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Harjo: President Ford and federal Indian policy

"Only a handful of people in American history have held as many important offices in Congress and the White House as President Gerald R. Ford. For a quarter-century, he filled a congressional seat from Grand Rapids, Mich., rising to his party's top position of Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.

When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, President Richard Nixon tapped Ford for the post. Ford carried out the duties of vice president and Senate president for eight months, until Nixon resigned in the midst of revelations about Watergate crimes. On Aug. 9, 1974, Ford became the 38th U.S. president and served until 1977.

Shortly before the national election that returned Ford to private life, he met with Native American leaders in the East Room of the White House. In formal remarks on July 16, 1976, he took pains to assure his audience that he was for Indian self-determination and against a termination policy.

The president described the federal government as having ''a very unique relationship with you and your people ... of a legal trust and a high moral responsibility.''

The trust relationship ''is rooted deep in history,'' he said, ''but it is fed today by our concern that the Indian people should enjoy the same opportunities as other Americans, while maintaining the culture and the traditions that you rightly prize as your heritage.'' He said that heritage ''is an important part of the American culture that we are celebrating in this great country in our Bicentennial Year.''

Characterizing Native American contributions as ''both material and spiritual,'' he said: ''Your ancestors introduced settlers not only to new foods and new plants, but to Indian ways of life and Indian values which they absorbed. This is a year for all of us to realize what a great debt we individually and collectively owe to the American Indians.''

It was important for Ford to reiterate his position for both policy and political reasons. Much of his career in the House spanned the period when Congress and the executive branch were most intent on terminating the federal trust relationship with tribes and people through specific laws and programs."

Get the Story:
Suzan Shown Harjo: Remembering President Ford's imprint on federal Indian policy (Indian Country Today 1/4)

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