November 22, 2013

Kennedy's record on Indians

On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, Indian Country Today looks at what he did for Indians:

JFK Was a Mighty Warrior for Indian Country

By Chris StearnsToday, as the rest of America looks back on the legacy of President John F. Kennedy and his lasting contributions to human rights, we also have the opportunity to honor his lasting contributions to Indian country.

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.
Below:  "This image of John F. Kennedy was taken by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton. Kennedy was president at the beginning of the Tribal Self-Determination Era, though he wasn't alive long enough to see the fruits of his labor in that area."

6 Things JFK Did—or Didn’t Do—for Natives Before His DeathIt was 50 years ago today that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. But how did his short presidency—he was only in office from January 1961 until his death on November 22, 1963—affect American Indians?

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
Video: Johnny Cash Sings About Kinzua Dam, Which JFK Didn’t StopConstruction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania began in 1960, against the wishes of the Seneca Nation of Indians. It became operational on September 16, 1966 and flooded 10,000 acres of Seneca ancestral homeland and displaced 600 Senecas, who relocated to Salamanca, New York.

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.
Americans think John F. Kennedy was one of our greatest presidents. He wasn’t.

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.

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