JFK Was a Mighty Warrior for Indian Country
By Chris Stearns
In 1960, in what was to be one of the closest presidential campaigns in American history, Kennedy campaigned on the promise of real human rights. His platform called for a higher minimum wage, medical care for the elderly, higher teachers’ salaries, low-income housing, and an end to chronic unemployment. In a letter to Oliver La Farge, President of the Association on American Indian Affairs, Kennedy wrote that he wanted an America in which “there would be no room for areas of depression, poverty, and disease.”
While Kennedy may be long remembered for his idealistic vision he called “the New Frontier,” he also should be rightly remembered for his contributions to American Indians and Alaska Natives. The 1960 election between Kennedy and a young Richard Nixon closely divided a country coming off of eight years of a Republican Eisenhower Administration. Indian country hadn’t fared so well during those years–sixty-four tribes were terminated by the time the presidential campaign was underway.
Kennedy, however, chose to throw his weight behind Indian country. He called for an end to Termination and he pledged to “end practices that have eroded Indian rights and resources, reduced the Indians' land base and repudiated Federal responsibility.”
During the campaign Kennedy famously promised that:
“My administration would see to it that the Government of the United States discharges its moral obligation to our first Americans by inaugurating a comprehensive program for the improvement of their health, education, and economic well-being. There would be no change in treaty or contractual relationships without the consent of the tribes concerned. No steps would be taken by the Federal Government to impair the cultural heritage of any group. There would be protection of the Indian land base, credit assistance, and encouragement of tribal planning for economic development.”
Kennedy’s platform marked a real change in the direction the Country would take on Indian affairs.
6 Things JFK Did—or Didn’t Do—for Natives Before His Death
He Sought the Native Vote
He Spoke to Delegates from the American Indian Chicago Conference
He Knew Natives Were Misunderstood
He Started Public Housing on Reservations
He Didn’t Stop the Kinzua Dam
He Worked Toward Tribal Self-Determination
The Seneca Nation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups tried to stop it, but President John F. Kennedy allowed the construction to continue siting the need for flood control. The dam was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of copy25 million to provide flood control on the Allegheny River.
Comment: If Americans heeded the message below, that alone would've been a great achievement. Alas, I don't think they did.
For more on the subject, see Best and Worst Presidents for Indians.