And Obama Makes Eight: Presidents Who Visited Indian Country

Mark Trahant
6/17/14

The Associated Press, MSNBC and other news media are sticking to the story that President Barack Obama is only the fourth president to visit a reservation. I say at least seven, more likely eight.

So one by one here goes the documentary evidence (for those who care).

President Chester Arthur's visit to Wind River, Wyoming, 1883. Picture from Frank Jay Haynes collection, Smithsonian. The trip was on horseback and included a senator and the Secretary of War. (I love the umbrellas in the picture above.)

The second visit is President Warren Harding’s trip to Alaska in 1923. The first port of call was Metlakatla. (As Stephen Conn points out: Any presidential visit before the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act would be a visit to Indian country.)

Third. President Calvin Coolidge’s visit to South Dakota.

A trivia question: How many U.S. Presidents have been photographed wearing headdresses? (It went badly for Coolidge.) Answer: At least one, Jimmy Carter.

Fourth. Franklin Roosevelt visited at least three reservations, only once speaking on Indian Affairs. He traveled to Quinault in Washington state, Blackfeet, Montana, and Cherokee, North Carolina. (He was also photographed with a chief in North Dakota.)

Here is a film from the Montana trip. (The meeting was in Glacier National Park, but he traveled from the town now called East Glacier.)

Fifth. It wasn't an official presidential trip, per se, but Harry S. Truman was president when he stopped on the Fort Peck Reservation in 1952 as part of his whistle stop train campaign. He was met by Assiniboine leaders. He was given a pipe to smoke. Montana Rep. Mike Mansfield, who was also on the platform, told the Indians, “The President doesn’t smoke. What he did here was for the first time.”

Louis Henry Montclair wrote about this trip.

Sixth (depending on your point of view). Ronald Reagan went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to meet tribal leaders. One extraordinary meeting was in the presidential suite at the Hilton where Reagan, Ivan Sidney and Peterson Zah talked about the Navajo-Hopi dispute in August 1985. We could certainly argue about Albuquerque, but I think it should count as “home turf.”

Seven. Then, of course, President Bill Clinton's trips to Pine Ridge and Shiprock.

There were two presidential trips that did not happen.

Nixon administration officials wanted Richard Nixon to give the opening speech at the dedication of Navajo Community College.

They said it would be ideal, it was on the way to San Clemente and would be smart. The record of the "why" is complete, but I have never found out why it did not happen.

Nixon's second trip that did not happen was to New Mexico for the celebration of the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo. Nixon instead sent the teenage daughter of Vice President Spiro Agnew.

And I wonder about President Herbert Hoover? I’ll keep checking on this one.

Herbert Hoover lived as a child in Pahwuska, Oklahoma. Hoover wrote in a letter: "I attended school with the Indians appropriate to my size. They were of course being taught English. I and my cousins were mostly interested in learning Osage."

Eighth. President Obama’s trip last week. But he needs another trip to match Clinton and a couple more trips to catch up with FDR.

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