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Veto of Bill Establishing a Program in Aid of the Navajo and Hopi Indians.

October 17, 1949

To the Senate of the United States:

I return herewith, without my approval, the enrolled bill (S. 1407) to promote the rehabilitation of the Navajo and Hopi Tribes of Indians and the better utilization of the resources of the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservations, and for other purposes.

The principal objective of this bill is the establishment of a ten-year program of capital and other improvements for the benefit and rehabilitation of the Navajo and Hopi Tribes of Indians. Appropriations would be authorized for this purpose totaling $88,570,000. Among the principal program goals specified and the amounts provided therefor would be: roads and trails, $20 million; school buildings and equipment, and other educational measures, $25 million; soil and water conservation and range improvement work, $10 million; and completion and extension of existing irrigation projects, and completion of the investigation to determine the feasibility of the proposed San Juan-Shiprock irrigation project, $9 million.

I have withheld my approval with reluctance and only after the most careful consideration of all the provisions of S. 1407. The bill contains many meritorious features. In fact, its only objectionable provisions are those of section 9 which, with some qualifications, extend State civil and criminal laws and court jurisdiction to the Navajo-Hopi reservations which are now under Federal and Tribal laws and courts. Section 9 is heavily weighted with possibilities of grave injury to the very people who are intended to be the beneficiaries of the bill. Its many and serious defects outweigh, in my judgment, the merits of the rest of the bill.

In the first place, the meaning of section 9 is obscure. While it seeks to subject the Navajo and Hopi Indians to the civil and criminal laws of the States where their reservations are situated, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, the details of these circumstances and conditions cannot be determined, with any assurance of legal correctness, from the language of section 9. For example, the right to inherit personal property, such as cattle, sheep, tools and utensils, is a matter of vital concern to the Navajo and Hopi Indians, as it is to other human beings. The descent of this property upon death is a matter which is now governed by their tribal practices and customs. Section 9 might be construed as abrogating these practices and customs at one fell swoop and imposing upon these Indians a system governing the descent and distribution of personal property which they neither want nor understand. Another matter of vital concern to the Navajo and Hopi Indians is their water rights, since they live in an arid country where water is the most precious of all natural resources. The jurisdiction to adjudicate, protect and enforce these water rights is now vested in the Federal courts where Indian rights are assured of full protection. Section 9 might be construed as transferring plenary power over Indian water rights to the State courts where there is much less assurance of protection for Indian rights, or it might be construed as leaving the existing Federal jurisdiction substantially unimpaired. These two illustrations are far from exhaustive, but they reveal quite plainly that the bill contains serious threats to the basic rights of these Indians, and at best would create a series of legal tangles which only years of expensive litigation could unravel. In the interim, many valuable interests might be lost and much irreparable injury suffered by the Navajo and Hopi peoples.

A second major objection to section 9 is that its avowed purpose of accomplishing a broad-scale extension of State laws to the Navajo and Hopi reservations is in conflict with one of the fundamental principles of Indian law accepted by our Nation, namely, the principle of respect for tribal self-determination in matters of local government. The Congress and the Executive Branch have repeatedly recognized that so long as Indian communities wished to maintain, and were prepared to maintain, their own political and social institutions, they should not be forced to do otherwise. One of the most liberal self-government clauses ever written for an Indian tribe appears in section 6 of the enrolled bill. That section declares that the Navajo people shall have "the right to adopt a tribal constitution", which "may provide for the exercise by the Navajo Tribe of any powers vested in the tribe or any organ thereof by existing law, together with such additional powers as the members of the tribe may, with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, deem proper to include therein", and which "shall authorize the fullest possible participation of the Navajos in the administration of their affairs". It would be inconsistent to enact into law section 9 concurrently with section 6. If either is to be accepted as meaning what it says, the other must be viewed as mainly rhetoric.

Statutes have, of course, been enacted from time to time extending State criminal or civil laws to particular Indian communities. Primarily, these statutes dealt with comparatively small groups, the members of which through long association with neighboring whites, had reached the stage where they were prepared to and wished to be governed by State and local law. The Navajo and Hopi Tribes are not in this category. They are, indeed, the Indians who are probably least prepared for such a major change.

Ultimate acceptance of State jurisdiction is a logical consequence of our policy of assisting the Indians to develop their natural talents and physical resources in ways that will enable them to participate fully in our free, but vigorously competitive, society. In the long run, this process of adjustment to our culture can be expected to result in the complete merger of all Indian groups into the general body of our population. Yet the desirability of this result is no reason for compelling the Navajos and Hopis to accept legal integration long before they have been prepared for such a consequence through the orderly course of social and economic integration. Premature steps for tribal dissolution have invariably revealed that the process of cultural adjustment cannot be hastened, and may be retarded, by attempts at legal compulsion. For many years more, the lives of the Navajo and Hopi peoples will continue to be governed by the isolation of the country where they live, the facts that four-fifths of them cannot speak English and that the majority of their children have never been to school, the primitive background of their social concepts, the limitations of their economic resources, and other circumstances which tend to make their tribal governments a necessary instrument for their continued progress in civilization. It would be unjust and unwise to compel them to abide by State laws written to fill other needs than theirs.

In reaching my decision to veto S. 1407, I have been greatly influenced by the attitude of the Navajo Indians toward the bill. The Navajo Tribe includes about 65,000 of the approximately 70,000 Indians affected by S. 1407. They greatly favor the long-range rehabilitation program which the bill proposes. But much as they favor the constructive provisions of the bill, they fear section 9 more. This is indicated by the fact that at a meeting held on October 13, 1949, after final Congressional action on the bill, the Navajo Tribal Council, the Tribe's governing body, adopted a resolution urging that I veto S. 1407.

In withholding approval from S. 1407, I am glad to note that the principal feature of that measure, the ten-year program of capital improvements provided for in section 1, can be put into effect through normal appropriation procedures. Expenditures for substantially all of the purposes listed in section 1 are authorized by existing laws relating to Indian affairs. The purpose in proposing a special authorization for the ten-year program was to afford the Congress an opportunity to review that program as a whole before appropriation estimates were submitted for the individual items. The Congress, by its action on S. 1407, has now manifested its view that the capital improvements in question should be undertaken at once and prosecuted speedily to completion. Accordingly, I plan to include in the budget for the fiscal year 1951, appropriation estimates that will provide for initiation of the ten-year program. Since statutory authorization for almost all of these items already exists, the failure of S. 1407 to become law will not interpose a legal bar to the appropriation of the necessary funds, although it will result in the loss of some incidental features of S. 1407 that would have been of value to the Indians. I would, of course, be glad to approve a bill that incorporated these features and the other provisions of S. 1407, without the objectionable provisions of section 9, should the Congress see fit to pass such a measure.


Harry S. Truman, Veto of Bill Establishing a Program in Aid of the Navajo and Hopi Indians. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230203

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