Address to the National Conference of American Indians

SCOTTSDALE, AZ | November 5, 1965

If the poverty program means anything, it means that neither separation nor assimilation is for the White man to decide. That is the Indian's choice: to live on the reservation or off, to plan for himself, and to chart his own course.

Just about a week ago I signed off on two grants --- one to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council--the other to the Rosebud Tribal Council.

When I signed them, some of the people in Washington said to me: "Why don't you keep quiet about these grants until you go to Arizona, and, announce them out there? That way you'll be sure to get a good reception from the Indians, and a lot of news coverage." And my answer was -- No -- No, for three reasons:

First, the Indians are too smart. They would know I'm blowing smoke in my own direction -- and I tend to choke on that smoke.

Second, the day is gone when a White man can buy a true, genuine welcome, one that comes from the heart.

And finally I said no, don't hold the money, release that money because it isn't mine to withhold once the national requirements are fulfilled. The money is yours -- because the whole basis of the poverty program is self-determination -- the right of a people individually and collectively -- to decide their own course and to find their own way.

It is summed up -- better than anywhere else -- in a saying of your own people: "Let me not judge my brother until I have walked three miles in his moccasins."

Today I almost walked those three miles in the moccasins of the Papago. Tomorrow I will walk with the Navajo and Sunday with the Havasupi people. And I hope that that will not be the last such opportunity.

But before I even came to Phoenix I took that prayer to heart. And I asked one of my staff, a Sioux Indian, what he would say if he were me, if he were in my moccasins or I in his. And he said to me, Mr. Shriver I would like to hear you call for change. So I asked him what he meant by that. And this is what he said:

"I would like to see the day when an Indian could walk into a bank to ask for a loan without knowing that he would be laughed at.

"I would like to see the day when an Indian could withdraw $10 of his own money from his own bank account to "Honor His Friends" without having to lie to the government official that he needed the money for shoes or food.

"I would like to see the day when people stopped doing things for Indians and to Indians, and act as if they "really believed that Indians could do things for themselves.

"I would like to see the day when an Indian could make a living on a reservation -- when there were jobs on a reservation that would not make the Indian have to choose between his people and his financial independence.

"I would like to see the day when what Indians call the "hold check" practice is ended; when Indians do not have to sign blank checks and run the risk of criminal prosecution in order to get groceries, when they do not have to pay jacked-up prices in order to secure credit.

"And I would like to see the day when Indians are not given scrip at the local gas station or trading post or grocery store – but instead get hard U.S. currency (like the Indian nickel).

“I would like to see the day when Indians can drill for water on their own land, instead of being told that the White man is protecting the Indian "for his own good."

"And I would like to see the day when the tribal council has a real say in the makeup of a tribal budget -- not just an approval after the fact, not just the right to come begging for this-or-that but the right to say: This is my money, this is my heritage, this is my land -- I have now come of age."

Those are the things my friends from the Sioux Nation told me he would like to hear me say.

Well, my fellow Americans-- I want to tell you tonight that I am glad and proud to say these things to you and to tell you that I subscribe... to them 100 percent!

There were experts who told us -- when the War on Poverty got under way that the Indian wasn't ready for a program based on local initiative, a program which required Indians to create and manage their own campaigns -- to combat poverty; that the Indian didn't want and wouldn't respond to such a challenge. So before the poverty program was enacted by Congress we set up an Indian Affairs Task Force. The Bureau of Indian Affair supplied us with the names of sixteen tribes. We were told – by experts -- that we would be lucky if even two of the sixteen showed any interest whatsoever. But fifteen of sixteen of those tribes said they wanted to participate, and every single one of those fifteen have already awarded grants!

That is part of a story -- a success story. One that has proven, that the experts were wrong and that the Indian would respond.

This War on Poverty program in ten months

-- has brought 138 Indian teenagers to Job Corps centers.

-- has provided part-time and full-time work for over 16,000 unemployed Indian youth in

Neighborhood Youth Corps

-- has set up public training programs for Indian families receiving public assistance in states like Nevada, North Dakota, California, and Wisconsin.

-- has launched adult literacy programs like the one which will soon serve all the tribal councils of Montana.

-- has placed VISTA Volunteers on half of all the Indian reservations.

