WASHINGTON – Fifty years ago, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas.
For the next decade or so people would ask the question: “Where were you when you found out President Kennedy was killed?”
Less than five years later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the slain president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy were murdered two months apart.
Last week, the two Kennedy brothers were remembered at the White House Tribal Nations Conference held at the US Department of the Interior. A short video was shown to tribal leaders, many of whom were too young to remember the impact the Kennedys had in Indian country.
Just prior to the 1960 presidential election, then Senator John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to Oliver La Farge, president of the Association of American Indian Affairs, dated October 28, 1960, explainging what a Kennedy administration would do for Indian country.
While President Kennedy was never able to fullfill his goals as president due to his untimely death, the letter reveals his intentions:
Dear Mr. La Farge.
I have received a number of inquiries from readers of the publication, Indian Affairs, concerning my position on Federal policies toward American Indians. As my staff has informed your office, I am pleased to set forth my views, as heretofore expressed in the Democratic platform, and in public statements by me.
At the outset, let me say that I wholeheartedly support the Democratic platform pledge to American Indians. To me, this pledge, as any other pledge, is not hackneyed political phraseology. It is a specific promise of a positive program to improve the life of a neglected and disadvantaged group of our population.
As stated in the platform, 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.
The program which my administration will support will not write Indian reservations and their population off as not worthy of any help, as has been the case under the present Republican administration. We pledge ourselves vigorously to a program of development of Indian communities, as suggested in the Indian point 4 program. Specifically, we would-
(1) enact an area redevelopment bill which would offer substantial Federal help for the development of industry in depressed areas, including Indian reservations. Such legislation has been passed by the Democratic Congress, only to vetoed by a Republican President. Area redevelopment legislation would at last provide jobs for Indians, in contrast to the empty economic development promises which Indians have for years been hearing from Republican spokesmen, but which have not been accompanied by action.
(2) provide ample credit assistance through expansion of the Indian revolving credit fund. That fund was established under the Roosevelt administration. During the present administration loans were for many years sharply contracted.
(3) help Indians retain their land by rendering credit assistance and by removing the elements of economic pressure and desperation which have caused them to sell their land.
(4) make the benefits of the Federal housing programs available to Indians. Housing conditions on Indian reservations are a national shame. The Republican administration has done nothing to cope with the problem and has not shown any inclination to develop any program to give Indians decent housing at prices and interest rates they can afford.
(5) give young Indian people full opportunity to participate in a Youth Conservation Corps. The present administration has opposed such a bill. The Democratic Party supports it. It would give jobs and good training to young Indian people and at the same time make it possible to use their energies for effective conservation work on Indian reservations.
(6) develop an effective vocational training program. Such a program was initiated by a Democratic Congress. We would develop it further and train young Indian people for the jobs for which they want to qualify without getting ensnarled in redtape over their place of residence, as does the present administration.
(7) develop a better health program for Indians. For years a Democratic Congress has increased appropriations for Indian health beyond what the Republican administration has requested. We believe that the eradication of the terrible conditions of disease on Indian reservations must be a national goal. A Democratic administration would fully cooperate with a Democratic Congress to help improve Indian health. It would not have to be dragged along against its will, as has been the case under the Republicans.
(8) work with tribal groups to prepare community development programs. A Democratic point 4 program abroad has shown how technical assistance can be rendered to people of underdeveloped areas. We can do the same at home by sending technically qualified personnel to our Indian reservations to assist Indians in developing their own resources.
(9) work for constant improvement in Indian educational opportunities. The Democratic program for school aid to federally impacted areas has benefited Indian communities. Indian youth, coming largely from families unable to finance their college education, would benefit from the college scholarship program which the Democratic Party supports.
(10) emphasize genuinely cooperative relations between Federal officials and Indians. Under the Republican administration, Indians have frequently been threatened with termination and other dire consequences for failure to cooperate. A Democratic administration would require all Federal officials to recognize their responsibility as public servants.
My administration, as you can see, would make a sharp break with the policies of the Republican Party. I am sure Indians know that in 1953 and 1954 a Republican administration and a Republican Congress joined in what became known as a termination program. That headlong drive to break faith with our first Americans was fortunately slowed down when the Democratic Party regained control of Congress in 1955. Since then, the Congress has been a protective shield for Indians against bureaucratic attacks.
As this election approached, the Republican administration changed its tune. Recently we have seen some very fine policy pronouncements from the Secretary of the Interior. But the Secretary’s words have time and again been belied by the actions of the leadership of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Indians have heard fine words and promises long enough. They are right in asking for deed.
The program to which my party has pledged itself will be a program of deeds, not merely of words. We will not rest after fine policy pronouncements by the Secretary of the Interior. We have pledged ourselves to bring leadership into the Bureau of Indian Affairs which will carry out our platform promises. We would not tolerate a situation in which promises are made by the Secretary of the Interior, only to be ignored or even undermined by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
When the Democratic party pledges itself to a program of human and natural resource development, a program to improve health, education, and economic well-being, it does so against a background of experience and accomplishment. One major reason why the present administration has failed to give needed help to our Indian population and why a Nixon administration will similarly fail is that it would be neither equipped not inclined to do the constructive thinking that is needed to help a depressed and impoverished group of our population. It is hard to visualize a Nixon administration concerned with the welfare of Indians, but unconcerned about West Virginia coalminers, unemployed textile workers in Massachusetts, hard-hit farmers in Minnesota, aged people in need of medical care, school districts in need of funds to augment teachers’ salaries.
Our program for Indians, by contrast, fits into our general approach to the problems facing the United States in the sixties. We believe in raising the sights of our country, in exercising world leadership, and backing up our position through a stronger, more productive America. In such an America there would be no room for areas of depression, poverty, and disease. We want every group which is now unable to make its full contribution to American strength to be given the opportunity to do so.
In pledging assistance to American Indians we are offering them new opportunities not only as Americans of Indian descent, but as American citizens who, through no fault of their own, have not had these opportunities until now. Our Indian platform pledge, you will note, harmonizes fully with other, more general, platform pledges, such as that to assist depressed areas of chronic unemployment, to provide decent housing, and to inaugurate a Youth Conservation Corps. As you can see, Indians would benefit not only from our specific program in the field of Indian affairs, but also from our programs for help to underprivileged groups generally. The increased productivity of all these groups, including the Indian group, which would result from our program of opportunity, would repay the Federal investment manifold.
In closing this letter, I want to express my respect for the fine efforts of the Association on American Indian Affairs, and also the National Congress of American Indians and the Indian Rights Association in their work on behalf of our first Americans. Similarly, I want to congratulate the church groups and other organizations united in the Council Affairs, such as the American Missionary Association, the Board of Catholic Indian Missions, the Division of Home Missions, National Council of Churches, the American Friends Service Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, Arrow, Inc., and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. I want you to know that, if I am elected, my administration will be vitally interested in the suggestions and recommendations of these citizen groups and church organizations in the area of Federal policy toward Indians.
JOHN F. KENNEDY