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The Transformation of the “Indian Problem”

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The Transformation of the “Indian Problem”

In this paper, I plan to examine the marked transformation and the history of the so-called “Indian Problem.” The idea of an “Indian Problem” began with the arrival of white settlers in North America, and for them, it was a problem of safety, security, and land acquisition. Around 1890, the “Indian Problem” became an issue of how to help the Indians go extinct humanely, or to assimilate into white culture. The current conception of the “Indian Problem” started after World War II, and the pursuing civil rights movement. People saw that the Indians weren’t going extinct and that they were keeping their cultures alive, and the “Indian Problem” shifted to undoing the damage that the policies of the federal government had caused. I will be discussing the fact that the profound problems which characterize the “Indian Problem” now are a direct result of the actions taken in response to previous conceptions of the “Indian Problem.”

The “Indian Problem” emerged as an issue for white settlers who perceived Indians as savages, as a sub-human race. Because white settlers viewed Indians this way, they thought it was okay to use excessive military force. Through 19th century, this military force was used to conquer Indians and move them from their native lands and resettle them. Sicknesses that the white settlers had brought with them devastated the Indian population because Indians had not encountered these illnesses before, and they had no natural immunity to them. Additionally, white-Indian relations seem as though they were fragile from the start, perhaps with both sides over-reacting at times. Leaders of the new English colonies often used aggression and murder to try to intimidate the Indians into submission, and into giving food to the English. Angered at this treatment, Indians began fighting back, and killing, too. In some instances, the white settlers raided and stole food from the Indians. This worsened the already fractured relations between the two groups. Unprovoked attacks and kidnaping alternated with friendship and trade. From their experiences, Indians realized that these early Europeans were powerful and dangerous people who could not be trusted. However, the Indians had the advantage of sheer numbers and an understanding of the land. For the English, their experiences strengthened their idea that they were superior to these “savages” in many ways, including culture, technology, societal organization and religion. For both parties, these early experiences were not positive and set a negative tone for generations to come.

However, by 1890, the “Indian Problem” shifted from Indians being seen as a problem to being a problem for Indians. Widespread deadly sicknesses and slaughter of Indians had led to a startling decline in the Indian population. Some estimate that the population at the time of white contact had been 3-7 million; by 1890, the population was down to less than 250,000. By now, Indians were in a pretty sorry state; because they were resourceless and confined 24/7 to the reservations, Indians were unable to feed and clothe themselves. Indians were dependent on the military for sustenance, and they were given monthly rations of food, tools, etc. Consequent to the devastation of the Indian population, Indians were no seen as a longer a threat, because they were expected to become extinct. American society saw extinction as normal and natural at this time, and here, the “Indian Problem” largely became a humanitarian issue of how to ease the extinction of Indians.

“Kill the Indian and save the man,” a popular quote of the time summarizes the attitude of the times. People thought they should teach Indians to live in white society, to assimilate, and they thought this entailed de-tribalizing them. So the idea was to save the humans, but get rid of the their “Indianess.” One salient instance of this school of thought was the creation of the Lake Mohonk Conferences, which lasted from 1883-1928. These were annual meetings at Lake Mohonk in upstate New York which were held by wealthy Quaker siblings, the Smiley brothers. The Smiley brothers owned a resort in Lake Mohonk and they offered it as a place to hold annual meetings to decide what programs should be initiated to de-tribalize Indians. These meetings were high-profile, and they were attended by people like senators, the elite, and college-educated. The meetings were also covered by such newspapers as the New York Times. At these conferences, it was decided that Indians should be made citizens of the United States, after they became “civilized” and self-sufficient through education. Education would work well for children, but for adults that were no longer school-aged, it was proposed that they be given allotment, or severalty, of their reservations. Allotment was supposed to instill pride-of-ownership, self-sufficiency, and independence for the new land owners. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which went into effect in 1888. This act is often called the “Dawes Act” after Senator Henry Dawes, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who introduced the act. The Dawes Act called for 160 acres to be given to families, 40 acres given to single men, and 40 acres given to children.

