By Dean Chavers
Termination of Indian treaties was the law of the land in 1969. President Richard Nixon reversed that policy and declared termination to be dead in 1970 as a direct result of the Alcatraz occupation. Since then, Congress has passed at least 16 laws that make life better for Indians.
Browning Pipestem, Otoe, was the lawyer for the occupiers of Alcatraz. He had gone to law school with a young attorney on the White House staff, and the two of them “back-channeled,” according to Browning, for months. (The occupation lasted until June 11, 1971, a total of 19 months.) Nixon constantly wanted to know what was happening with the occupation—he wanted to know when the Indian college students had occupied the island, why they had done it and what they wanted to happen because of what they were doing. Nothing official was written or declared, but whenever Nixon wanted to know what was going on with the occupation, Browning would call either me or Richard Oakes, the leader of the Alcatraz occupation, and then pass along whatever information he had gathered to his lawyer-friend in the White House. Browning, who also pushed for the end of the destructive termination of Indian treaties and for the right of tribes to govern themselves, apparently told the president (through his conduit) almost everything that happened on the island.
Up to that time, Congress had passed some 5,000 laws dealing with Indians, and most of them were bad for Indians. Nixon was an early supporter of termination in the 1940s and 1950s, but he announced the most important change in Indian policy in 1970—the year of his “self-determination” speech, which was delivered on July 8, 1970. He said federal policy would no longer call for terminating the treaties between the U.S. and Indian tribes; instead, the federal policy would be self-determination. I see Browning’s input all over that Nixon declaration—he wrote this type of rhetoric in frequent messages to the White House. Congress supported Nixon’s policy a few years later and started passing laws that were positive for Indians.
For more on the Nixon administration, see Unsung Hero of the Nixon Administration, "Dickie, Don't Forget the Indians," and Why Nixon Did It. For more on Alcatraz, see Indians Commemorate Alcatraz Anniversary and Alcatraz Changed Course of History?