Policy and Politicization: How the End of the Indian Termination Policy Shaped the Red Power Movement (by Rachel Jackson


This lesson plan will investigate how federal policy, stretching as far back as 1887, shaped the Indian experience in the United States.  Focusing on termination policy, this lesson will also explore how the relationship between tribes and the federal government changed as a result of Indian liberation movements and the consequences of those changes.


This lesson plan will use two primary sources so that students can see how federal policy affected daily Indian life.  The first source is a first-hand account by Dennis Banks of his experience in a federally run and mandated Indian boarding school. The second source is President Nixon’s special address to Congress in 1970 rejecting termination policies and calling for tribal self-determination.  Students will have an opportunity to respond and discuss both sources through an at-home reading response and class discussion. These discussions encourage students to think about the two sources in conversation by analyzing the information, evaluating the two stances, and integrating information from different time periods and from different interests.

This lesson, planned to take up two, forty-five minute class periods, also includes two lectures. In the first lecture, the instructor supplies historical context of federal policies toward Indians since 1887 up to 1970.  This lecture is meant to highlight the varied motivations behind the policies and the lasting impacts they have on the Indian community, experience, and consciousness. The second lecture expands on the Indian Liberation Movement following the rejection of termination policies. The lectures are meant to encourage students to place the primary sources in a historical context and understand the mechanisms shaping both the Indian’s and federal government’s actions.


Indian termination policy, well intentioned or otherwise, had long lasting effects on a generation of estranged Indians which politicized the Indian community.


  1. In what ways did historical conceptions of “the Indian problem” contribute to the formation of the House concurrent resolution 108 of 1953, also known as the Indian termination policy?
  2. What were the motivations behind the federal government’s implementation of the termination policy? In what ways were the motivations progressive?  In what ways were the motivations regressive?
  3.  To what extent were the effects of the policy detrimental to Indian tribes? To what extent did the policy mobilize the Indian population both on reservations and in urban areas?
  4. Why did the federal government move from a policy of termination to a policy of self-determination?
  5. In what ways has the relationship between tribes and the federal government changed as a result of the end of termination policies? In what ways has the relationship stayed the same?


AIM: the American Indian Movement which was a revolutionary group aimed at improving urban and reservation life for Indians.

assimilation: attempts to forcefully or voluntarily mold a minority group to fit the dominant group.

Indian termination policy: House concurrent resolution 108 enacted in 1953 to systematically and forcefully dismantle tribal structures in the United States.

Self-determination: specifically in regard to Indian policy, self-determination is allowing tribes to establish and operate their own tribal government.


In 1953, Congress enacted House concurrent resolution 108 also known at the Indian termination policy. The decades following saw the federal government grappling with the “Indian problem” through the implementation of a series of policies.  Termination policies disenfranchised a generation of Indians that became politicized and active in the Indian Liberation Movement.  This relationship demonstrates how governmental policies and political action are intertwined so that each is shaped by the other, often in unpredictable ways.

The Dawes Act of 1887 was the predecessor to the 1950s termination policy.[1] The Dawes Act sought to deal with the “Indian problem” and save large tracts of land from being set aside for reservations. Likewise, the termination policies were enacted to assimilate Indians into the dominant culture so that tribes would have no special status or governmental powers.  Indians would effectively be like any other American citizen.  Less admirable motivations behind these policies were regaining valuable tribal land for economic development. The effect of these policies was to estrange Indians both from their tribes and continue their disenfranchisement in the dominant culture of White America.

It is important not to view Indian policy as a linear progression. After the Dawes Act, a more progressive administration in the Office of the Interior enacted the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the ancestor of later self-determination policies of the 1970s.[2]  This act respected tribal status and sought to establish effective tribal governments.  During the Red Scare of the 40s and 50s in which policy makers were concerned with appearing anti-communist, the IRA was replaced with termination policies because it hinted of communism.[3] The replacement of the IRA with termination policies points to an instance in which the political climate beyond the focus of Indian policy directly shaped Indian policy.

Termination was thus a policy formed from a variety of motivations.  On one hand, termination was directly aimed at reducing Indian landholdings and power and on the other hand, well-intentioned policy makers were attempting to “free the Indian.”[4]  In its most pure, and misguided intentions, termination was meant to enfranchise a group seen as inherently separate in mainstream America.  The process of incorporating these groups included forcefully taking their land, dispersing their community, and forcing Indians into impoverished urban centers or anchored them to rural and equally impoverished and deteriorating reservations. Termination’s attempt to forcefully enfranchise the American Indian left the community more estranged than before.

In 1970, Richard Nixon gave a special message to Congress calling for an end to termination policies in favor of enacting self-determination policies.[5]  Though this special address accurately described the problems inherent within termination policy and proposed establishment of effective tribal governments, these solutions took a while to be implemented, in large part due to an uncooperative bureaucracy. [6] Despite the federal government’s acknowledgement of the problems in termination policy and a commitment to change their policies, the Indian Liberation Movement continued on.  Termination and its consequences are often linked with the politicization of the Indian youth and the modern tribal sovereignty movement.[7] But why did politicization continue after the repeal of termination?

