The office of Vice President may be worth at least a footnote in the long history of tribal, federal relations.
During the Great Depression, a Broadway musical, “Of Thee I Sing,” spoofed the current incumbent, one Charles Curtis. One character asks, “Well, how did he come to be Vice President?” The vice president (in the play named Throttlebottom) responds: “Well, they put a lot of names in a hat, and he lost.” And so what does he do? “Well, he sits in the park and feeds the peanuts to the pigeons and the squirrels, and then he takes walks, and goes to the movies. Last week, he tried to join the library, but he needed two references, so he couldn’t get in.”
Curtis was Herbert Hoover’s vice president and running mate. He had been the Senate Majority leader, representing Kansas. He was a member of the Kaw Tribe, and spoke Kanza, but instead of being an American Indian hero, he’s most known for being the author of the General Allotment Act of 1887 – the Curtis Act – the very vehicle used to rob Native people of some 90 million acres of land. His biography, From Kaw Teepee to Capitol, dismisses that entire tragic era in a few words, saying the allotment simply “wound up the communal affairs of the 97,000 Indians” of the Five Civilized Tribes.
As a member of Congress and later a Senator, Curtis was referred to by colleagues as “the Indian.” His biography cites several encounters with leaders who ask, “Indian, what would you do about this?” But the book is at best boastful as it describes Curtis’ career. “It isn’t very probable, however, that any little Indian boy thinks a great deal about it one way or another. No Indian boy ever has become either President or Vice President,” his biography says. “Of course the little Indian boy did not step at one stride from the wild roving life of an Indian into this exalted position. He started with no greater chance of success than any American boy has.”
When Curtis died in 1936, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier described the former vice president this way: “He had no brilliance of mind and aspired and pretended to none. He had superlative common sense, absolute intellectual honesty, and an instinct for the right causes.” Except those causes also included a life-long push for assimilation.
Another footnote for American Indians and the office of Vice President started in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order creating the National Council on Indian Opportunity. The council was a mix of federal officials and tribal leaders, headed by the Vice President.
The Nixon Administration and Vice President Spiro Agnew took the office seriously. By 1969 the office had people and resources and met with Indian country on reservations and in regular meetings. The council’s first few years were full of promise, the vice president’s staff worked closely with the administration on policies ranging from the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It worked, said a 1974 commentary in the NCAI Bulletin, because Indian leaders could “engage in eyeball-to-eyeball discussions with those cabinet officers responsible for those programs serving Indians.”
Agnew proclaimed in January 1970 that “Indian people are still our most poverty-stricken Americans – and it is outrageous that this should be so. It is my purpose and the purpose of this council to attack that raw truth and to do so effectively within the term of this Administration.”
That same year “to the delight of many off-reservation Indian people, NCIO conducted a series of hearings on the ‘Urban Indian situation.’ These hearings implied a new advocacy role on behalf of urban Indian people, but urban Indians were subsequently abandoned and then condemned as ‘militants’ by NCIO,” sad a 1974 American Indian Press Association commentary.
Turns out the Vice President’s council stuck its nose in Indian politics. It supported the creation of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association as an alternative to the National Congress of American Indians. By 1973, the American Indian Press Association reported that “some observers believed that the reason behind NCAI’s fall from grace may have been the close affiliation of NCAI President Leon F. Cook with the Democratic Presidential Campaign of George McGovern.” Then NCAI Executive Director Charles Trimble told the press association that the council was manipulative and “divisive” force in Indian country.
By 1974 the experiment was over. The new Vice President, Gerald Ford, had no interest in serving as the council’s chair. And, as the press association wrote, the council had “fell into such disfavor with such a large segment of the national Indian community that even its death caused little notice.”
Perhaps that left the Vice President with time to feed pigeons and squirrels.
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.