This acreage was doubled in grazing lands. Obviously, there were no provisions made for future generations, namely because people didn’t expect for there to be future generations. This act was widely-supported by eastern liberals, and also by western land interests because the remaining land after allotment was supposed to be auctioned off. The profits from these auctions were to be used for any residual issues that faced Indians after the allotment. People were aware that these lands might be sold prematurely, and to protect against that, the lands were to be held in trust by the Secretary of the Interior for 25 years. The Indians were opposed to allotment because it would mean the break up of their communities, and there were some law suits to try to stop allotment. Lonewolf v. Hitchcock is a famous case of this sort, and it was an effort to stop the allotment of a reservation in Oklahoma. The case stated that allotment of that reservation was illegal because it violated a treaty. The courts ruled against Lonewolf, stating that Congress had plenary power, or absolute authority, over Indian nations. This case set the precedent for Congress to be able to do whatever it willed with Indian nations, regardless of previous treaty agreements.

Unfortunately, allotment didn’t even come close to resolving the “Indian Problem.” Allotment, in fact, resulted in massive land loss for Indians. For people who didn’t have much to begin with, losing millions of acres was a particularly harsh blow. In 1881, Indians owned 156 million acres of land, but by 1900, it was down to 85 million acres, a loss of 71 million acres. Not only did they lose land, but they also lost valuable resources from those lands, including minerals, water, and timber. In addition to massive wealth loss, when Indians were allotted land, they were made citizens, and they were no longer given rations of food or tools, etc. Allotment meant that the government was no longer supporting Indians, because the Indians’ new land ownership was supposed to help them support themselves. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Many Indians sold their land to support to themselves, but this was not a long-term solution. Also, of lot of land was seized, sometimes illegally, for tax auctions, because people weren’t able to pay property taxes. Now there were many Indians who had no land, no reservation, no government help, and still no long-term way to support themselves.

As mentioned before, in addition to allotment, education was proposed as a way to assimilate Indians into white society. However, the big push for education didn’t come until after the Civil war. Richard H. Pratt, who had been a commander of African-American Buffalo Soldiers, thought that education was the solution to the “Indian Problem.” African-Americans were also seen as a sub-human race back then, and Pratt had been educating them while in charge of them. Much to his surprise, they learned well. He figured that Indians could probably also learn well, and in 1879, he convinced the military to give him deserted barracks to serve as a school for Indian children. These boarding schools were designed to eliminate tribal customs in order to assimilate Indians into white society. Children were punished for speaking their native languages and practicing native customs, and they were made to adhere to strict military-like rules. In addition to the usual curriculum, children were taught “civilization” classes that including learning non-native dances and American songs. Boys were taught vocational skills and girls took domestic-service courses. In the summer time, the children from the boarding schools stayed with white middle-class families. Many students served as unpaid farm hands and domestic servants, almost as slave labor. Many children died because they had no natural immunity for sicknesses they were exposed to, and few children graduated from the schools. However, despite the militaristic rules designed to de-tribalize these children, and punishment for speaking their native languages and practicing traditional customs, most children maintained their sense of Native identity. But there were also some Indians who did fit into white society, and they became the nucleus for the first rising of a pan-Indian identity, where Indians began to see that even though they were from different tribes, they faced many of the same problems. Some Native Americans began to identify first as Indian, and secondly, identify with their tribes.

Children in these boarding schools were not the only ones who were punished for practicing native customs, however. In 1883, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) created a “court of Indian offenses,” which was designed to prosecute Indians for practicing native customs. In 1890, there was the Renaming Order, which called for Indian names to be anglicized so that others could say and understand the Indians’ names. In 1902, there was the Indian Hair Cut order, which ordered Indians to cut off their long hair. If they did not, they were sent to jail. There was also the Harrison Act of 1913, which made peyote, a drug used in Indian rituals, illegal.

