By Miriam Raftery
"Your comments about American Indians indicate that your knowledge about us, and about the historical relationship between Indian governments and the United States, is lacking to the point of being shameful." -- American Indian Movement of Colorado, in an open letter to President Ronald Reagan, 1988
May 13, 2010 (Alpine) – Alpine's Native American tribal members were not invited to serve on a committee to recommend a name for Alpine’s planned new high school. A Union-Tribune editorial published during debate over whether to build a 12th high school observed, “The Viejas and Sycuan Indian tribes consider Alpine to be their community. The tribes fully understand how important education is…They are important allies to have when taking on a forgetful district bureaucracy.”
Now the Grossmont Union High School District's bureaucracy seems to have forgotten the tribes, many of whom have made generous donations to fund everything from computers to football fields for students in Alpine and the Grossmont District. The GUHSD board voted to waive a policy requiring that Alpine's new high school be named for a geographic region. Some board members have pushed to name the new school after former President Ronald Reagan. Now the board has appointed a committee to recommend names--and most committee members are conservative politicians or Republican political operatives who presumably hold favorable opinions of Reagan.
A source close to a prominent tribe, who asked that his name not be disclosed, indicated that tribal leaders were disappointed that none of them were asked to be on the naming committee and are concerned that their perspectives may not be represented.
Committee members may wish to read their history books. While Reagan’s tax-cutting legacy and efforts to bring down the Berlin Wall are lauded by conservatives, his record on Native American issues was far from exemplary in the eyes of many tribal members.
In 1988, while on a visit to Moscow, President Reagan responded to a university student’s question about Native Americans. Referring to tribal reservations, he said, “Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should have humored them” for “wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle.”
The remark was deemed offensive by Native Americans, as a New York Times letter to the editor from a Cornell University’s American Indian program visiting professor noted.
In an open letter to President Reagan signed Mitakuye Oyasin (All our relations), the American Indian Movement of Colorado termed Regan's comments about Indians as primitives "insulting" and "ignorant." The group also took offense at a Reagan comment suggesting Indians had become wealthy from oil under reservation lands. Its letter cited the Arizona Republic, which reported that Reagan's administration allowed oil companies to drain $5.7 billion in oil royalties from Indian and other federal lands and that Reagan's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials "repeatedly sided with oil companies against Indian nations and individuals who are due royalties, but are left in poverty." Healthcare funds for Indian health were deeply cut in the Reagan years. In addition, removing incentives for physicians to work on remote reservations led to a shortage of physicians to treat Native Americans, AIM observed.
Indian Country Today, in a 2004 article titled “Assessing the Presidents: Ronald Reagan,” note that those remarks dovetailed with “the worst of his Indian-specific practices while in office.” The “Reagan Revolution” of tax-slashing and cutting federal programs included the Reagan administration recommending “the wholesale dismantling of the BIA.” Reagan also lamented the cost of Indian-specific federal programs and proposed steep budget cuts in social programs employing many Indians on reservations, where 60% lived in poverty. He also tried to expand states’ roles in governing treaty fishing and tribal education.
Many of those efforts failed because of court rulings to protect tribal members and because a Democratic-controlled Congress refused to cooperate with his agenda. Budget cuts signed into law by Reagan, though not as deep as he originally proposed, “roared through reservation economies” and “boosted tribal unemployment numbers almost across the board,” Indian Country Today reported. In addition, by combining BIA programs into block grants dispensed in lump sums, his administration forced tribes to incur new costs in a move that some argued violated the Indian Self-Determination Act.
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell noted that Reagan, in his press conference in the Soviet Union, made "bewildering" comments that suggested that Indians "come join us and be citizens," apparently ignorant of the fact that Citizenship Act of 1942 assured citizenship to all Indians born in the U.S. and provided for establishment of tribal governments.
In fairness, it should be noted that Reagan’s legacy did include some actions viewed as favorable steps by the Native American community—most notably his stance on the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and his efforts to strengthen tribal self-determination, passage of the Indian Tribal Government Tax Status Act and the 1982 Indian Mineral Development Act.
But the Indian Country Today piece concluded, “All in all, Reagan managed to inflame Indian feeling for most of his eight years in office.” The former movie star, rancher and portrayer of cowboy roles came to be perceived by Native Americans as “an inveterate Indian fighter.”
If the GUHSD board does not wish to inflame feelings among local tribal members—many of whom have been among the district’s most generous benefactors—then board members may wish to reconsider efforts to name Alpine’s high school after a President who insulted America’s first inhabitants and sought to slash programs designed to help tribal members living on reservations.