Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 39th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr., made no public mention of American Indians during his entire first year in office.
The 39th president of the United States, Carter only briefly mentioned Indians in his first State of the Union Address, a 12,000-word speech delivered to Congress in January 1978. Even then, Carter’s remarks were vague.
“The Administration has acted consistently to uphold its trusteeship responsibility to Native Americans,” he told Congress. “In 1978, the Administration will review Federal Native American policy and will step up efforts to help Indian tribes assess and manage their natural resources.”
The reference, likely the work of Carter’s speechwriter, Chris Matthews, set the tone for an administration that—in the beginning—largely ignored Indians. In fact, by the end of 1978, the Carter administration had decided not to announce any formal presidential Indian policy at all, historian George Pierre Castile wrote in his 2006 book Taking Charge: Native American Self-Determination and Federal Indian Policy, 1975-1993.
“Absent a presidential message, the policy of self-determination remained in place by default, but never seems to have gotten a clear endorsement by the Carter domestic policy staff,” Castile wrote. “Indian matters were dealt with piecemeal.”
Carter, who took office in January 1977, followed Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford—two presidents who championed for the end of Indian termination and ushered in an era of self-determination. Yet Carter, who inherited the new approach to Indian Affairs, maintained minimal involvement and thrust primary responsibility for Indians on the Interior Department.
“It seemed he had special advisors on everything else, but not Native Americans,” said Stanly Godbold, emeritus professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of two Carter biographies. “He certainly was interested in Indians because of his emphasis on human rights, but it was a tangential interest.”
Born in Georgia in 1924, Carter spent his childhood on lands taken from the Creek Indians more than a century earlier. In fact, some of his family’s property was acquired by lottery after the forced removal of the Creek.
As a child, Carter “regularly searched for Indian arrowheads,” biographer Peter Bourne wrote. “Ghosts of the evicted Creeks were very much in Jimmy’s mind as he grew up.” Yet Carter’s 1982 autobiography, “Keeping Faith,” doesn’t mention Indians at all.
Carter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, but left a promising career as an engineer to run his family’s peanut farm. He served two terms as a Georgia state senator and one term as Georgia governor before being elected as president of the United States in 1976. A Democrat, Carter served one term in office, from 1977 to 1981.
During his presidential campaign in 1976, Carter’s staff reached out to the National Congress of American Indians and the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association. Carter met briefly with some leaders and his staff drafted a position paper that endorsed Indian self-determination policy, already in force.
“It is time that the Federal government recognized that the Indian tribes have the right to determine the course of their lives,” the position paper stated. “The majority of decisions affecting tribal lives should be made in tribal council rooms not Washington D.C.”
Three months after taking office, however, Carter began fielding criticism. In April 1977, Ernest L. Stevens, director of the Joint Congressional American Indian Policy Review Commission, chided Carter for failing to name any key people in Indian Affairs.
“The hallmark of the Carter administration has been no participation by Indians,” he said in an article published in the Congressional Quarterly magazine. “The administration is relying on career bureaucrats, not Indians.”
By the end of 1977, Carter still hadn’t addressed Indian Affairs, but five congressmen had introduced 11 “anti-Indian” bills, including legislation that sought to reinstate termination policy, limit water rights, abrogate treaties, limit tribal jurisdictions and access to social services, end Indian hunting and fishing rights and terminate the statute of limitations on Indian claims.
In December, the National Congress of American Indians called a meeting in Phoenix to address these “backlash bills.” Between February and July 1978, Indians from more than 100 tribes marched 3,000 miles from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C., in a peaceful protest of the bills—none of which passed.
By contrast, between August and November 1978, Carter signed into law three bills that benefited Indians: the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act affirmed that the federal government would “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent rights of freedom to believe, express, and exercise” their traditional religions. Carter signed the act in August 1978, calling religious freedom a “fundamental right of every American.”
The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, signed in October 1978, guaranteed “a needed base of stable funding for postsecondary education” on Indian reservations, Carter said in a statement. The act sought to “provide American Indians with greater education opportunities near their families, their tribes, and their places of employment.”
Carter signed the Indian Child Welfare Act in November 1978, but did not make a public statement. The act, which came in response to a disproportionately high rate of Indian children being removed from their traditional homes and placed with non-Indian families, established jurisdiction for the placement of Indian children in foster or adoptive care.
Carter took a more proactive approach to Indians in his 1979 State of the Union Address, in which he tackled the long-standing issue of Indian land claims and promised to ensure that “trust relationships and self-determination principles” guided negotiations.
“The federal government has a special responsibility to Native Americans, and I intend to continue to exercise this responsibility fairly and sensitively,” he said. “There are difficult conflicts which occasionally divide Indian and non-Indian citizens in this country. We will seek to exercise leadership to resolve these problems equitably and compassionately.”
Five years earlier, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes filed suit against Maine, claiming the state had violated a 1790 treaty by grabbing land in 1796, 1818 and 1833—leaving the tribes with only 5,000 acres of land. Carter worked throughout his presidency to negotiate an agreement, signing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in October 1980—just three months before leaving office.
Under the law, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes agreed to forfeit their land claims in exchange for $81.5 million, which could be used to buy 300,000 acres from nearby landowners. The tribes also received federal recognition.
During the signing ceremony, Carter called the conflict in Maine an “intolerable situation” and the act one of the “most difficult issues” he faced as president.
“The settlement authorizes a permanent land base and trust fund for the tribes and also resolves once and for all the title to the land for all the people who reside in Maine,” he said. “The settlement act does something else as well. It’s a reaffirmation that our system of government works.”
Carter left office in 1981 and was succeeded by Ronald Reagan. Now 91, Carter lives in Georgia with his wife, Rosalynn.
This story was originally posted on September 27, 2016.