occupation. The Indian Education Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act, and the Urban Indian Health Care Act happened because of the Alcatraz occupation.

And the Alcatraz people have been doers. Verna Clinton (Navajo) earned her degree and has been a teacher at Chinle for over 35 years. Gerald Sam (Bridgeport) finished his degree, became a city planner, and has served as both chairman and executive director of his tribe. Linda Aranaydo (Creek) taught school for a decade, went to medical school, and became a medical doctor. Her brother Canuto (Sonny) Aranaydo (Creek) finished his degree and taught high school in Oakland for 40 years.

We have a lot to be thankful for from Richard Nixon, who got it from Coach Newman.

Dr. Dean Chavers won the Yawa’ Award from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in March. His next book is “Termination of Indian Treaties and the Aftermath.” He is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.

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