Cecil Stoughton/White House
This image of John F. Kennedy was taken by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton. Kennedy was president at the beginning of the Tribal Self-Determination Era, though he wasn't alive long enough to see the fruits of his labor in that area.

6 Things JFK Did—or Didn’t Do—for Natives Before His Death

ICTMN Staff
11/22/13

It was 50 years ago today that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. But how did his short presidency—he was only in office from January 1961 until his death on November 22, 1963—affect American Indians?

He Sought the Native Vote

In a letter to Oliver LaFarge, president of the Association of American Indian Affairs, dated October 28, 1960, he outlined 10 ways he would help the Indian population if elected. Kennedy was a senator at the time and said his administration would not “write Indian reservations and their population off as not worthy of any help.”

Photojournalist Art Shay described John F. Kennedy as his favorite subject, he once told a reporter, “You can’t take a bad picture of that guy.” (Art Shay)

He Spoke to Delegates from the American Indian Chicago Conference

On August 15, 1962, Kennedy spoke to delegates from some 90 tribes on the South Lawn at the White House. He told them: “I hope that this visit here, which is more than ceremonial, will be a reminder to all Americans of the number of Indians whose housing is inadequate, whose education is inadequate, whose employment is inadequate, whose health is inadequate, whose security and old age is inadequate—a very useful reminder that there is still a good deal of unfinished business.”

President John F. Kennedy greets a group of delegates to the American Indian Chicago Conference, August 15, 1962. White House, West Wing Lawn. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

He Knew Natives Were Misunderstood

Kennedy wrote the introduction for the The American Heritage Book of Indians (American Heritage Publishing, 1961). In it he said: “For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all.”

He Started Public Housing on Reservations

In an effort to provide “for the housing needs of all segments of our population” a loan of $30,000 was made to the Oglala Sioux in September 1961 from the Public Housing Administration to build 150 low-rent homes on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “I am disappointed and surprised that the public housing program was not adapted to the housing needs of Indian communities… until the Kennedy Administration took office,” said PHA Commissioner Marie McGuire in a press release. “Many reservation Indians are living under appalling conditions of utter privation.”

President John F. Kennedy announces the first public housing planning grant for an Indian reservation in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C. Kennedy congratulates the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Oglala Sioux Housing Authority. Pictured, from left, are Deputy Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency Jack T. Conway; President Kennedy; Public Housing Commissioner Marie McGuire; Chief Johnson Holy Rock of the Oglala Sioux Tribe; Attorney for the Oglala Sioux Tribe Richard Schifter; Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs for the Housing and Home Finance Agency Fred Forbes. (Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

He Didn’t Stop the Kinzua Dam

Construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania began in 1960 and flooded 10,000 acres of Seneca Nation land. The flooding forced 600 Seneca to relocate to Salamanca, New York. The American Civil Liberties Union urged Kennedy to halt construction, but Kennedy refused, citing the need for flood control. According to The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation Through Two Generations (University of Nebraska Press, 1998) by Joy A. Bilharz, “the president punted responsibility for an increasingly unpopular action to the court. As several leading Seneca politicians pointed out, the Supreme Court merely said the damn could be built, not that it had to be. This fine but important distinction was ignored by both Eisenhower and Kennedy. Kennedy, did, however indicate concern for the Seneca Nation by instructing the Army Corps to explore the recreational potential the dam might provide the Senecas, to seek out additional land for the Nation, and to provide for special damages and assistance to relocatees.”

Read a letter the president sent to Basil Williams, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians at the time, here.

The Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1960 and 1965. The dam provides flood control on the Allegheny and Ohio rivers, and hydroelectric power production. The dam impounds the Allegheny Reservoir, also known as Kinzua Lake. It also misplaced 600 Senecas when built and flooded 10,000 acres of Seneca land. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library)

He Worked Toward Tribal Self-Determination

Kennedy served as president at the beginning of the Tribal Self-Determination Era. As Thomas Clarkin put it in his book Federal Indian Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1961-1969 (University of New Mexico Press, 2001): “The 1960s were a decade of transition, of moving toward Indian self-determination. To demand significant achievements in the early years of any policy era would be unrealistic.” Those beginnings led to the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, giving tribes more administrative responsibility for federally funded programs.

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Linea Sundstrom's picture
Linea Sundstrom
Submitted by Linea Sundstrom on
Thanks for this article! I was mentioning to someone yesterday how JFK was beloved in Indian Country, but I couldn't really explain it.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
RIP JFK

andre's picture
andre
Submitted by andre on
Much has been said about who did what for Indian country. Fact is, not enough has been done. There has been much talk and rhetoric, but very little by way of action. 50 years after JFK and Indian country nationwide still is America's dark poverty stricken secret. To put into context. Out of $34 billion a year given to other nations we help. We give the nation of Israel $3 billion a year in "foreign aid" Yet, the total budget for the entire BIA is $2.6 billion, this is for 534 federally recognized tribes. Israel is by contrast as big as the state of New Jersey. I would ask anyone to stop and consider this. If there is, was, has been or will ever be a commitment to Indian country. We have not seen it yet. Andre Leonard,

John Kachuba's picture
John Kachuba
Submitted by John Kachuba on
Five positives, one negative; a better record than most US presidents on Native American issues.

 dee 's picture
dee
Submitted by dee on
IF ONLY HE HAD MORE TIME HERE ON EARTH,,,,,,HIS BROTHER, ROBERT, TOO. THEY WOULD HAVE DONE ALOT TO HELP OUR NATIVE AMERICANS........THEY HAD THE HEART FOR IT.

hHe was a good man.'s picture
hHe was a good man.
Submitted by hHe was a good man. on
He was a good man

bullbear's picture
bullbear
Submitted by bullbear on
Today, a CNN international poll shows 90% of all Americans approve of how JFK did his job. Ronald Reagan at 78% is nowhere close or is any other president in the last 50 years. As a baby-boomer, I can still feel the exuberance of a new dawn that all men, women and youth shared when JFK was our president. I have not experienced that ever again for any president. One of my favorite quotes of his is "We need men who can dream of things that never were." He lived within his own quote which may be the reason he accomplished so much in such a brief time as our youngest president ever.

