George McGovern was Barack Obama before Obama.
His 1972 presidential campaign sparked an interest in politics for many American Indian people in a way that was new then, but would seem familiar today. A generation learned from that losing effort that there was room for native voices in any national conversation.
McGovern died October 21, at a hospice near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was 90. The three-term Senator and former presidential candidate was known as a champion of liberal causes, an opponent of the Vietnam War, and an advocate of ending world hunger.
George McGovern’s first election to the United States Senate was because of Indian country. He had lost a previous race challenging Karl Mundt, a powerful Republican incumbent. “In 1962, when he won his first Senate seat by the slenderest of slender margins – only 597 votes – South Dakota’s voting Indian population was solidly in his corner,” wrote Richard LaCourse for the American Indian Press Association. “In a traditionally Republican state, McGovern – who built the Democratic Party there into a humming political machine – was the first Democratic senator from the state in 26 years. The victory is being accepted now by his aides as an index of McGovern’s indebtedness to his Indian electorate.”
But in the Senate he wasn’t seen, exactly, as a champion on Indian issues. The Senator from South Dakota had been chairman of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Subcommittee (a body that back then had less power because it answered to the full Interior and Insular Affairs Committee). However he was one of the first Democrats to reject termination, the tragic policy that ended treaty obligations and the relationship between tribes and the United States.
McGovern called for a new federal Indian policy in 1966. “The foremost characteristic of our Indian policy should be self-determination for the people it serves,” McGovern said. “Too often in the past the federal government has done what it has thought best for Indians, with minor regard for the hopes and aspirations of the Indians.”
As I wrote in my book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, McGovern was making an early pitch for tribal self-determination. But he also said any new policy ought to focus on self-help, be consistent, have enough resources to be successful and allow for innovation in Indian country. The Senate passed McGovern’s resolution, but it failed in the House.
McGovern was also part of the liberal-Nixon coalition in the Senate that outmaneuvered Democratic Party leaders over the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.
When McGovern announced his candidacy for the White House, his support from Indian country was not universal. “McGovern’s Indian critics discuss his absenteeism from regular Senate subcommittee working sessions on pivotal reform Indian legislation, and his frequent absences during critical floor votes in the Senate,” wrote LaCourse for the American Indian Press Association. “They question whether he has used his chairmanship on the Indian affairs subcommittee to its fullest in serving the legislative needs of Indians.”
Even in South Dakota, LaCourse wrote, there was “some disenchantment” with McGovern. “Indians who believe that once he won his Senate seat he lost his working concern for Indian needs and, instead devoted himself to ‘national issues.’ Consequently,” LaCourse wrote, “he has a credibility problem with the Indians at home.”
But that began to change because McGovern in his campaign raised Indian issues. In April 1972 he promised, if he was elected, he would restructure the Bureau of Indian Affairs either as a White House operation or with its own cabinet status. McGovern said President Richard Nixon had been “high on promises, but short on performance.”
In the summer of 1972 McGovern proposed federal-Indian reform. “With a new spirit of cooperation and a new sense of our mutual destiny, we can approach the seminal question, what role is for the Indian in American society today? In many ways it is the American problem, uniquely our own, inextricably a part of our culture, and a product of our history,” the candidate said.
The McGovern policy outline supported tribal contracting of federal programs, increased funding for tribal entities, and an urban Indian initiative. He also promised to provide federal funding for attorneys to represent tribes over resource conflicts, involving natural resources, water, as well as hunting and fishing rights.
“In 1972,” McGovern said, “It is still shamefully true that the Indians of the United States are not free. The first order of business is to clear the way, fully, quickly, and without equivocation, for them to secure for themselves every freedom enjoyed by other Americans.”
That year’s Democratic National Convention, held in Miami Beach, Florida, included an Indian Day, where members of a national Indian caucus lobbied for support on Indian issues. A then-record 25 delegates from Indian country, representing some 14 states, took part. National Congress of American Indians President Leon Cook, from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, was a member of the party’s platform committee.
McGovern was given a Lakota name, High Eagle. He told Life Magazine in 1972 that he said he felt foolish riding in local parades as a politician. “A practice that drives me up the wall is that people are always trying to put some sort of cowboy hat or headdress on me for a photograph. It’s an invasion of my personhood.”
But, according to an American Indian Press Association note, one undaunted Sioux supporter waved Lakota words painted on a bed sheet when McGovern arrived in Rapid City. “Everybody for High Eagle stand up and holler!” it was said to have said.
The Committee of American Indians for McGovern included co-chairs, Lloyd Eagle Bull, Sr., Oglala; Leon Cook, Red Lake Chippewa; LaDonna Harris, Comanche, and Norbert Hill; Oneida. Ella Mae Horse, a Cherokee, was the committee’s executive director. The McGovern campaign also promoted Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Sisseton-Wapheton, as a goodwill ambassador who traveled across the country singing and talking about a McGovern presidency.
Of course McGovern’s White House bid failed spectacularly. He lost every state in the Electoral College except for Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia). It was a Richard Nixon landslide by any measure. Yet, in losing, McGovern launched the idea of the possible. It was possible that American Indians could be a part of the national conversation, and be included on the campaign team. That loss built much of the modern Democratic party. That loss is what built the structure for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to put together winning coalitions. And, eventually, Barack Obama.
Only George McGovern was there first.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.