Modern U.S. presidents have a curious relationship with North America’s first residents, American Indians and Alaska Natives.
President Richard Nixon in July of 1970 sent a special message to Congress calling for a new era with the indigenous tribes because “on virtually every scale of measurement -- employment, income, education, health -- the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.” Nixon called for a “new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
Not every president got the memo.
President Ronald Reagan, for example, found himself in Moscow confused by the entire premise of federal-Indian relations. “Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land,” he told a group of students in the former Soviet Union. “We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called preservations—or reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth. And we set up these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them—schools on the reservations. And they're free also to leave the reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us, and many do. Some still prefer, however, that way—that early way of life. And we've done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live. Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us.”
Reagan’s idea was insulting to the five hundred tribal governments that existed before the United States. These tribal government survived conquest and exist today because the United States negotiated treaties with them for lands and other concessions. Those treaties promised doctors and hospitals, schools, and other basic governmental services.
That history sets the stage for Barack Obama.
As president he has announced no new sweeping policy initiatives -- how do you trump self-determination? Yet most of his policies have been generally supportive of tribal governments. At the 5th White House Tribal Nations Conference (held at the Interior Department because the largest room at the White House -- the East Room -- is too small for such a gathering) Obama promised to make his first “state” visit to Indian Country as president. (more…)