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Native And Other Americans

June 2024
5min read

Indian policy has always had more to do with current social thinking than with tribal life

A certain deftness is necessary when writing about Indians (or Native Americans), to avoid the booby traps of overgeneralization, sentimentality, indignation, or defensiveness. Let me begin then with a straightforward recital of some facts laid out in a recent news story: “Backlash Growing as Indians Make a Stand for Sovereignty.” The tribal government of Montana’s Crow Indians tried to tap into some of the profits of the tourist trade that every year fills their reservation—the site of Custer’s last stand—by levying a 4 percent tax on the businesses that serve the visitors, including those owned by non-Indians, who have no vote in the matter. It’s vital to the Crow people to have an independent source of income and it’s also, one might think, a matter of belated justice to the dispossessed. But the white owner of the Custer Battlefield Trading Company doesn’t see it that way: “I didn’t persecute anybody. We didn’t do anything to them, and we don’t owe them anything.”

The clash is one battle in a wider war, sparked by more aggressive Indian assertions of sovereignty over lands protected by treaties with the United States, which take priority over state laws under the Constitution.

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, federal courts have awarded Indians extensive hunting and fishing rights untouchable by the states; in California, San Manuel and other Indians are resisting a governor’s attempt to bring their profitable casinos under rules that apply to non-Indian gambling enterprises, and in other states as well the sheltering of Indian enterprises has provoked a backlash.

The issue isn’t simple. It pits property rights and States’ Rights against historic promises to the Indians, and it echoes larger social debates over such matters as multiculturalism and free enterprise.

Do Indians on reservations still need separate governments of their own? Do they possess a set of specially valuable cultures to be cherished and preserved, or should they melt into the broader American mold?

Such questions have been explored in this magazine’s pages, in “Revolution in Indian Country,” July/August 1996. What intrigues me about them is how they frame themselves neatly within the context of the conservative and high-rolling 1990s. Haven’t we been hearing spirited attacks for years now on allegedly excessive federal power, confiscatory taxes, special privileges for minorities, the disuniting of America by ethnic particularism, and the unfair regulatory tilting of the economic playing field? Whatever Congress does about Indians anytime soon will say as much about contemporary social thought as it does about Indian life. That’s been the case in the past too. The very existence of the current tribal governments is owed to legislation enacted sixty-four years ago, when the country was in a very different frame of mind, and that law, the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, was itself a dramatic reversal of a forty-seven-year-old statute, the Dawes Severally Act of 1887. Wheeler-Howard aimed to preserve tribal life and the reservations. The Dawes Act was devised, with the best of intentions, to destroy them.

By 1881 almost all the Indian peoples within the United States had been compelled to sign treaties that confined them to reservations and made them dependents of the federal government. That year Helen Hunt Jackson, a New England-born literary woman of fifty, wrote A Century of Dishonor . The book detailed the many violated promises that had accompanied the process and the corrupt practices by which white settlers, with government connivance, were continuing to encroach on the remaining lands and rights of the impoverished and vanishing tribes. “I think I feel as you must have felt in the old abolition days,” Jackson wrote to a friend; and like the abolitionists, she was as much outraged by the immorality of her fellow whites as she was sympathetic to their “victims,” of whom she knew little directly.

Jackson intensified a ferment brewing among “friends” of the Indians, particularly evangelical reformers who hoped to help by weaning them from their “savage” customs and turning them into God-fearing family farmers. The Dawes Act was the practical implementation of this policy. Intended as a “mighty pulverizing engine” to break up the “tribal mass,” it gave each member of a tribe an individual allotment of reservation land, with the unallotted surplus to be managed in trust by the federal government. It was expected that in time both tribes and reservations would disappear. Meanwhile, government and philanthropy working together would disacculturate the Indians by sending their children to boarding schools to learn the ways or civilization.

The act passed thanks to a confluence of the reformers’ urgings with lower motives. Speculators were eager to lay hands on reservation lands and swarmed in to bamboozle many of the unsophisticated Indians out of their allotments and to lobby for chunks of the unallotted portions. Indian landholdings fell from about 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million in 1934, while Indian unemployment, poverty, and disease rose. The point I stress here, however, is that the break-up-the-reservations drive radiated the spirit of the 189Os. It was an age that launched “Americanization” programs to bring the “new” immigrants into line in the public schools, that celebrated the farm family on its homestead as the backbone of the nation (when in fact the nation was rapidly urbanizing), and that imbibed a social Darwinism holding that all must yield to the inevitable march of progress.

Commissioner Collier saw the Dawes Act as “more than just a huge white land grab” and set out to dismantle it.

Shift the scene now to 1933, the pit of the Depression, which rocked many of these earlier certainties, and witness the entrance of a new commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, to whom, as to many of his fellow New Deal appointees, those certainties had been extremely dubious to begin with. Collier resists easy classification: born in the South in 1884, trained in the social sciences at Columbia University’s graduate schools, a poet, an outdoorsman, a philosopher, and a biologist played upon by influences ranging from Walt Whitman and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin to the sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who preached that human evolution led to cooperation, not struggle. Collier found in Indian societies a sense of community and a passion for the earth that he thought the modern world sorely needed. As a major figure in the American Indian Defense Association in the 1920s, he campaigned against the erosion of tribal land and water rights and against cultural policies restricting the practices of Indian religions. He saw the Dawes Act as “much more than just a huge white land grab.” It was a “blow” whose “intended consequence was the divorce of the Indian from his community.”

Collier calculatedly set out to overturn the essence of the Dawes legislation. His guiding principles, he announced, would include recognition that “Indian societies must and can be . . . regenerated,” that they must be given “status, responsibility and power” as well as “cultural . . . [and] religious liberty,” and that their lands must be “used and cherished in the way the particular Indian group desires.” Indians must regain self-determination and their “two inseparable heritages . . . democracy and land, one and indivisible.” The transformation, however, was not to rest simply on idealistic theory but on anthropological studies of actual Indian practices. There would also be concrete programs to provide credit, employment, and other forms of economic assistance to suffering Indian families.

In the reformist atmosphere of 1934, Collier got partial implementation of these principles in the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act, the foundation of the current policy of supervised sovereignty. Among other things it authorized tribes to draft constitutions setting up the machinery of selfgovernment and of incorporation to carry on tribal economic enterprises. The overall effect of the “Indian New Deal” was positive even if only measured by a halving of the Indian death rate between 1927 and 1938. On the other hand, it had its fierce critics, both white and Indian. No one-size-fits-all remedy of retribalization, offered paternalistically by a philosopher-king commissioner, could escape attack, and between Indian dissent and mounting conservative denunciations of “Communistic” practices, the Indian service underwent a series of cuts in its budget and authority that led Collier finally to resign in 1945. Two developments of the ensuing half-century modified but did not erase his legacy. One was a policy of “termination,” under which the federal government moved to end Indian wardship by giving less material support and more responsibility for revenue raising to the tribal governments. The other was increasing Indian organization and assertiveness. Both led to the current state of things.

Like Helen Jackson, Collier was an exemplar of his day in history, the quintessential New Dealer. He had faith that the power of social science combined with the creativity of ordinary people could produce little democratic and diversified commonwealths under the mantle of a benign national government run by experts. It was a viewpoint consistent with such things as the 1930s rediscovery of folk culture and the era’s fascination with social planning. It was a far cry from the visions of the 1880s or 1990s.

History can’t tell us what new balance between the claims of Indian nationality and assimilationist pressure will be struck in the next few years, but for a cue, a look in the current social mirror is always a good beginning.

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