Despite deadly sicknesses, poverty, education, and efforts to de-tribalize Indians, around 1920, people began to realize that Indians weren’t going extinct and they weren’t losing their culture. People also began to realize that their treatment of Indians may not have been as humane as they had once thought. In 1919, the Snyder Act was passed, and it amalgamated all the previous treaties into one big treaty. The Snyder Act created BIA schools that were separate from boarding schools that Pratt had started. The Snyder Act also created Indian Health Services. In 1926, the Institute for Government Research got a grant from the Carnegie Fund to investigate the conditions in Indian country. This investigation resulted in a 800-page document called The Problem of Indian Administration, also called the “Meriam Report” because the investigation had been headed by an attorney named Lewis M. Meriam. This report, published in 1928, found, for one, that Indians had, by far, the highest infant mortality rates. The report also found that diseases such as measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and trachoma were rampant on reservations and housing, diet, and health care conditions were deplorable. The government’s policy of allotment was named as the biggest contributor to the impoverishment of Indians, and the report called for a complete overhaul of the BIA and federal Indian policy.

The same year that the Meriam Report came out, Herbert Hoover was elected. In response to the Meriam report, he had staff draw up new guidelines for dealing with Indian affairs. They came up with an 11-point plan which included sharing the administration of Indian affairs with the states, proposing an arts and crafts co-op so that knowledge of native arts would not die out, amending allotment laws to make it harder for Indians to sell their land, protecting Indian rights and culture, and continuing support for the Senate investigation of the corrupt and fraudulent BIA. However in October 1929, there was the great stock market crash, and Hoover’s administration was distracted from Indian affairs. Not much from Hoover’s plan was put into action.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, and he appointed John Collier to the office of Commissioner of Bureau of Indian Affairs. Collier introduced the Indian New Deal in order to restore Indian culture and heritage, address reservation and allotment issues, and regenerate tribal self-government. Collier used various New Deal agencies and programs such as the Public Works Administration, Resettlement Administration, and Civil Works Administration to provide funding for the building of new schools and hospitals, food aid, and training. The centerpiece of Collier’s Indian New Deal was the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) which passed in 1934. Perhaps most importantly, the IRA abandoned the policy of land allotment, authorized the acquisition of land for reservations, provided special appropriations for education, and established procedures for tribal self-government. However, these tribal governments had to look like the U. S. government, which was a point of contention, for Indians had their own governmental organization, and resisted the new procedures. Additionally, it was unclear what the new tribal governments were supposed to do because much of the business on the reservations were already taken care of by the BIA. Besides that, the tribal governments had a hard time raising money. Although they had the legal ability to tax, there wasn’t much to tax. Their land was owned in trust by the Secretary of the Interior, there wasn’t much income to tax, and Indians were poor enough that taxing other things just didn’t make much sense.

Collier also got rid of the court of Indian offenses, special visas for visiting reservations, and the BIA superintendents’ power to remove “troublesome” Indians (those trying to organize protests) from reservations. Though Collier did much to help Indians, he also faced intense criticisms. The most notable criticisms were for the fact that the new tribal governments had to resemble the United States government, and also for a scandal on the Navajo reservation, involving the BIA’s forceful extermination of 3500 sheep, on grounds of an unsupported claim that the reservation was in danger of being over-grazed. John Collier spent much of his career defending his actions and he resigned in 1945.

Though much had been done to ease the suffering of Indians up to this point, there was still another shift in the conception of the “Indian Problem.” In 1941, the United States entered World War II, and came out as a world leader. Americans began to think about issues the United States stood for, like equality and freedom. Along with many other groups, Indians started to recognize that they should be treated as well as other Americans, and the “Indian Problem” shifted to include the fight for equal rights.

To add to the shift in the conception of the “Indian Problem,” a large number of Indians had served in the war and war efforts, and were now living in urban areas. In addition to Indian urbanization, the GI bill served to create, proportionately, the highest-educated population of Indians. With this high education rate, and about half of the Indian population living in urban areas, there was a resurgence of pan-Indian sentiment, and this created a generation of Indian leaders. This new generation set about reversing detrimental federal Indian policies. In reaction, Congress set about getting itself out of Indian business, setting into action a policy of “Termination and Relocation.”

