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

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.

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.

JFK’s legacy is complex when it comes to Native Americans

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas more than 50 years ago.  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)

Art Shay

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

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)

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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

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)

Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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.