Janita Bush's picture
Janita Bush
Submitted by Janita Bush on
i wish there were more presidents like JFKennedy our country be in better shape they need to get someone in the White House that will do right by our country not what they are doing now.

Janita Bush's picture
Janita Bush
Submitted by Janita Bush on
i wish there were more presidents like JFKennedy our country be in better shape they need to get someone in the White House that will do right by our country not what they are doing now.

Janita Bush's picture
Janita Bush
Submitted by Janita Bush on
i wish there were more presidents like JFKennedy our country be in better shape they need to get someone in the White House that will do right by our country not what they are doing now.

Janita Bush's picture
Janita Bush
Submitted by Janita Bush on
i wish there were more presidents like JFKennedy our country be in better shape they need to get someone in the White House that will do right by our country not what they are doing now.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
No President is perfect, but there are those who are certainly more detrimental to the average American more than others. Kennedy was years ahead of his time in dealing with Native people, but he was far from perfect. Still, he did manage to set the tone toward the recognition of Native Americans. I think it would be an interesting comparison to see which President's policies favored Native Americans.

Dennis Bowen's picture
Dennis Bowen
Submitted by Dennis Bowen on
Article Six of America's constitution. "Treaties are the supreme law of the land". Except ..... for when Kennedy breaks the law and violates one of the oldest treaties with the Seneca Nation. 9-11 happened long before 9-11.

fr John Nelson's picture
fr John Nelson
Submitted by fr John Nelson on
I loved the man for all he did for peace. Met some of the most challenging issues head on and dealt with them. I remember exactly where I was when it happened. We pray for him and all his good works to continue today. Fr John Nelson

fr John Nelson's picture
fr John Nelson
Submitted by fr John Nelson on
I loved the man for all he did for peace. Met some of the most challenging issues head on and dealt with them. I remember exactly where I was when it happened. We pray for him and all his good works to continue today. Fr John Nelson

Mark Butterbrodt, MD's picture
Mark Butterbrodt, MD
Submitted by Mark Butterbrodt, MD on
Former President Richard Nixon was responsible for Tribal Self-Determination, not the late JFK. The picture of the late JFK with the late former Oglala Sioux Tribal President Johnson Holy Rock illustrates the difference between glitzy media-driven "charismatic" leadership which led us into a futile war which squandered the best people in my generation and which almost got us blown up in the Cuban missile crisis (he found time to do all this while raping his college intern in his White House bedroom while giving her her "orientation" and carrying on with the girlfriend of a mafia figure, among his many affairs) versus a man (Johnson Holy Rock) who commented once that "there is no dollar value on the air, on the water" and "I am comfortable, I do not aspire to riches" who embodied the Lakota ideal of ikce wicasa--the common man--walking in a humble way, looking out for the elderly and for children. I think the whole JFK myth, media created as it was, set this country back a hundred years.

Candi's picture
Candi
Submitted by Candi on
And yet this administration is taking yet more land from the Native Indian American....not compunction...no regret...and the Trail of Tears continue...how shameful...

Candi's picture
Candi
Submitted by Candi on
And yet this administration is taking yet more land from the Native Indian American....not compunction...no regret...and the Trail of Tears continue...how shameful...

MARCY SENSIBELLO's picture
MARCY SENSIBELLO
Submitted by MARCY SENSIBELLO on
What the forefathers did to the native people was criminal, the fact that even today the situation goes uncorrected, is beyond my most generous understanding. What is the problem for the greatest nation on the planet, can't correct theft of these gentle loving peoples property.

Alden C. Sheremata - Pahana's picture
Alden C. Sherem...
Submitted by Alden C. Sherem... on
John Kennedy supported and anticipated the Philanthropic work of the Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation, Inc. resulting in the milestone and Hallmark publication by Frank Waters of the Book of the Hopi.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
I miss the idealism and hope for this country that he created by his honesty He was so very sincere in his interactions with the people of this country.

Joy's picture
Joy
Submitted by Joy on
I read that Kennedy passed some laws in the 622 or some where in the six hundrends two laws he passed that stated that no one could plow around or dig around a native american mound they had to stay at least twenty feet back from the mounds and if they had disturbed anything or grave of a Native American they had to cantact the neareast n indians to let them come and do prayers and put it back the way they found it . and if disturbed in any way to let them know. This was a treaty they has not been kept . in my opinion it helped some then but this treaty was made so long ago because of Erosion and rains it should have a new law or treaty maade now to not disturb or dig any where near a mound more than twentyh feet out it should be further out that they can not dig near mounds or barreal grounds because of erousion the grounds around these bodys are further out now so change laws keep treatys made by Kennedy long ago and up date them . Just a mom

Dee Jordan's picture
Dee Jordan
Submitted by Dee Jordan on
I am painfully aware that Native American's are our lost people in terms of their treatment and stereotyping. I'm glad to see today that the country has moved away from a good bit of that, yet there are still inroads to be made.

Kathleen Charles's picture
Kathleen Charles
Submitted by Kathleen Charles on
I'm so disappointed that no one but JFK is identified in any of these photos. :(

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
President Kennedy was a good President if you can overlook his extra-marital affairs. At least the things he did wrong didn't necessarily affect the rest of the country.
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