Part of this policy included the creation of the Indian Claims Commission in 1946. This commission was supposed to settle all Indian claims within five years. Once this was accomplished, Congress planned to begin abolishing reservations. In order to do this, Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108), in 1954. Under this resolution, two reservations were abolished, against the wishes of those on the reservations. The plan was to break up reservations, similar to the allotment act, and give the money to the tribes. One tribe was able to overturn the decision to break up their reservation, but it took 20 years to get the reservation reinstated. As far as the success of the Indian Claims Commission, it didn’t come close to resolving all claims within five years. There are still some claims currently being argued in federal courts.

Another part of the Termination and Relocation policy was Public Law 280 (PL 280), which called for the removal of federal jurisdiction over BIA schools, Indian Health Services, and other BIA programs. The jurisdiction over these programs was supposed to be turned over to state governments, but the states never assumed responsibility.

The relocation aspect of the Termination and Relocation policy was to relocate Indians off the reservations, so that the reservations could be terminated. This program started in 1948 on the Navajo-Hopi reservation, and later expanded to include a number of other reservations. The program provided transportation, job placement, subsistence funds, and some counseling until the first paycheck. In 1956, PL 959 added vocational training benefits for up to two years in on-the-job training or vocational school training. Relocation didn’t work for a lot of people, and many just moved back to the reservations. The program was abolished in 1981, because it was seen to result in what was termed “brain drain,” meaning that the best and brightest were leaving reservations, and were no longer available as a resource.

Obviously, termination and relocation didn’t work very well. But in the late 50's and early 60's, the Ford Foundation began tackling poverty through the Gray Areas Program, which consisted of centers in urban areas where people could talk about and create projects that were designed to lift up their communities and improve their neighborhoods and lives. These projects included job training, education programs, and small businesses. The Gray Areas Program wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t a great success, either.

When Lyndon B. Johnson took office, he declared a war on poverty, and he modeled it after the Gray Areas Program. Because of previous problems, the federal government planned to bypass local governments and go straight to the people. They didn’t just want to bypass local governments, they also felt that some federal agencies were problematic, and bypassed agencies like the BIA. The center of power for this war on poverty was located directly in the White House. Out of Johnson’s war on poverty came Head Start programs, legal and health services for the poor, job-training services and Community Action Centers (CACs), which were funded directly out of the White House. The CACs organized poor people to act in defense of themselves in the form of protests and demonstrations. Some of these CACs served to help the causes of Indians and tribal governments.

In addition to government-funded activism, educated Indians out of the pan-Indian movement also began to act for themselves in the 60s and 70s. In 1961, a young man named Clyde Warrior founded the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), which advocated local actions to help solve Indian issues. There was also the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which had begun holding annual meetings in 1944. The NIYC began to get a lot of media attention, and started to eclipse the NCAI as the van guard of Indian rights, so the NCAI became more vocal. While the NCAI was conservative and worked in established channels of activism, the American Indian Movement (AIM), was more violent and established an alliance with the Black Panthers. Other important organizations which were established in the 60s and 70s include the National Indian Education Association, which was founded to encourage Indians to become more educated. The Native American Rights Fund takes on important court cases involving individuals, tribes, villages, and organizations. Other prominent organizations that started in the 60s and 70s include the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, Indians of All Tribes, and Women of All Red Nations. Many of these organizations have now been disbanded.

Also in the 60s and 70s, tribal courts began to lobby for self-determination. In 1970, Richard M. Nixon began a federal policy of Indian self-determination that has been embraced by every president since. In 1976, Congress passed Public Law 638 (PL 638), the “American Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act,” which gave tribes the right to take over services previously administered by the BIA. In 1998, President William J. Clinton attended a conference called “Building Economic Self-Determination in Indian Communities.” He also strengthened the policy of self-determination with an executive order stating that the federal government would deal with Indian nations on a government-to-government basis, among other executive orders facilitating self-determination for Indians.

