Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Dawes Act: A Guest Post

The following is a guest post by Scott Seaborne, a reader of the blog. The views exppressed are his and I may chime in on this topic in a future post.

The Dawes Act allotment of Indian reservations was originally considered a necessary part of the then accepted federal Indian policy called “assimilation”. While today this policy is universally criticized, at the time it was adopted as the best and most humane way to treat our Indian neighbors. It wasn’t until the Merriam Report in 1928 that Congress began to see the problems associated with the Dawes Act policies and it wasn’t until 1934 with the passage if the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) that the Dawes Act was repudiated and the assimilation policy was officially abandoned.

The Dawes Act allotments are seen today as coercive policy forced upon all Indian people against their will and therefore can be deemed as universally as bad policy. That view would be too simplistic. The Dawes Act had both positive and negative effects depending on the circumstances of the individual tribes and tribal members. Not all reservations were allotted and not all tribes opposed allotment.

I recommend the book, “The Indian Reorganization Act Congresses and Bills” edited by Vine Deloria. It documents the effort Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) made under John Collier to write and pass the IRA. The IRA reversed the prior federal policy of ending tribal societies and returned their role to protecting and supporting tribal communities. This book presents the transcripts of the congresses (meetings) held around the County preceding the Congressional vote on the IRA (Wheeler-Howard Act). I would characterize this effort as a promotional tour to sell the Tribes on Collier’s new Indian program. You can read in this book the testimony of tribal representatives who had taken allotments under the Dawes Act but took pride in their ownership of fee title lands and enjoyed the rewards of individual ownership. Many had become farmers or ranchers and respected business people in their communities. Many complained they feared IRA was attempt to “return the Indian to the blanket”. During the period that preceded the IRA, the federal policy to break up tribal governments and make Indians citizens, while not without controversy, but was supported by a large portion of Indian people. Tribes could vote for against the IRA. Of the 258 tribes that voted, 77 or about 30% voted to reject the IRA!

The idea of supporting inviolate tribal sovereignty as a federal policy is relatively recent. John Collier and his legal staff at the OIA wrote the bill text and designed this new policy with little or no input from Indian people. (For those who might be interested, I can supply a list of books on the subject.) There are today, many tribal members who are deeply critical of the IRA “boiler plate” tribal constitutions that Collier and the OIA pressured tribes to adopt. The IRA today is still controversial among Indian scholars and lawyers as to whether it does more good than harm.

Following WWII when many tribal members returned home from valiant service in the US armed forces, it seemed a bit odd to some Indian veterans that, at home, they were deemed to be wards under federal supervision. By the later forties the federal policy began to switch back to reducing federal controls which was supported by segments of tribal communities. Thus was born the federal “termination policy” which lasted until July, 1970 when then President Nixon announced his new Indian self-determination policy which became law in 1975.

It’s important to remember that current Nixon federal Indian policy is only 40 years old. When one looks at the wild swings in federal Indian policy it makes one wonder if we will ever find a policy that satisfies Indian communities.

I guess my point is Indian people aren’t monolithic and, like the rest us, won’t agree on everything. How will relying on federal policies resolve that?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Brothertown Drum Returns to Annual Fond du Lac Event

I haven't kept in touch with any of my Brothertown contacts. The last I'd heard was that they were denied recognition by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although I'm sure they are dissappointed, the setback hasn't stopped them from doing their thing.

A case in point was last weekend's Celebrate CommUNITY event at the County Expo Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

According to the Fond du Lac Reporter, the "Gordon Williams Gii Tass'se Brothertown Drummers" participated in an opening flag ceremony that heralded "a multi-cultural parade of people dressed in traditional clothing."

A number of photos - including the one above - were taken of Jeff Huebel. Although the newspaper said that Jeff is from the town of Stockbridge, it actually should have said that he is a Stockbridge Indian helping out the Brothertown people.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Commuck's Indian Melodies

In routine searches for data about the Brothertown Indians an item known as Indian Melodies by Thomas Commuck (himself a Brothertown), had flashed on my computer screen before but I'd not paid any attention to it until recently after Myron Paine sent it to me in digitized format.

One of the melodies caught my interest:

The fine print on the bottom reads:

The Narragansett Indians have a tradition that the following tune was heard in the air by them, and other tribes bordering on the Atlantic coast many years before the arrival of the whites in America; and on their first visiting a church in Plymouth colony after the settlement of that place by the whites, the same tune was sung while performing divine service, and the Indians knew it as well as the whites. The tune is preserved among them to this day and is sung to the words here set.
Commuck himself had what we might call a "scientific" mind and doesn't actually assert that the Narragansett tradition is a proven fact. Perhaps the Indians and the whites really did have melodies that were similar enough to claim that they were one and the same. I'd be interested in getting some feedback on that idea from a musicologist or cultural anthropologist.

No matter how you look at it, people of different races do have a lot in common. One possible take-away from the story is that the Narragansetts - despite their decimation during King Philip's War - managed to maintain some of their pre-contact identity, even if their memory of that identity has human imperfections. The story that claims the two races had something in common musically might have made living in a "white man's world" a little less unpleasant.