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Reagan's Indian policies recalled with fervor

Former president Ronald Reagan, who died last Saturday at the age of 93, either helped tribes fulfill their vision of self-determination or hurt Indian Country with his slash-and-burn approach to government, depending on the point of view of participants in a radio show on Thursday.

The positive and the negative of Reagan's eight years in office were discussed during a one-hour broadcast of Native America Calling. Supporters fondly remembered the 40th president for opening up economic opportunities for tribes throughout the nation.

Ross Swimmer, who ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the last three years of the administration, pointed out that Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, paving the way for what would become a $16 billion industry. He said Reagan and his Cabinet members supported tribal casinos even as the Department of Justice wanted to shut them down.

"While it's not the thing that we would like to be most proud of perhaps, as far as economic development, it would be up to the tribes [to decide]," recalled Swimmer, who is now serving in the current Bush administration, of the debate at the time. "I think that was the hallmark of the administration."

Ron Solomon, of Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, agreed. He said the tribe's economic development was launched in the mid-1980s as a direct result of defense contracting work that opened up to tribes, for the first time, during the Reagan years.

"We found some barriers at the Small Business Administration that could only be cured with intervention from the [Reagan] administration," said Solomon, who served as the first chairman of Laguna Industries Inc. He added: "That opportunity helped Laguna to gain knowledge and experience to create additional businesses."

Callers to the show presented a different view of Reagan. They criticized his dramatic slashes to Indian programs, military actions in Central America that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people there and his misinformed portrayal of Native Americans -- particularly a 1988 incident in Moscow when he the U.S. may have made a "mistake" by not asking Indians to "be citizens along with the rest of us."

"I think that Indian people, we were just kind of extras in the movie that was running in his mind," said Alex, a caller from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who said he edited an Indian newspaper during the Reagan era.

Lynn, a caller from Washington, said Reagan's cuts to mental health programs hurt Indian Country. "There were thousands of people who were mentally ill who were on [Social Security] disability and their checks were discontinued," she remembered. "Many of these people become homeless. ... Some of them committed suicide. It was a struggle for many people when that happened."

Others who worked with the administration have equally negative views. Suzan Shown Harjo was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians at the time and frequently battled with officials like Swimmer. In a recent column in Indian Country Today, she ranked Reagan at the bottom of the list of U.S. presidents.

"The Reagan administration was trying to cut the federal Indian budget by one-third," Suzan recalled in an interview with Indianz.Com. "They were even doing things like decreasing the diabetes prevention programs by the same amount they increased the program for amputations -- disgusting stuff like that."

Tribal leaders saw some early reminders of Reagan's legacy when George W. Bush entered the White House. Several of Bush's top officials at the Interior Department, including Secretary Gale Norton, Deputy Secretary Steven J. Griles, Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason and Special Trustee Swimmer served under Reagan. Neal McCaleb, Bush's first assistant secretary, also had ties to the administration.

Swimmer and McCaleb, in fact, sat on Reagan's Commission on Indian Reservation Economies, which issued a report in 1984 calling for the dismantling of the BIA, abrogation of tribal sovereign immunity, greater exploitation of Indian natural resources, subordination of tribal courts to the federal courts and a host of other controversial recommendations.

The National Tribal Chairman's Associated swiftly condemned the report as one that "would lead to a termination of the special status of Indian tribes and seriously affect their sovereignty and jurisdiction over their reservation lands." The report, against its writers wishes, was roundly ignored and its recommendations largely remain unimplemented.

But tribal leaders applauded when Norton brought up Reagan in her first public speech as Interior secretary back in February 2001. She quoted from his Indian policy, one whose key principles have remained strongly in force under all presidents, whether Republican or Democrat.

"This administration intends to restore tribal governments to their rightful place among the governments of this nation and to enable tribal governments, along with state and local governments, to resume control over their own affairs," the policy stated.

Ronald Reagan's official state funeral takes place today in Washington, D.C. After the closed service, his body will be taken to Andrews Air Force Base, where it will flown back to California for a burial service at sunset.

Remembering Ronald Reagan:
Text of Moscow Remarks: Maybe we made a mistake (May 31, 1988) | Reagan Administration Indian Policy (January 24, 1983)

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Reagan returns with new administration (April 18, 2001) | Reagan's Indian chief is back (November 20, 2001) | Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA (February 12, 2002) | Don Hodel's Navajo Folly (June 4, 2002)

Relevant Links:
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation -