In his inaugural speech,President Gerald Ford told the American people, “Our long national nightmare is over.” It was August of 1974, and Ford was talking about Richard Nixon’s resignation that would supposedly put an end to the speculation of whether a sitting president had been involved in a criminal conspiracy. Less than five months later, he could have used the same metaphor to describe the end of America’s Indian termination policy.Beginning in 1953 with House Resolution 108, termination was “a far-reaching plan to remove Indian reservations from federal supervision, abolish the wardship status of American Indians, dismantle Indian reservations, and turn tribal property into private holdings by former tribal members.”
Termination devastated tribal communities, as it often decimated Native culture and an individual’s sense of identity. In its 20-year implementation, termination destroyed about 110 Indian reservations, including the Menominee Nation, whose students I now serve. This shameful period created social and psychological wounds which can’t be quantified. Termination policy was replaced with a move towards tribal autonomy via the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975. Ford wasn’t the architect of the act, but tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) should remember him acting to make tribal governance of schools a reality.
Ford’s predecessors, presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were the principal designers of “self-determination without termination.”Johnson first articulated the idea in 1968, by proposing “a new goal” that “ends the old debate about ‘termination’ of Indian programs and stresses self-determination.” He said “Indians must have a voice in the making of plans and decisions in programs that are important to their daily life.”In 1970, Nixon further argued that the “special relationship” between Indians and the federal government was a result of “solemn obligations” written into treaties and agreements that the United States was committed to uphold.“To terminate this relationship would be no more appropriate than to terminate the citizenship rights of any other American,” Nixon said. Above all, Nixon emphasized the importance of Native people being involved in the decisions that affected them, and that American Indians had the right to manage federal programs that served their tribal communities. In just over two years, Johnson and Nixon were able to define some of the most comprehensive and innovative Indian policy statements in American history, but it was Ford who made their vision the law of the land.
Ford’s ascent to the presidency was unlike any other commander-in-chief’s in American history. Spiro Agnew was Nixon’s elected vice president, but, as part of a plea bargain to settle charges that he committed extortion, bribery, and income-tax violations while serving in his previous office as Maryland’s governor, Agnew resigned his vice presidency in 1973.After much discussion, Nixon leaned toward either the former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller or the governor of California, Ronald Reagan. But, as House Speaker Carl Albert later asserted, “We gave Nixon no choice but Ford.” The Senate voted 92 to 3 to confirm Ford and the House followed, voting 387 to 35. Ford vacated his position as House minority leader and was sworn in as America’s 40th vice president.
Nixon resigned the presidency eight months later, and had someone other than Ford ascended to America’s highest office, the forward-moving Indian policy proposals might have stalled.Although we can only guess Rockefeller’s stance on American Indian self-determination, Reagan’s opinions are well-documented during his eventual presidency.He supported states’ rights over the rights of reservations, implemented budget cuts which severely handicapped tribal programs, believed tribes should enter the world of enterprise to reduce their dependence on federal funding, and in 1988 infamously stated, “Maybe we made a mistake.Maybe we should not have humored [American Indians] in wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle.”Moreover, in 1983,his Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, described Natives as “incompetent wards of the government” and claimed that reservations were examples of “the failures of socialism.”
To be fair, Reagan did renounce the 1980s congressional attempts to revive termination, and he encouraged the use of tribal contracts for federal programs on reservations. Still, Reagan’s sincerity for Indian causes is doubtful. A case in point is a 1988 meeting with tribal leaders that was intended to discuss grievances. It was during the final weeks of Reagan’s second term, and guest Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee) was dismayed by the president’s apparent disinterest in Indians, describing the meeting as a “photo opportunity.” We may well wonder, if Reagan had wielded the president’s pen in 1975, would the Indian Self-Determination Act have been vetoed?
Speculation aside, President Ford not only signed the act into law, he continued to support American Indian initiatives throughout his tenure.After signing the Indian Self-Determination Act, Ford released a statement praising the act as “a milestone” that would allow his administration to assist “the Indian people…in meeting goals they themselves had set.”Ford also signed the Indian Claims Commission appropriations legislation,which ruled that the United States illegally took the Black Hills in 1877, and he rejected the proposal that the cost of the provisions provided to the Dakota people over the past century should be subtracted from the settlement.He asserted, “While this nation cannot undo the injustices of American history, we can insure that the actions taken today are just and fair.”
Ford also enacted Bill S. 634, which created a reservation for Idaho’s Kootenai tribe who had lost their land in 1885, and he vetoed a bill granting early retirement benefits to non-Indian employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service who were suffering “a serious lowering of morale” after being passed over for promotions due to Indian employees receiving preference.Ford signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act despite a third of his advisers opposing it, stating “I am signing this bill because of my own conviction that our First Americans should not be last in opportunity.”Ford addressed the culmination of his efforts when he told American Indian leaders in 1976 that, “No domestic matter had given me greater pride than my Administration’s record of turning about the discrimination and neglect that all Indians faced for so many years.”
Like recent classes before them, most incoming TCU freshmen have lived their whole lives with the benefits of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. TCU faculty members should ensure their students know of the individuals who ushered in this era.
Of course, the Indian leaders and activists both within and beyond the Red Power movement were invaluable and irreplaceable catalysts for the achievement, and one mustn’t forget that a majority of the country’s congress and senate voted for the act’s approval.Still,it is important to remember that when President Gerald Ford found himself in the position to replace America’s Indian termination policy with one of self-determination, he again seized the opportunity to end a national nightmare.
Ryan Winn teaches English, Theater, and Communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he serves as the Humanities Department chair.He gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the trustees of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation,who awarded him a grant to support his research in the collections of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.
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