These are just some of the achievements set forth in 6 pages of small type in the House Appropriations Hearings. But I imagine that for years and for generations you have been told how much progress has been made. And yet if all this progress has been made, why, you must ask; is there still so much poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, unemployment, and disease among Indians.

That's a good question. I think I may have a part of the answer.

It's illustrated by the story of a program we have not yet financed. And the reason we haven't funded it to date is that the Hopi Indians refused to submit a proposal drawn up for them by others. It was well done, a professional job -- beautiful illustrations, slick format, skillfully designed. The Indians could have taken the easy way. They could have settled for that. But they didn't! Instead they drew up their own proposal and hammered it out in community after community. They wanted, a proposal that was theirs -- really theirs -- of the Hopi, by the Hopi, and for the Hopi. And they were right.

It had to be theirs for two reasons. First, because Indian poverty is unique.

It is unique because history has converted the Indian's, special privileges and unique status into badges of inferiority and dependency.

It is unique because a sense of guilt over the past has been used to place Indian injustice beyond the ken of the m arts.

It is unique because a nation's sense of indebtedness has been perverted to seal off Indian poverty from our sight, our minds and our consciences.

And because Indian poverty has distinctive features, the problems and the solutions have to be mapped out by those who know and understand those differences -- and that means you!

Second, that proposal had to be theirs because for too long the Indians have had to accept the White man's word for what the Indian needs.

For too long the economy of Indian tribes has been based on welfare rather than employment.

For too long Indians have been subject to changing government policy, policy which has swung from wanting to do away with reservations altogether, to policies which wanted to keep all Indians on the reservation.

If the poverty program means anything, it means that neither separation nor assimilation is for the White man to decide. That is the Indian's choice: to live on the reservation or off, to plan for himself, and to chart his own course.

That choice must be a real choice: It can't be a real choice if the Indian has to choose between employment off the reservation, and unemployment on the reservation.

It can't be a real choice if the Indian who desires to find employment off the reservation finds himself alone, discriminated against, and unable to cope with the complex urban society.

And that means your responsibility does not and cannot end at the border of your, reservation -- any more than the poverty agency's responsibility ceases at the edge of the reservation.

You are indeed fortunate in two respects. First, you have a long tradition of communal decision -- of decisions by the people regarding their own problems.

And second, you have at your disposal a group -- a consortium of experts located at three major universities (Arizona State, (Tempe); U. of Utah Salt Lake City; U. of S. Dakota). Many of these experts are Indians. Others are persons who have spent their lives in dedicated service to the Indian. This consortium has already done amazing work. In the past two months over 150 trips have been made to 35 tribes in Arizona and New Mexico alone.

But White imperialism, White paternalism cannot be replaced by the paternalism of experts, the imperialism of professionals. These experts are at your service to provide the technical assistance you need. But you are the boss!


It is no admission of failure to call for help from an expert. I do it several hundred times every week. But the final say is – and must remain --- yours. We, for our part, will do everything we can. I pledge you that. We will provide the resources, simplify the applications forms, speed the review process, cut down the delays.

But the whole purpose of the poverty program can be defeated, if your councils and your people accept the advice of experts uncritically -- if you simply rubber-stamp the proposals they design.

I have read -- in the 1963 and again in the 1965 Senate Hearings on the Constitutional Rights of Indians, stories of injustice, of unlawful actions by officials, of discrimination and brutality.

But the deepest and most grievous injustice, I believe, was recorded in an almost casual tone, by one observer who said: “The enthusiasm present in the eyes of the children was absent in the eyes of the adults."

Our job -- yours and mine-- is to make sure that the light does not flicker out in the eyes of the children -- and to rekindle it in the eyes of the adults.

On the way here just as our jet plane was within 20 minutes of Phoenix, the voice of the pilot broke in over the intercom system. He announce to our left were the beautiful and historic Chiricahua Mountains -the place he told us where the great Apache Chief, Geronimo, had made his last stand.

I heard the words. But I thought to myself that was not the Indian last stand. Because today, right here, on the reservation and off, the Indian is making a new stand for dignity, for independence, for freedom, for self-determination and for opportunity.

This time, though, it will not be one tribe or one chief or one small beleaguered band of warriors.

For the tree which sheltered Geronimo's warriors will, next month stand on the White House lawn sending forth the message "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." And across the nation, there will be a regrouping of all tribes, and of all America. This time those combined forces will prevail over a common foe, man's oldest enemy --poverty!