Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 26th 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.
When Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901, he already had a long legacy of animosity toward American Indians.
Seventeen years earlier, Roosevelt, then a young widower, left New York in favor of the Dakotas, where he built a ranch, rode horses and wrote about life on the frontier. When he returned to the east, he famously asserted that “the most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are,” Roosevelt said during a January 1886 speech in New York. “And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Born in New York in 1858, Roosevelt dropped out of law school to seek a career in politics, stating he wanted to be part of the “governing class.” He served on the New York State Assembly, as assistant secretary of the Navy and governor of New York. During the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt led a volunteer cavalry nicknamed the Rough Riders, comprising cowboys, ranchers, miners and Native Americans.
A member of the Republican Party, Roosevelt was elected as vice president in 1900. He took office as the 26th president of the United States after William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. He completed McKinley’s term and was re-elected to a second term, serving from 1901 to 1909.
Roosevelt’s seven and a half years in office were marked by his support of the Indian allotment system, the removal of Indians from their lands and the destruction of their culture. Although he earned a reputation as a conservationist—placing more than 230 million acres of land under public protection—Roosevelt systematically marginalized Indians, uprooting them from their homelands to create national parks and monuments, speaking publicly about his plans to assimilate them and using them as spectacles to build his political empire.
“He was a man of his times,” said Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson to Roosevelt and interim director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. “In his presidency, he wanted the Native Americans to experience the American dream, but to do that by assimilating. The Indian population had been shrinking for a long time, and he believed that if they assimilated, that meant prosperity for everyone.”
In his first message to Congress, in December 1901, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Under the act, passed in 1887, more than 60,000 Indians had already become citizens, but “the effort should be to steadily make the Indian work like any other man on his own ground,” Roosevelt said.
“In my judgment the time has arrived when we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe,” he said. “The Indian should be treated as a individual—like the white man.”
But Indians were not equal to whites, Roosevelt told Congress. Although he viewed education as a vehicle of assimilation, Roosevelt stressed that Indian education should be “elementary and largely industrial,” and that the need of higher education was “very, very limited.”
In January 1902, five months into Roosevelt’s presidency, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones issued a letter to superintendents of federal agencies and reservations demanding that Native men cut their hair. This famous “haircut order” argued that “the wearing of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance and will certainly hasten their progress towards civilization.”
The male student returning to the reservation too often fell into the “old custom of letting his hair grow long,” the order stated. “He also paints profusely and adopts all the old habits and customs which his education in our industrial schools has tried to eradicate.”
Jones suggested that agents withhold rations from male and female Indians who refused to stop painting or discard “Indian costumes and blankets.” Traditional gatherings also should be prohibited, he said, because “in many cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes.”
In his second message to Congress, in December 1902, Roosevelt called on Indian schools to teach the young to earn a living, making them “indistinguishable” from their white associates. “In dealing with the Indians, our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” he said.
Two years later, Roosevelt urged Indian agents to force their wards to work. A policy that reduced the amount of subsistence available to Indians would force them “out of sheer necessity, to work for a livelihood,” he said. He also called for better cooperation between Washington and Indian agents, claiming that more efficient work would “lift up the savage toward that self-help and self-reliance which constitute the man.”
Roosevelt began his second term in office with a bombastic inaugural parade, which featured 35,000 participants, including members of his Rough Riders outfit and six Indian chiefs. Geronimo, still a prisoner of war, rode in the parade, along with Quanah Parker, Buckskin Charlie, Little Plume, American Horse and Hollow Horn Bear.
The chiefs, wearing full regalia, waved as they passed Roosevelt, “uttering whoops as they did so,” the New York Times reported on March 5, 1905. When asked why he invited Indians to participate in his parade, Roosevelt answered, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”
Yet Roosevelt did very little to assist Indians who sought help from him individually. Because the allotment program transitioned Indians into private citizens, Roosevelt largely ignored them when they journeyed to Washington.
In March 1905, a group of Sioux Indians from Yankton, South Dakota, traveled to Washington to seek redress from settlers who had taken their lands and homes. Because they were private citizens instead of representatives of a tribe, neither Roosevelt nor his commissioner of Indian Affairs would see them.
During his second term, Roosevelt expanded the Navy, started construction on the Panama Canal and earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in mediating the Russo-Japanese War. He also supervised the completion of the Dawes Rolls, which collected membership information from the Five Civilized Tribes, and dissolved the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, opening the region for statehood. Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
In his final message to Congress, in December 1908, Roosevelt called for the transition of the Indian Service from a political organization to a civil one. Such a shift would clear the ground for “larger constructive work on behalf of the Indians, preparatory to their induction into the full measure of responsible citizenship,” he said.
Roosevelt left office in 1909 and was succeeded by William Taft. He died in 1919 at age 60, and his face was later carved into Mount Rushmore.