When it comes to legislating on behalf of American Indians, no president has done more than Richard M. Nixon. Not that the distinction was particularly hard to achieve, given the federal government’s two-century track record of devastating policies toward tribal people. Yet of all U.S. presidents, Nixon—who’s far better remembered for his Chinese diplomacy or Watergate scandal—offered the broadest and most sustained commitment to supporting Native people, signing more than 50 legislative measures supporting American Indian sovereignty.

Nixon was the first president to return sacred lands to tribes, including the largest land return with a generous payment. He appointed Louis Bruce, a Mohawk, as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and more than doubled the agency’s budget. His administration produced the largest education reform to help Native people. Most importantly, Nixon pushed to end the government’s so-called “termination” policy, which had worked to dismantle tribal governments and eliminate reservations. Instead, he promoted self-determination: giving power back to Indians to govern themselves.

Nixon’s Indian Mentor

What made Nixon—whose problematic legacy includes secret White House tapes peppered with racist and antisemitic remarks—care so deeply about Native Americans? The answer goes back to Whittier College, in the fall of 1930, where he met one of his most influential mentors: football coach Wallace Newman, a Luiseño Indian. Nixon was a perennial benchwarmer for the Whittier Poets team, but Coach Newman inspired the scrappy, 150-pound future president to never give up. Nixon reminisced in his memoirs, “I think I learned more from him than any man I have ever known aside from my father.”

Nixon’s White House policy aide John Ehrlichman remembered the president’s deep admiration of his coach. “We used to smile behind our hands about it because he was fond of talking about Chief Newman,” scholar George Pierre Castile quoted Ehrlichman in his book, To Show Heart: Native American Self-Determination and Federal Indian Policy, 1966-1975. “And he used to go on and on, he could rhapsodize about this brave Native American who instilled in his football students the ideals of manhood and Americanism and all this stuff.” Newman, an active tribal leader, would later serve on Nixon's Commission on Physical Fitness and Sports and remain a lifelong friend.

Though he didn’t like to show it, Nixon, who had grown up poor, had strong underdog sympathies. In the early hours of May 8, 1970, according to Castille, Nixon quietly left the White House with his valet, Manuel “Manolo” Sanchez, to talk informally with war protesters camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. They talked about many things—especially about the treatment of people of color. Nixon bemoaned, “What we have done with the American Indians is, in its way, just as bad as what we imposed on Negroes. We took a proud and independent race and destroyed them. We have to find ways to bring them back into decent lives in this country.” During his presidency, he worked to do just that.

As Indians Got Loud, Nixon Tried to Listen

Nixon governed during a time of growing Indian activism—and militancy. On the whole, his administration practiced restraint, giving Native protesters space to air grievances. In 1969, a group of 80-some people calling itself Indians of all Tribes seized Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay—and stayed for 19 months, demanding the island’s deed. Instead of sending the military or police to forcibly drive the Indians from the island, Nixon sent negotiators to listen. Only after talks failed and the occupation petered out did the administration move to quietly remove the remaining 15 occupiers.

In November 1972, an influential Red Power group called the American Indian Movement (AIM) organized a nationwide caravan of hundreds of protesters from scores of tribes, to take their grievances to Washington, D.C. Calling their effort the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” they brought a 20-point manifesto to present to the president and other legislators. The document echoed AIM’s core issues: broken treaties, systemic racism and the need for better healthcare, employment and education opportunities. They also called for an overhaul of the BIA, long the administrator of calamitous government policies.

After officials canceled the meetings, and police tried to forcibly remove the protesters from the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, the situation evolved into a weeklong occupation. Nixon insisted on negotiations to learn the activists’ demands; with a presidential election days away and tensions rising, he wanted no use of force against them. To end the standoff peacefully, the government, represented in part by Nixon’s adviser Leonard Garment, promised to pay for the protesters’ transportation home, to refrain from prosecuting them—and to form a task force to review the manifesto. While Nixon failed to overhaul the BIA, he did address many of the group’s issues later in his sweeping self-determination proposal.

Nixon’s preferred policy ‘to listen to Indians’ was challenged the most in 1973, during AIM's 71-day occupation of the small town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of the tragic 1890 massacre of 300 Sioux by U.S. troops. Negotiations faltered amid demands and counter demands, and federal agents shot and killed two Sioux occupiers. To avoid further escalation and massive bloodshed, government officials ultimately negotiated a settlement with the AIM leaders, promising to investigate their complaints. While the administration used less restraint than with previous protests, the situation was more volatile. Nixon’s biographer, John Farrell, wrote “Nixon’s lieutenants helped bring the crises to a close with a minimal loss of life.”

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) chant and beat a drum to serenade those who will man the defense outposts during their occupation of the tiny town of Wounded Knee, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. In late February 1973, approximately 200 AIM members had taken Wounded Knee by force, declaring it the 'Independent Oglala Sioux Nation.' Federal marshals immediately surrounded the hamlet, launching a siege, which ended on 8th May 1973.

First President to Give Back Native Land

After two centuries of government policy that stripped Native people of more than a billion acres of land, the Nixon administration made several course corrections. In 1970, he signed a bill returning the sacred Blue Lake in New Mexico to the Taos Pueblo community. It marked the first such land return in over 200 years.

Two years later, he issued an executive order for Mount Adams in Washington to be returned to the Yakama tribe. And he set precedent when he authorized the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the first significant land return of 45.5 million acres to Alaska Native people, including a payment of $962.5 million.   

Nixon Supported Native Education and Self-Rule

During the Nixon years, Congress passed the landmark Indian Education Act in 1972. This marked a major step toward educating American Indians with scholarships, and funding schools on nearly 300 reservations. Another major education bill passed three years later.

Most of all, Nixon changed the course of U.S.-Indian relations with his Indian self-determination policy. He advocated strongly to reverse the so-called “termination” policy, which had eliminated federal protection for tribal nations, usurped their lands and pushed Indian people to assimilate into urban areas.

In July of 1970, Nixon gave an impassioned speech to Congress outlining his self-determination plan to help reverse the centuries of destructive policies and broken promises. “The time has come,” he declared, “for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions… Indians can become independent of Federal control without being cut off from Federal concern and Federal support.”

Although Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, incoming President Gerald Ford signed into law his predecessor’s Indian self-determination and education assistance act of 1975. This important law established the federal policy of Indian self-government, the current and longest prevailing Indian policy. According to biographer John Farrell, Nixon’s impassioned push for Indian sovereignty “made him an honored figure on many Indian reservations.”

HISTORY Vault: Nixon: A Presidency Revealed

The triumphs of Richard Nixon's presidency were overshadowed by a scandal that forced his resignation. Learn more about the driven but flawed 37th president from those who worked closest to him.