Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 27th 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.
William Howard Taft took office in 1909, the same year America’s first permanent movie studio opened in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Champion Film Company, the precursor of Universal Studios, used its location along the Jersey Palisades to film scenes from the “Wild West,” launching a movie genre that from its beginning proved problematic. Years before Hollywood was established as America’s film capital, more than a dozen companies made movies from Fort Lee, transforming local scenery and historic buildings into scenes from the stereotypical West.
These early westerns often portrayed Indians in derogatory ways, prompting a delegation of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians to travel to Washington in early 1911. Concerned that Indians were “discreditably depicted in moving pictures,” the delegates sought an audience with Taft and Robert Valentine, the commissioner of Indian Affairs.
As part of their visit, chiefs Big Buck and Big Bear accompanied a Washington Post reporter to a local theater. The movie they watched followed the story of an Indian woman who, after falling in love with a white man, stabbed the man’s wife with a poison arrow, the Post reported in February 1911.
“If the white people would only take the pains to study Indian characteristics … he could possibly produce something worthy of presentation to the public,” Big Buck told the Washington Post. After viewing the movie, he and Big Bear planned to ask Taft to “close up” the movie house.
“It is bad to be lied about to so many people (and to be) helpless to defend yourself,” Big Bear told the Post.
Valentine was sympathetic and said that he had “seen productions wherein the Indian was pictured as a cannibal, thief, and almost every evil thing one can imagine,” the Post reported. Yet Taft did not respond to requests from Big Bear and Big Buck, and the National Board of Censorship continued to approve the films.
Born in Ohio in 1857, Taft worked as a journalist and an attorney before pursuing a career in politics. He served as a federal judge, governor of the Philippines and U.S. secretary of war under Theodore Roosevelt. A member of the Republican Party, Taft was elected as the 27th president of the United States in 1908. He served one term, from 1909 to 1913.
Taft, who won the election only with Roosevelt’s support, inherited a country that was split between the conservative wing of the Republican Party and Roosevelt’s progressivism, which included widespread political and social reform. Known as one of the “progressive presidents,” Taft continued much of what Roosevelt started, pledging in his inaugural address to “render the reforms lasting.”
Taft also continued Roosevelt’s legacy of conservation, placing millions of acres of land under public protection. Less than two weeks after taking office, Taft established Navajo National Monument, a collection of cliff dwellings and pueblo ruins on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
The dwellings were “new to science and wholly unexplored,” Taft said in his March 20, 1909, proclamation establishing the monument. “Their isolation and size are of the very greatest ethnological, scientific and educational interest, and it appears that the public interest would be promoted by reserving these extraordinary ruins of an unknown people.”
Navajo National Monument was the first of a dozen national parks, monuments and forests Taft set aside during his four years in office, said Francine Romero, associate dean in the college of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“When it came to public lands, he really expanded on what Roosevelt did,” said Romero, who authored a chapter about Taft in the 2016 book The Presidents and the Constitution. “Where Roosevelt took it upon himself to do whatever he wanted because he was president, Taft was more safe and conservative, doing everything through proper channels, but the goals were similar.”
But Taft rarely considered the impact his conservation efforts had on tribes. In May 1910, less than nine months after white explorers first set eyes on a 290-foot sandstone bridge in southern Utah, Taft issued an executive order establishing Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Yet he failed to consult with the Navajo or other tribes in the Southwest who, for as long as 10,000 years, have considered the area sacred.
Like his predecessors in the White House, Taft continued to encourage Indians to accept allotments under the Dawes Act of 1887 so he could open “surplus” land to white settlers. During his presidency, Taft issued more than three dozen proclamations and executive orders that opened Indian land for settlement, restored land under Indian claim to the public domain, or created, expanded, reduced or otherwise changed the size of existing reservations. Taft also signed proclamations admitting Arizona and New Mexico into the Union, making him the first president to govern the 48 contiguous states.
Throughout his presidency, Taft contended with the rise of the Native American Church and its sacramental and medicinal use of peyote, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs viewed as a threat to Christianity. In 1909, the BIA began investigating peyote meetings and in 1912, the Board of Indian Commissioners lobbied Congress for a law criminalizing its use.
“The danger of the rapid spread of the habit, increased by its so-called religious associations, makes the need of its early suppression doubly pressing,” commissioners wrote in their annual report.
In his final message to Congress, in December 1912, Taft spoke of the government’s role as guardians of the Indians and its responsibility for their “condition of health.”
“In spite of everything which has been said in criticism of the policy of our government toward the Indians, the amount of wealth which is now held by it for these wards per capita shows that the government has been generous,” Taft said. He called on Congress to allocate funding for Indian health “in order that our facilities for overcoming diseases among the Indians might be properly increased.”
Two weeks before leaving office, Taft broke ground with a silver shovel on the proposed 165-foot National American Indian Memorial, to be built on Staten Island. Although Congress set aside the federal land for the project, it did not receive funding and was never constructed.
Taft left office in 1913 and was succeeded by Woodrow Wilson. In 1921, he was appointed as the 10th chief justice of the United States, becoming the only person in history to serve as both president and chief justice. Taft died in 1930 at age 72.