Despite these measures to strengthen the Indian community, Indians are still the poorest and most disadvantaged group in the United States, especially in terms of poverty, education, and unemployment. This is partly due to events that took place when Jimmy Carter took office in 1976. At the time, inflation was high, and the government was paying for the Vietnam War, so Carter began cutting funding for basic Indian services like health care and education. Indians realized that while government could provide funding, they could easily take it away, and tribes were forced to begin to think for themselves about economic development.

Tribes hired economic development planners who had two general options: 1) conventional economic development, or 2) the “legal road” to economic success. Within the conventional road to economic development, tribes could either go with non-Indian entrepreneurs, Indian entrepreneurs, or tribal operations. Non-Indian entrepreneurs could bring capital, knowledge of business, business contacts, and services like gas stations, video rentals, auto repairs, and retail to the reservations. However, non-Indians may not be sensitive to the special cultural needs and practices on the reservation. Also, the control of the operation came from outside the reservations, the profits always left the reservations, and these businesses didn’t always create many jobs. Indian entrepreneurs would be more sensitive to the reservation culture, and more receptive to the reservation’s needs, but business start-up is difficult and approximately half of all small businesses fail. Tribal businesses were the most popular because they made use of the reservation’s best and brightest people, were able to keep and use the money for the betterment of the community, and were obviously tuned into special reservation culture.

When planners considered tribal operations, they had to consider basic development theory, which states that you need land, labor and physical and financial capital in order to succeed. Indians had lots of land, but a limited labor force, because much of the 18-65 age bracket, meaning, the best age bracket for the labor force, left the reservation for college or in search of jobs. And if they had children, they might leave them with the children’s grandparents. This meant that many of the people left on the reservation were either too old or too young to work, in addition to being low-skilled labor. The reservation also had a limited amount of capital, which includes money, credit, buildings and property. They couldn’t put their land up for credit, because the land was held in trust. In response, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) set up loans and grants for tribes with “comprehensive economic development strategies” for commercial, industrial, and tourism development, construction of new community facilities, infrastructure improvements, and skill-training facilities. At first, the EDA often pushed for tourism development, which worked for some reservations, but no so well for others. The EDA also pushed manufacturing and industrial parks, which included a water supply, sewer, plumbing and perhaps a couple of steel buildings to try to attract manufacturing. Manufacturing seemed like a good idea because the labor force on the reservation could provide tax-free, cheap labor, and they didn’t have to be extensively trained. However, many other communities had the idea to create industrial parks, in fact, there were approximately 100 industrial parks for every new business that needed one. At the same time, companies were also starting to out-source labor off-shores, so manufacturing often didn’t pan out for tribes. On reservations that had the resources, tribes also tried energy development, like coal and uranium mining. Today, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes helps tribes maintain management of their energy resources while addressing tribal values and concerns.

As far as the “legal road” to economic development, some tribes were able to use treaty rights and sovereignty to their advantage. For example, there was the “Boldt Decision” of 1975 in the case of the United States v. Washington, where the U. S. sued the state of Washington on behalf of seven tribes. Judge George H. Boldt ruled in favor of tribes in the Pacific Northwest, deciding that the state had systematically violated Indian fishing rights that had been guaranteed by treaty. As a result, Boldt awarded the Indian tribes the rights to half of the state’s harvestable salmon. The tribes were able to set up a successful fishing industry.

Another example of using treaty rights for the advantage of Indians is the 1972 lawsuit that the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy peoples of filed against Maine, claiming that over two-thirds of the state of Maine belonged to them per treaty. In 1980, the lawsuit was settled, and the tribes were awarded $81.5 million to purchase 300,000 acres of land and to establish a trust fund for tribal economic development.

