This Day in History: 50th Anniversary of LBJ’s “Forgotten American” Message

It’s pretty easy to go through the archives of U.S. history to find documents with high-sounding rhetoric on issues of racial justice that never reached their goals. This isn’t to say that the speeches, proclamations, and task force reports didn’t make some difference at the time, but current realities show that collectively they haven’t brought into being the promises of economic opportunity and social justice.

Today’s example is President Lyndon Johnson’s: “Special Message to the Congress on the Problems of the American Indian: ‘The Forgotten American.’”  It was issued 50 years ago today, March 6, 2018.

The 4,200-word-plus message talks about the plight of indigenous peoples and promises improvements in housing, education, health care and more. Still, words and phrases in the initial paragraphs of this 50-year-old text are cringe worthy. And the stated goals remind us of how much repair still is left to do.

A Critique of the Language

Let’s start with the message’s title and the terms “the Problems of the American Indian” and “Forgotten American.” The title obscures who caused the problems, who is doing the forgetting, and what has been forgotten. A more accurate title would read: Special Message to Congress on the Problems Settlers Created for Indigenous Peoples: Remembering Land Theft and Genocide and Making Repairs.”

Second, LBJ refers to indigenous people in the singular. The message begins:

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.

It is curious phrasing, “the Indian,” as if they are all the same.

Third, the opening statement seems to try to speak to white readers and why they should care about these issues. As a result, it frames indigenous experiences in the context and service of the settler experience, as something simply meant to enrich the white world. The second paragraph reads:

[The Indian’s] myths and his heroes enrich our literature. 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.

It might have been drama and excitement for the settlers. It was nothing short of tragedy and horror for native peoples.

Disparities Continue, Despite Promises

LBJ’s Message to Congress sums up the problem this way:

The American Indian, once proud and free, is torn now between white and tribal values; between the politics and language of the white man and his own historic culture. His problems, sharpened by years of defeat and exploitation, neglect and inadequate effort, will take many years to overcome.

Comment: He does use the word “exploitation” but doesn’t name the “exploiter.” There is a lot of missing history between “The American Indian, once proud and free,” and “is now torn between white and tribal values.”

Here is LBJ’s proposal, in a nut shell:

I propose a new goal for our Indian programs: A goal that ends the old debate about “termination” of Indian programs and stresses self-determination; a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership self-help.

Our goal must be:
–A standard of living for the Indians equal to that of the country as a whole.
–Freedom of Choice: An opportunity to remain in their homelands, if they choose, without surrendering their dignity; an opportunity to move to the towns and cities of America, if they choose, equipped with the skills to live in equality and dignity.
–Full participation in the life of modern America, with a full share of economic opportunity and social justice.

We could go through the document and point out where things have improved, but that would miss the broader point. These words were written a half century ago and significant disparities continue to exist in health care, housing and education. Looking at the big picture, Native Americans do not have a standard of living equal to that of the country as a whole. They do not have a full share of economic opportunity and social justice.

Native nations still have to fight of their treaty rights and basic respect. The Dakota Access Pipeline and Enbridge Line 3 are two recent examples. Large corporations are running crude oil pipelines near or through indigenous lands, side stepping treaty rights, because they can.

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