Native Sons & Daughters

Good morning, it’s March 6. Fifty two years ago today, a written communication was sent from the White House to Capitol Hill about the poverty and lack of opportunity within the nation’s Native American population.

Under the signature of President Lyndon B. Johnson, this communication was titled “Special Message to the Congress on the Problems of the American Indian: The Forgotten American.”

Its opening lines were lyrical:

Mississippi and Utah — the Potomac and the Chattahoochee — Appalachia and Shenandoah … The words of the Indian have become our words — the names of our states and streams and landmarks.

“His myths and his heroes enrich our literature,” the statement continued. “His lore colors our art and our language. For two centuries, the American Indian has been a symbol of the drama and excitement of the earliest America.”

Then came the gut punch: “But for two centuries, he has been an alien in his own land.

Although President Johnson’s record on race relations was bold and prescient, his primary target was dismantling the Southern system of apartheid known as Jim Crow. The cabinet LBJ inherited from John F. Kennedy, however, included a man who cared deeply about the many injustices the federal government had perpetrated against Native Americans. His name was Stewart L. Udall, a former three-term Democratic congressman from Arizona and for eight years the secretary of the interior.

Those who knew Udall recognized his voice in LBJ’s stirring message to Congress, as well as the disturbing statistics cited by the president concerning the 600,000 Native Americans then living in the U.S., 400,000 of whom resided on reservations:

— Some 50,000 Indian families inhabited “unsanitary, dilapidated dwellings: many in huts, shanties, even abandoned automobiles.”
— Indian unemployment was around 40 percent — more than ten times the national average.

— Half of Indian children dropped out of school without receiving a high school diploma.
— The average age of death of an American Indian then was 44, Johnson noted. For all other Americans, it was 65.

President Johnson then proceeded to outline his goals for these “forgotten” people. They included nothing short of living standards equal to other Americans, with equal access to opportunity as well as “maximum choice” to live where and how they wanted.

It was a delicate balancing act, as Stewart Udall understood. “In our efforts to meet that responsibility, we must pledge to respect fully the dignity and the uniqueness of the Indian citizen,” Johnson’s written statement proclaimed. “That means partnership — not paternalism. We must affirm the right of the first Americans to remain Indians while exercising their rights as Americans.”

Half a century later, this effort is still a work in progress, a subject we’ll be revisiting in subsequent morning notes.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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