In August 1946, 70 years ago, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill creating the Indian Claims Commission. In doing so, he stated that the new law would remove “a lingering discrimination against our First Americans,” providing them with the same opportunities that other citizens have to “vindicate their property rights and contracts in the courts against violations by the Federal Government.”
Philleo Nash, an administrative assistant to President Truman, observed that Truman, while a U.S. senator, had been “very active” in trying to get the Indian Claims Commission Act passed. The new law set up a board that adjudicated grievances that Native Americans presented against the federal government and established up a process for determining compensation.
As historian Fredrick Hoxie observed in Brian Hosmer (ed.), “Native Americans and the Legacy of Harry S. Truman” (Truman State University, 2010), Truman worried about the financial costs that land claims compensation cases could cost the federal government, so he insisted that the ICC’s purview be limited.
The creation of the ICC represented an important shift in federal policy from the Roosevelt era’s support for Indian tribal self-rule and community programs to a more integrationist approach favored by Truman, who wished to see the “final settlement of all outstanding” land claims so that Indians could “take their place…in the economic life of our nation.”
To that end, he appointed Dillon Myer as commissioner of Indian affairs. Myer was sympathetic to the Truman administration’s “termination” policy, designed to end federal trusteeship over Indian property and to promote Indian economic life outside of reservations. Ironically, Myer had administered the relocation camps that housed Japanese-Americans from the west coast during World War II.
Nash, later commissioner of Indian affairs during the Kennedy administration, was an ardent critic of termination policy because of its effects on tribal cultures. He went so far as to say that Indian peoples, as a whole, were “worse off” at the end of the Truman administration than they were at the beginning of it, a condition for which Nash took his share of his blame.
The main goal of President Truman’s Fair Deal with respect to indigenous peoples was the assimilation of native peoples into the mainstream of American social and economic life.
Still, Truman’s Indian policy suffered from the same type of inconsistency that had always beset federal Indian policy. For example, Truman expressed support for Navajo and Hopi “self-determination” – a phrase at odds with termination policy – in signing a second important law that concerned Indians, the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act of 1950. This bill provided $88.5 million in aid for schools, roads, irrigation and education for these two tribes in New Mexico and Arizona.
The Truman administration’s Native American policy also involved civil rights. In September 1950, Sgt. John Rice, a Winnebago Indian, was killed in action in Korea. When officials in his hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, refused him burial in a local cemetery because he was a Native American, President Truman arranged for Rice to be buried with full military honors at Arlington in September 1951. Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent African-American, praised Truman for standing for “American justice” in the Rice burial case.
As historian Brian Hosmer and others have noted, President Truman viewed Indian rights in a way that was similar to how he saw civil rights for blacks – both were designed to eliminate discrimination and to integrate both groups into the economic and civic life of the nation. Truman’s Native American policy endured well beyond his presidency, until tribal rights and identity reasserted themselves in the 1960s and President Nixon repudiated the termination policy in 1972.
Indian tribes gave gifts to President Truman in gratitude for his actions on their behalf. For example, in 1950, members of the Blackfoot Tribe of Montana presented Truman with a war bonnet, or headdress, in thanks for federal aid provided during “Operation Snowbound,” a large-scale, Berlin Airlift-style operation conducted by military and civilian agencies that provided food and supplies for people and livestock when a blizzard hit Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. The Harry S. Truman Library’s museum collection contains numerous examples of artifacts from “First Americans.”
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.