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?

1 comment :

nkbickel said...

Photos taken by Felix Cohen at the opening of the first Indian Congress and others in Indian Country during the meetings for discussing or drafting tribal constitutions can be seen at http://www.lucykramercohen.com/photogallery.aspx The video "A Twentieth Century Woman: Lucy Kramer Cohen," which can be previewed on the lucykramercohen.com site,gives a brief narrative of period as seen by Lucy & Felix Cohen, supporters of Indian sovereignty & rights. Nancy Kramer Bickel, writer & producer