As far as using sovereignty to their advantage, the Indians have very successfully established gaming as tool for economic development. The story actually starts with the Seminole tribe of Florida using sovereignty to establish tax-free smoke shops. People began to get upset over this “unfair advantage,” because it was taking tobacco revenue away from other companies. So, despite the legal right of tribes to have tax-free smoke shops, authorities harassed shops, shutting down stores and arresting workers. The smoke shops could not afford the constant legal fees, and went out of business. However, chairman of the Seminole tribe at the time, Howard Tommie, realized the potential of gaming, given Florida’s elderly population, which liked to gamble. The Seminole started marketing high-stakes bingo and that worked out well for them. Again, other parties were up in arms about their lost revenue from bingo games. The authorities again harassed the Indians, bringing them back to court. But again, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the tribe’s rights, allowing them to have high-stakes bingo halls. The Supreme Court was very firm in its language, not leaving much room for re-interpretation of its ruling. And unlike with the smoke shops, the tribes made enough money with the bingo halls to keep paying legal fees if need be; the authorities were not going to be able to harass them out of business this time. Consequently, high-stakes bingo halls popped up all over Indian country. Bingo halls were great for tribes because they didn’t require a lot of start-up capital or overhead, and they brought in a lot of money.

In 1986, the Cabazon tribe of southern California had enough money to invest, and they figured if high-stakes bingo was legal, other types of gambling should be, too. They built the first Indian casino on a freeway en route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. California tried to impose its gaming regulations on the casino per PL 280 in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, saying that they had jurisdiction over the reservation in this case. However, the Supreme Court held that California did not, in fact, have jurisdiction in this case because the state’s gaming laws were of a “civil regulatory nature” and not a “criminal prohibitory” nature. After the ruling, other tribes opened casinos of their own. The governor of California and other governors were upset that Indians were bringing gambling to their states, and the National Governors’ Association (NGA) adopted this opposition as their official stance. The NGA was able to introduce some bills into congress to try to abolish gaming, but by this time, Indians with casinos were also influential, donating monies to congressmen. In 1987, and 1988, both sides lobbied heavily for their interests.

In late 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which compromised between both sides. The first provision of IGRA divided gaming into three classes: Class 1) games that are played for no significant financial stakes and are regulated by the tribes. Class 2) games like bingo and keno, if they are allowed off of the reservation, then they are allowed on the reservation. This provision legalized high-stakes bingo in each state. Class 3) casino-type games like slots, card tables, and roulette could be played in any state that has a lottery, pull tabs, or scratch-cards. The second provision established the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), which is comprised of individuals nominated by the tribes and governors. The NIGC is the regulatory overseer of Indian gaming; it moderates disputes and monitors tribes. The third provision was to the benefit of the governors and it stated that compacts must be made between tribes and governors before the opening of a casino. The compacts would determine details like the legal age for gamers, hours of operation, size of the casino, whether liquor would be served, and issues of public safety. Some governors were happy to let the tribes open casinos, in hopes of revitalizing tourism. Other governors used this provision as unfair leverage in unrelated matters. At any rate, tribes are making a lot of money through casinos, and investing it in their communities, in terms of housing, schools, elders’ homes, malls, banks, and health facilities. The 2000 Census showed a sharp drop in poverty, and a rise in employment for Indians, there is no doubt that these are due in large part to Indian gaming.

Though conditions in Indian country are improving, they still are a far cry from satisfactory. Indian conceptions of the “Indian Problem,” which included fighting for equal rights have brought us a long way from the first conception of the “Indian Problem,” which was held by the white settlers. The last few hundred years have seen the “Indian Problem” in a number of different lights, each more progressive than the other. We can only hope that some day, the “Indian Problem” becomes a thing of the past.

Works Consulted

Johnson, Troy R. Contemporary Native American Political Issues. Walnut Creek: AltaMira, 1999.

Lobo, Susan, Steve Talbot. Native American Voices. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2001.
Nichols, Roger L. Indians in the United States and Canada. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1998.

Oswalt, Wendell H., Sharlotte Neely. This Land Was Theirs. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1999.

Parman, Donald L. