What's Tony Thinking

A Surprise in the Great Good Guy/ Bad Guy Shuffle


As I’ve mentioned in several recent posts, we’re living in a time of historical reappraisals and revisions that challenge some long held notions of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys — or if anyone really can be so simply and clearly described.

But here’s a surprise: in the “stock rising” category — Richard Nixon. Nixon has been described by Peter MacDonald, a longtime leader of the Navajo Nation as, “the Abraham Lincoln of the Indian people.”

What? Wait a minute? I thought we’re supposed to hate Nixon, the disgraced President who, under pressure, resigned in 1974.

But in a book I’ve now referred to here multiple times, Blaine Harden’s Murder at the Mission, we learn that, “the policies Nixon put in place before he was forced out of office established him as the most effective champion of American Indians ever to serve in the White House.”

Here’s more from Harden:

“Nixon would resign from office in disgrace in 1974, leaving behind a legacy of lies and paranoia, corruption and obstruction of justice. But he had been raised a Quaker, a Christian denomination that treats Indians as spiritual equals and supports tribal lands. One of his biographers, John Aloysius Farrell, points to Nixon’s forward-thinking policies on Indians, on affirmative action in federal contracts, and on protection of the environment — and assesses him as ‘the last progressive Republican’ president.”

“In a special address to Congress on July 8, 1970, President Richard Nixon pledged to ‘create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.’ He said the federal government would ‘break decisively’ with a past that had been poisoned by white ‘aggression, broken agreements, intermittent remorse and prolonged failure.”

Well, put that in your pipe and smoke on it!

The Nixon administration more than doubled funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, created loan programs for economic development and rededicated new funds for health care and clean water.

The result, according to Harden, is that there is almost night and day contrast between the overall situation of American Indians between the 1970’s and now.

Of course, it wasn’t Nixon alone. There was a change in the way federal judges interpreted and upheld previously violated and neglected treaties. Some of those decisions paved the way for Indian gaming operations that have brought a whole new level of prosperity, health and services to tribes across the country. And there was a new generation of American Indian leaders who made Nixon’s pledge of an “Indian future determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions” reality.

My point here is that history and people are complicated. The simple categories of good guys and bad guys are worse than useless, blinding us as they do to the complexity and to some startling surprises, like the pivotal role of Richard Nixon in bettering the state of American Indians.

I continue to find the aphorism of Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and Christian essayist, instructive. “The world,” said Pascal, “does not divide between saints and sinners; it is divided between sinners who believe themselves to be saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”

Happy Halloween!

Categories: Uncategorized