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Top 5 Presidents for Indian Country

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Feb. 13, 15 -


Several U.S. presidents have stood up for Native Americans’ rights, concerning historic issues ranging from land rights and tribal-government relations to economic and cultural disparities. In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’d like to highlight five U.S. presidents who sought to help strengthen the voices and protect the rights of Native Americans throughout the country.

John Quincy Adams

Adams believed that the state and federal governments had a duty to abide by Indian treaties and to purchase, not merely annex, Indian lands. Adams’s decision to repudiate and renegotiate a fraudulent treaty that stripped the Georgia Creek Indians of their land outraged land-hungry Southerners and Westerners. Adams’s Indian policies also cost him supporters.[1] He was firmly against President Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal, which promised to remove the “Five Civilized Tribes” living in Georgia to a location west of the Mississippi River. Like many northeasterners at the time, Quincy believed the Constitution should be used to protect Native Americans.[2]

Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies focused on relief, recovery, and reform. It was in this atmosphere that Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934, also known as the “Wheeler-Howard Act,” or the “Indian New Deal.” The IRA began a new era of federal-tribal government relations. In a nutshell, the IRA:

  • Ended the allotment of tribal lands and extended the trust period for existing allotments,
  • Prohibited taking tribal lands away without tribal consent;
  • Authorized the Secretary of the Interior to accept additional tribal lands in trust and proclaim new reservations on those lands;
  • Recognized tribal governments and promoted tribal self-government by encouraging tribes to adopt constitutions under Section 16 of the IRA, which is said to be the IRA’s most important accomplishment;
  • Established a revolving tribal development loan program and set up specific tribal business charters under Section 17 of the IRA; and
  • Established a Native-hire preference for Bureau of Indian Affairs jobs.[3]

Richard Nixon

“From the time of their first contact with European settlers, the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny. Even the federal programs, which are intended to meet their needs, have proven to be ineffective and demeaning.”

—President Nixon’s message  to Congress
 July 8, 1970

President Nixon’s new vision allowed for tribal self-governance with federal protection of their property rights and natural resources, and federal assistance for education, health care, and economic opportunities, like it provided for all states, cities, and communities. President Nixon believed the policy of termination would prevent the United States from honoring its commitment to recognize tribal authority and property rights, even after Native Americans had surrendered vast amounts of land to the federal government.[4]

Bill Clinton

President Clinton revolutionized tribal nations’ voices with the federal government. He increased funding for a variety of administrative programs by record numbers. To better serve Native American communities and to honor the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribes, $9.4 billion was budgeted for key new and existing programs that assist tribal reservations. This totaled in an increase of $1.2 billion over Fiscal Year 2000—the largest increase ever. In July 1999, President Clinton, as the first sitting president to visit a reservation since Franklin Roosevelt, visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota as part of his New Markets Tour to encourage private investment in Indian Country. In 1994, he executed a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies directing agencies to consult with tribal governments prior to taking actions that affect them. This executive order established regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with Indian tribal governments, reducing the imposition of unfunded mandates upon them, and streamlining the application process for, while increasing the availability of waivers for Indian tribal governments. President Clinton also created the Office of Tribal Justice and a permanent White House working group composed of all Executive Branch departments to advance tribal sovereignty across the administration.

Barack Obama

Under the Obama administration, Indian Country has had a consistent and strong voice with the federal government. President Obama has pushed agencies to develop and enforce consultation policies. Since his first year as president, President Obama has hosted an annual meeting with Native American tribal leaders, his cabinet, and secretaries of various federal agencies, allowing tribal leadership to engage in direct government-to-government exchanges. Additionally, Obama hired Native American personnel at high levels throughout the administration to advise on policies directly impacting tribal communities. Among other pro-tribal legislation, President Obama also signed into law the Tribal Law and Order Act, which addresses many public safety challenges confronting tribal communities, and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which gives tribal courts power to address cases with non-natives on violence against tribal members.[5]

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