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Reagan returns with new administration
APRIL 18, 2001

Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land . . .

Many American Indians remember the day well.

It was Tuesday, May 31, 1988.

President Ronald Reagan had traveled halfway across the world to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. East-West tensions were cooling as the superpowers convened for their fourth summit in two-and-a-half years.

But the Cold War wasn't necessarily on Reagan's mind when he addressed a hand-picked group of American and Russian students at Moscow State University that fateful day. Instead, the actor turned politician focused on the Indian Wars when an eager student asked the President about the historical treatment of the first Americans.

"Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle," said the President. "Maybe we should have said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us."

Reagan's words set of a storm of response back home, as tribal leaders throughout the country, including Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, then a Congressman and then a Democrat, criticized the President for remarks they termed insensitive, ignorant, insulting, and ill-considered.

It wasn't the first time Reagan faced the wrath of Indian Country. He cut Indian funding dramatically just as his officials said economic, social, and educational conditions on reservations were at their worst. He put people to positions of authority who didn't always share the same interests as tribes.

And he presided over a select group of individuals who told the President that the Bureau of Indian Affairs should be dismantled, tribal sovereign immunity should be abrogated in some form, Indian natural resources should be exploited for the benefit of the entire nation, tribal courts should be subordinate to federal ones, non-Indians should be granted voting rights in tribal matters on some reservations, and that treaty and trust obligated federal funds should be funneled out to other government agencies -- all in an attempt to wean Indians, some of whom Reagan said have "became very wealthy because some of those reservations were overlaying great pools of oil," off the government's teat.

Neal McCaleb was one of those individuals.

Named by Reagan to the Commission on Indian Reservation Economies, McCaleb signed onto the 1984 report which tribal leaders overwhelming rejected in an emergency meeting convened specifically to address its recommendations. The report, they said, "would lead to a termination of the special status of Indian tribes and seriously affect their sovereignty and jurisdiction over their reservation lands."

Since then, the political atmosphere affecting Indian Country has changed. Indian funding has been increased, although tribal leaders say current budgets don't address historical underfunding. Tribes have gained increased political power and economic strength, raising Indian issues to a national level.

And the BIA, which McCaleb is poised to lead, still exists.

But interestingly enough, an increased sense of nostalgia for the Reagan era has arrived along with the new Republican-led administration. Hailed as one of the nation's greatest President, the public tends to remember his failed assassination attempt rather than his failed Indian policies.

When Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in February quoted Reagan's affirmation of the goals of self-determination, tribal leaders gave her a standing ovation.

Indian Country however, knows the policy is a bit older than Norton let on. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last month invited to Washington, DC, a number of officials who were instrumental in developing President Richard Nixon's 1970s policy, championing today's tribal gains as proof of its success.

McCaleb would remember the era well. Nixon in 1972 appointed him to the National Council on Indian Opportunities. The group didn't generate the same controversial response Reagan's commission did.

Reagan never took back his remarks on Indians.

Remembering Ronald Reagan:
Text: Maybe we made a mistake
Policy: This Administration intends to restore tribal governments to their rightful place among the governments of this nation