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Opinion. Monday is Presidents Day in the United States. Throughout American history, there has been an evolution in the way Native Americans were treated by the country’s commanders in chief.

Of course, evolution never occurs in a straight line. 

As the country expanded westward from the original 13 states, Native Americans were forcibly removed and relocated to territories far from their ancestral lands. Thousands more were killed through massacres and Indian wars. And, when the battles with Indians were deemed as too costly, our ancestors were placed in Indian boarding schools.   

All of these practices — and other acts of genocide of Native Americans — were approved by presidents and became policies of their presidential administrations.

During the last century, presidential treatment of Native Americans has vastly improved, particularly after the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Presidents from both the Republican and Democratic parties have had their moments in their treatment of Indian Country. As I see it, in modern times, three presidents — Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden — stick out as being most favorable to Indian Country. 

President Richard Nixon

While President Richard Nixon is best known as the first president to resign from office because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal, he was known to Native Americans as being very favorable to Indian Country. 

"What we have done with the American Indian is in its way as bad as what we imposed on the Negroes. We took a proud and independent race and virtually destroyed them. We have to find ways to bring them back into decent lives in this country." President Richard Nixon said.

Historians trace Nixon’s affinity to Native Americans to his football coach Wallace Newman (Luiseño) at Whittier College. Nixon was not a starter on the football team, but Wallace taught Nixon the concept of resilience and never giving up. Nixon shared his great admiration for Wallace to his aides in the White House. 

During his presidency, Nixon signed more than 50 pieces of legislation that ushered in the self-determination and self-governance eras that are still evident in Indian Country today.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama is highly regarded in Indian Country because of his unprecedented engagement with tribal leaders. Every year during his two terms in office, President Obama hosted the White House Tribal Leaders Conferences and ordered federal agencies to conduct tribal consultations with tribal leaders over policy issues impacting Indian Country.

“While we cannot erase the scourges or broken promises of our past, we will move ahead together in writing a new, brighter chapter in our joint history,” Obama said about Native Americans.

The new, brighter chapter Obama envisioned involved ensuring the Recovery Act included tribal communities. The Obama administration ensured the Affordable Care Act permanently authorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. 

During his two terms, the Obama White House settled more than 100 claims involving Indian Country, including some that dated back over a century. The largest were the longstanding Cobell case over the accounting of tribal resources, and the Keepseagle case that involved discrimination against Native American farmers and ranchers.

Obama established the White House Council on Native American Affairs in 2013 via Executive Order 13647 to improve the coordination of federal programs and use of available federal resources for the benefit of Indian Country.

President Joe Biden

Last week, while covering the National Congress of American Indians Executive Council WInter Session in Washington, I spoke with tribal leaders about this year’s presidential election. Consistently, tribal leaders talked about the need to work together to help get President Joe Biden reelected because — in their estimation — he has been the “best” president ever for Indian Country.

One doesn’t need to look too far to see what President Biden has done for Indian Country and, by extension, the whole country. Let’s begin with his appointment of Rep. Deb Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, as the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.  She is the first Native American to serve in a secretarial role in a presidential cabinet. Haaland has established herself as a strong leader. 

In addition to Haaland, Biden chose Chief Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba (Mohegan Tribe) to serve as the United States treasurer and Charles “Chuck” Sams (Umatilla) to serve as the director of the National Parks Service. 

Throughout the federal government Native Americans occupy top positions, including the BIA’s Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) and DOT’s Arlando Teller (Navajo Nation), who both serve as assistant secretaries in federal agencies. You can also find many other Biden-appointed Native American leaders in federal agencies. 

Having Native Americans in key positions in the federal government furthers the progress needed for Indian Country that suffered over two centuries of neglect. They advocate at the highest levels of the federal government everyday and have been instrumental in delivering the unprecedented levels of funding — $45 billion — to Indian Country during the Biden administration. 

“Our administration has worked overtime to ensure that promises made to Indian Country are promises kept,” Haaland told NCAI attendees last Wednesday. “(There) is a lot of money going straight to the tribal communities who know best how to allocate these resources. The way we do business now is transforming our communities in our children's futures for the better, especially as we tackle existential challenges.”

Perhaps more than the appointments and the money, the Biden administration has brought back two simple concepts that seemed lost on the Trump administration and many others: relationships and respect. The Biden administration brought back the White House Council on Native American Affairs that went dormant during the Trump presidency. And he’s made tribal sovereignty a linchpin in his administration’s relationships with tribes and their leaders.

The tribal leaders I spoke with last week in Washington were correct:  President Biden has been the most favorable president in history for Indian Country. 

Indian Country should not forget this in the upcoming presidential election.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].