This Day in History: Reagan Affirms Tribal Self Government

From the 1940s to the 1960s, the federal government pursued what was known as a “Termination Policy” — an effort to unilaterally break treaties, dissolve tribal governments and reservations, and force assimilation of Native Americans into white society. On this day in history, Jan. 24, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a statement on American Indian Policy which explicitly repudiated the Termination Policy, strengthening a policy shift started under Nixon in 1970.

Reagan’s policy stated the federal government’s intention to strengthen tribal governments. It opened by stating:

This administration believes that responsibilities and resources should be restored to the governments which are closest to the people served. This philosophy applies not only to state and local governments but also to federally recognized American Indian tribes.
It summed up by saying:
This Administration intends to restore tribal governments to their rightful place among the governments of this nation and to enable tribal governments, along with state and local governments, to resume control over their own affairs.
It is worth noting that Reagan’s policy compares tribal governments to state and local governments — meaning they are not sovereign, independent nations. (The U.S. government’s term for tribal governments is “domestic dependent nations.”)
Still, the National Congress of American Indians praised Reagan’s policy. However, it came on the heals of a controversial statement by Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt. According to an article in the Jan. 29 New York Times:
In a television interview last week, Mr. Watt said Indian reservations offered a better example of the ”failures of socialism” than the Soviet Union did. He also accused tribal leaders of promoting Indian dependence on Federal handouts in order to protect their own positions.