By Fletcher McClellan and Caitlin Olivas
Fifty years ago on July 8, President Richard Nixon issued one of the most important addresses in the long, tragic history of U.S. government relations with Native American tribes.
Noting that past federal policies sought to terminate support and protection of indigenous peoples, Nixon set forth a policy of Native American “self-determination without termination.”
Working with the Democratic-controlled Congress, the Nixon and Ford administrations enacted the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which turned over control of programs serving Native American communities to tribal governments.
Also authorized were laws expanding funding for tribal economic development and Indian health, and restoring federal protection of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, which was terminated in the 1950s.
Nixon didn’t change Indian policy all by himself, of course.
Potential Democratic opponents of Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, including U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts; George McGovern, of South Dakota, and Henry Jackson, of Washington (who was a former advocate of termination), joined the cause.
All were responding to the Red Power movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, which featured dramatic occupations of Alcatraz Island, the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington D.C., and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.
Protest bolstered conventional political activities by the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund. Both play important roles today defending Indian interests, though the object of activism is different.
Nixon’s advocacy of Native American rights was unusual for American presidents, but not necessarily Nixon himself. His administration presided over progressive policies in environmental protection, women’s rights, and affirmative action, to name just a few.
Some attributed Nixon’s support for American Indians to his football coach at Whittier College, Wallace “Chief” Newman, a Luiseno Indian of whom Nixon said, “I think I admired him more and learned more from him than any other man aside from my father.”
Regardless of his motivations, the Native American self-determination stance Nixon adopted remains U.S. policy today.
The tribal sovereignty Nixon championed led to enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Created to promote “tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments,” the law formed the basis of a $30.5 billion industry or 44 percent of all gaming revenue in the U.S. as of 2015.
In Pennsylvania, there are no federally recognized tribes. But the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut has operated the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in Wilkes-Barre since 2006. Last year, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama took over the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, renaming it Wind Creek Bethlehem.
Though Indian gaming can be lucrative (Mohegan Sun Pocono grossed $194 million from slot machines in one year), more than half of the 501 tribally owned gaming facilities in the U.S. brought in less than $25 million each in total revenue annually.
Furthermore, nearly 60 percent of the 567 federally recognized tribes do not have gaming licenses.
Despite the policy progress made since 1970, Native Americans have more poverty, poorer health, and lower education completion rates than other ethnic groups and the U.S. population.
Economically and medically, tribes are especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration’s response has been characteristically slow, particularly the distribution of CARES Act funds.
Two-thirds of Native Americans live in urban areas, where police violence has been a concern for decades.
On many fronts under President Donald Trump, tribal sovereignty is under threat.
Trump’s hostility to Indian gaming is well known, going back to when he was in the casino business.
Fortunately, presidential politics has come to the rescue.
Though the approximately 3 million Native Americans are scattered throughout the U.S., they are swing votes in states such as Arizona, Montana, and Wisconsin.
Trump met with Arizona tribal leaders two months ago, pledging greater federal action on missing and murdered Native American women, an issue that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also promised to address.
On the rare occasions in American history when Washington, D.C. responded positively to Native American needs, strong presidential leadership was required.
The next president — Trump or someone else — could find worse models to follow than Nixon.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. Caitlin Olivas is a 2020 political science and philosophy graduate of Elizabethtown College.