Getting Out the Vote: Gerald Ford’s Role in Indian Self-Determination, Part 2

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Photo Courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

On August 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford improved and extended the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which barred voting “discrimination against Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Asian Americans.” As a congressman in 1965, Ford supported the initial legislation that ushered in an era of greater voting equality. As president he reinforced his belief in the spirit of the act, stating, “In the past decade, the voting rights of millions and millions of Americans have been protected and our system of government has been strengthened immeasurably.” By examining Ford’s political trajectory alongside his actions on behalf of Indian people—including his support of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and the Voting Rights Act—those of us invested in tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) can better appreciate the necessity of Native people voting in every election.

Since TCUs receive federal funding, it’s paramount that every eligible TCU voter support representatives who share Indian values and support the sovereignty of Native nations. Ford’s record reveals that from 1968 to 1973, the then-congressman worked to help achieve national protection for the Hopewell Indian burial mounds in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ford’s intervention ensured that the site was assessed and that a preservation plan was produced. Today the mounds are designated as a National Historic Landmark. Although Ford cannot be credited as their principal savior, his numerous correspondences on the burial mounds show his sincerity in bringing federal attention to their conservation. Ford’s actions demonstrate his efforts to support an Indigenous burial site decades before NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990) was made a federal law.

As Richard Nixon’s vice president, Ford advocated the dissolution of the controversial National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO), which former president Lyndon Johnson established in an effort to “encourage the full use of federal programs to benefit the Indian population.” In March of 1974, the NCIO was up for renewal, but Vice President Ford believed that the way the council was structured made it ineffective. In a draft letter to Robert Lewis, president of the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, and Mel Tonasket, president of the National Congress of American Indians, Ford explained that Johnson’s order made the Vice President of the United States the chairman of the NCIO, making “the Council exist chiefly as a formality.” Ford continued, “There is no question in my mind that the Executive Branch needs a distinguished Indian advisory group which can speak to it on any matter in any of our Departments affecting Indians.” But Ford believed that the committee had to be redefined under new departmental leadership to fulfill its mission. The vice president reiterated his stance in a meeting with Lewis and Tonasket, stating that he wasn’t abandoning Indian causes and that “what the (proposed revised) board can’t get done I will.” The two Indian leaders “reportedly chuckled that they had previously heard high words of promise and little delivery.” Ford replied, “I will always be your advocate. Come in any time and I’ll be your link.” Once he was in the White House, Ford proved his sincerity by enacting numerous legislative acts that helped usher in the era of Indian self-determination.

Vice President Ford’s message for the 1974 dedication of Navajo Community College’s Tsaile, Arizona campus should resonate with all of us. He wrote:

The Navajo Nation is implementing self-determination policies as the best way to help resolve the Indian’s educational, cultural and economic problems. Your commendable efforts will help make the entire Nation better and stronger as these problems are studied and resolved. Today, the Navajo people and its Tribal Council prove to themselves as well as to all Americans that they do control their own destiny.

Ford’s words may have come at the beginning of the tribal college movement some 40 years ago, but they’re still applicable for every TCU today, as we work to ensure that the citizens of the Native nations we serve have access to an education which affirms their sovereignty. Yet the reality is that every election outcome carries the potential to alter the necessary governmental support which Indigenous people and TCUs need to thrive.

Despite the necessity of voting in every election, American Indian people have some of the lowest voter turnout rates of any ethnic group in the country. Certainly voter disillusionment with the federal government plays a role in why so many Natives avoid the polling booths, but it isn’t the only reason for low turnout. According to Native Vote, a nonpartisan campaign designed to encourage American Indian and Alaskan Native people to exercise their right to vote, laws such as those denying the validity of tribally issued identification cards, along with a reduction of polling hours and the difficulty in obtaining absentee ballots, have all contributed to the disenfranchisement of Native voters. Still, since our country is divided on recognizing the value of funding endeavors that Native people need for their cultures to flourish—and the federal government’s responsibility to that funding—it is paramount that we work to overcome voting barriers and make Native voices heard.

On November 4, voters will determine our leadership in numerous local elections, 36 state governorships, 36 senate seats, and every one of the country’s 435 congressional seats. TCU students, staff, faculty, and administrators need to do their part to elect leaders who prioritize issues such as educational funding, grant access, cultural preservation, voting rights, environmental protection, and all other issues that assure the strength of tribal self-determination. Native voters can make the difference in close races, and the proof is evident in cases such as U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s narrow 2006 victory in Montana, which is credited to strong Native American voter turnout. Today Tester, who isn’t up for reelection this year, is chairman of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee and a proponent of tribal colleges and American Indian higher education. We can all take heart in his 2012 statement on their importance:

Tribal colleges and universities open doors by providing a high-quality education that leads to good jobs, opportunity and hope across Indian Country. Recognizing and honoring these schools helps ensure they get the support they need to continue preparing future generations of American Indian leaders to strengthen our economy and improve opportunities in Indian Country.

Gerald Ford’s ascent will always be the most compelling example to combat voter inaction. The fact that he supported and enacted so much positive change for America’s Indigenous people is proof of the gravity of every election. Last month I speculated what would have happened to the momentum of Indigenous rights if Ronald Reagan had succeeded President Nixon in 1974. Today, we must each take steps to ensure that come November 4, TCUs won’t have to speculate what could have been achieved if more of those invested in our movement had cast their votes for candidates who support the issues important to us all.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation,where he also 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 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.


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American Indian Press Association News Service. (1974, March). American Indian Press Association News Service Invite-MR112 (With Ford). Folder “Indian Opportunity National Council On, March 1974,” Vice President Files, box 80. On file, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Blades, M. (2013). American Indians Won the Right to Vote in 1924, But Some Officials Still Haven’t Gotten the Message. Daily Kos. Retrieved September 2014 from

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DeFrank, T.M. (2007). Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Ford, G. (1974, January 16). Letter draft to R. Lewis and M. Tonasket. Folder “Indian Opportunity National Council On, December 17, 1973-February 10, 1974,” Vice President Files, box 80. On file, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ford, G. (1974, April 25). Message for the Navajo Community College Dedication.Folder “Indian Opportunity National Council On, May 1974,” Vice President Files, box 80. On file, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ford, G. (1975, May 3). Letter to Theodore C. Marrs. Folder “Proposed White House Coordinator on Task Force on Indian Affairs [3],” Theodore C. Marrs Files, box 37. On file, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ford, G. (1975). Remarks Upon Signing a Bill Extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Retrieved September 2014 from

Ford, G. (1979). A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford. New York: Harper Row.

Ford, G. & Van Beek, R. (n.d.). Correspondence between Ford and Van Beek. Folder “Indian Mounds, Grand Rapids, 1968-1973,” Gerald R. Ford Congressional Papers, box J19. On file, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Office of U.S. Senator for Montana Jon Tester. (2012). Tester Leads Effort to Designate National Tribal Colleges and Universities Week. Retrieved September 2014 from

Trafzer, C.E. (2009). American Indians/American Presidents. New York: Harper Collins.

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