Editor’s note: This is the 35th 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 that lead up to the election in 2016.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was born May 29, 1917, often gets credit for serving as president during the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, but the man beloved for championing African-American rights and working to eradicate poverty was assassinated before he could fulfill his promises to Native Americans.
Just 11 days before winning the 1960 election, Kennedy called for a “sharp break” from past Indian policies. That included termination policy, which severed tribes’ special relationships with the federal government, divided reservations into private ownership and sought to assimilate Indians into full citizenship.
Kennedy pledged to reverse termination policies, making a “specific promise of a positive program to improve the life of a neglected and disadvantaged group of our population,” he wrote in an October 28, 1960, letter to Oliver La Farge, president of the Association of American Indian Affairs.
“My administration would see to it that the Government of the United States discharges its moral obligation to our first Americans,” he wrote, promising better education and health care, access to federal housing programs, increased economic opportunity and “genuinely cooperative relations” between Indians and federal officials.
“Indians have heard fine words and promises long enough,” he wrote. “The program to which my party has pledged itself will be a program of deeds, not merely of words.
Yet Kennedy failed to live up to those words, said Thomas Clarkin, a history professor at San Antonio College and author of the 2001 book Federal Indian Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Kennedy, who was assassinated after serving 1,036 days in office, was a transitional president, bridging the gap between the termination policies of the 1950s and the more sympathetic Indian policies enacted during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“By 1958, termination was already a clearly troubled policy,” Clarkin said. “But Kennedy never took that last step to end termination. He was a transitional figure. He knew it wasn’t working, but he never put a mechanism in place wherein Indians were making decisions for themselves in the federal process.”
Born into a wealthy political family in Massachusetts in 1917, Kennedy graduated from Harvard University and served in the Navy before embarking on a career in politics. He represented Massachusetts for six years in the U.S. House and eight years in the Senate. A member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy was elected as the 35th president of the United States after campaigning for a “new frontier” of unprecedented equality.
“The New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not,” he said in his July 1960 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president. “Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
Kennedy took office during the Cold War and served as president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the building of the Berlin Wall. He contended with communism and nuclear weapons, and against the Soviet Union in the race to put a man in space.
Kennedy also introduced sweeping foreign and domestic policies designed to alleviate poverty and promote equality. Although these policies indirectly benefited Indians, Kennedy failed to distinguish Indians from other social minorities, Clarkin said. He promoted civil and citizenship rights and increased federal aid but he did not adjust policies specifically to benefit Indians—contrary to his campaign promises.
“At that point in time, no one considered Indian rights as civil rights, and when you look at policies that benefited Indians, they received assistance not as Natives, but as people living in poverty,” Clarkin said. “Kennedy was interested in helping people, helping Indians, but he did not acknowledge treaties or sovereignty or the relationship between Indians and the government.”
This failure to understand Indians’ special relationship with the federal government was perhaps most pronounced in Kennedy’s decision during his first year in office to support construction of the Kinzua Dam on Seneca land in Pennsylvania. The dam submerged nearly 10,000 acres of Seneca land, forced 600 residents to relocate and led to the destruction and desecration of homes and gravesites. Its construction also violated the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, signed by President George Washington.
The Seneca proposed alternate routing and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices refused to hear the case, and Kennedy sent the Seneca a letter expressing his condolences for the lost land, but supporting the dam.
“It is not possible to halt the construction of the Kinzua Dam,” he wrote. All alternate plans were deemed “clearly inferior to the Kinzua project from the viewpoint of cost, amount of land to be flooded and number of people who would be dislocated.”
Kennedy also floated the idea of securing a different tract of land “suitable for tribal purposes” in exchange for the land grabbed from the Seneca. He never followed through.
Shortly after taking office in 1961, Kennedy appointed a task force to study Native Americans and make recommendations. This Task Force on Indian Affairs recommended an end to termination policy after it found that the BIA emphasized termination over self-sufficiency. Kennedy’s administration failed to act.
In June 1961, as many as 800 Indians gathered at the American Indian Chicago Conference to demand—among other things—an end to termination. The seven-day conference, recognized as the largest pan-tribal meeting to date, drew individuals from as many as 90 tribes brought together by “a common sense of being under attack,” D’Arcy McNickle, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, wrote in his 1993 book, Native American Tribalism.
Conference attendees drafted a Declaration of Indian Purpose, which called for a climate in which “the Indian people will grow and develop as members of a free society” and demanded that Indians be afforded the right to self-government and self-determination.
“What we ask of America is not charity, not paternalism, even when benevolent,” the declaration states. “We ask only that the nature of our situation be recognized and made the basis of policy and action.”
A year after the conference, Kennedy met on the south lawn of the White House with a delegation from the National Congress of American Indians who read out loud the Declaration of Indian Purpose. In prepared remarks to the delegates, Kennedy acknowledged the social ills still plaguing Indian country.
“Your presence here reminds us all of a very strong obligation which any American, whether he was born here or came here from other parts of the world, has to every American Indian,” he said. Kennedy pointed to the visit as a “reminder to all Americans of the number of Indians whose housing is inadequate, whose education is inadequate, whose employment is inadequate, whose health is inadequate, whose security and old age is inadequate—a very useful reminder that there is still a good deal of unfinished business.”
Yet Kennedy did not complete this unfinished business. The following month, in September 1962, he signed the final termination bill, calling for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska to be removed from federal oversight by 1966. More than 400 Poncas were removed from tribal rolls and all their remaining land and holdings were dissolved.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. He was 46. His vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson completed the term.
This story was originally published August 30, 2016.