In 1972, the American Indian Movement caravanned to Washington D.C. to protest against poverty on reservations and in urban centers.  Only after nearly 20 years were the policy changes proposed in President Nixon’s speech implemented on reservations.[8] Moreover, the conditions of termination, in which many members of AIM grew up in, were not erased simply because a policy was altered.  In Washington D.C. these policies can be altered with a stroke of a pen, but in reservations, the consequences of termination are carried for entire lives.

Termination policies did mobilize an estranged and disenfranchised generation of American Indians who suffered at the hands of decades of destructive federal Indian policy.  This mobilization did not end when the policies ended underscoring the impact termination had on Indian life.


  1. From Dennis Banks, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 24-25, 29-31 
  2. Richard Nixon. 1970. “Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs.” Special Message on Indian Affairs to Congress, Washington D.C., July 8, 1970.
  3. Pictures of Indian Boarding Schools


Day 1:

Have the students read the selection from Dennis Bank’s book, Ojibwa Warrior, prior to coming to class. Ask the students to come to class with a prepared reading response to the chapters.  The written or typed reading response should have four parts which are:

  1. Knowledge that they had about the Indian movement before reading the selection
  2. New facts they learned from reading the selection
  3. Something they found interesting
  4. A question or something they did not understand

Begin class by asking the students to write the questions they had from the reading on the chalkboard. Then, ask if any student would like to share from either (1) knowledge they already had about the Indian movement before coming to class or (2) something that they learned from the reading.  Once a couple of people answered, begin giving the students information about the history of Indian policy up to termination policy which is detailed in the “Introduction” part of this post.  This short lecture should take no more that fifteen minutes and you can use pictures of Indian boarding schools as a visual and to keep students engaged.  The lecture is meant to give background information and touch on the reasons the federal government created Indian boarding schools.

After the lecture, ask students to partner up and choose a question written on the board they would like to answer. Give them five minutes to discuss and write answers on the board. Call the class together and ask them to explain their answers to the class. Choose one question on the board that wasn’t answered, and ask the students to bring the answer to that one question to the next class.

Because this class day is based on student generated discussion and questions, it might go in many directions. The reading lends itself to reader empathy and will hopefully allow students to see the effects of termination policy, and the policies leading up to it, on Indians and their experiences.  If discussion stalls, prompt students to think about why the federal government created the boarding schools and whether they were effective in assimilating Indian children.

Day 2:

At the beginning of class, ask students to share their answers to the question from the last class with the people sitting next to them as a sort of low-risk warm up.

Next, pass out President Nixon’s special message to Congress condemning termination. Split the class into three groups. Ask the first group to pick out specific phrases from the speech that represent a departure from the past. In other words, they should look for phrase in which Nixon rejects the past policies. Ask the second group to pick out specific phrases regarding the relationship between the federal government and the tribes and how Nixon thinks it should stay the same. For example, Nixon still thinks that the federal government should play a role in Indian affairs.  Ask the third group to think about how phrases in Nixon’s speech relate to the selection they read for the last class.

Give the students 10-15 minutes and then have them report to each other what they thought were important phrases.  Phrases that were cited by more than one group, or by all three groups, can be written on the chalkboard.

Give a short lecture on the Liberation Movement after termination ended emphasizing the legacy of termination and the difficulty in erasing or moving past its effects.  The lecture should take no more than 15 minutes.

End the class with a discussion prompting the class with specific questions such as:

  1. What effect did termination policies have on the Indian community?
  2. In what ways was the rejection of termination a victory for the movement?
  3.  How has the relationships between tribes and the federal government changed and stayed the same?

This last day of class is meant to tie esoteric policy to the realities of everyday life.  Students are meant to see Nixon’s rhetoric as accurate and hopeful, but difficult to implement quickly because of the legacy of termination.  Students are also meant to connect the challenges in changing the relationship between tribes and the federal government with the challenges faced by Dennis Banks and Indians like him in boarding schools.


Bradley G. Shreve, Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011)

Charles Wilkinson, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005)

Dennis Banks with Richard Erodes, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004)

William C. Canby Jr., American Indian Law: In a Nutshell, (West: A Thomson Reuters Business, Fifth Edition)


  1. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  2. Students analyze how change happens at different rates at different times; understand that some aspects can change while others remain the same; and understand that change is complicated and affects not only technology and politics but also values and beliefs.
  3. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
  4. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  5. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

[1] William C. Canby, Jr., American Indian Law: In a Nutshell, (West: A Thomson Reuters Business, Fifth Edition), 22

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Ibid., 27

[4] Charles Wilkinson, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005), 58, 66

[5] Richard Nixon. 1970. “Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs.” Special Message on Indian Affairs to Congress, Washington D.C., July 8, 1970. Accessed February 25, 2012. http://www.eoa.gov/tp/pdf/president-nixon70pdf

[6] Wilkinson, Blood Struggle, 197

[7] Ibid., 86

[8] Ibid., 197

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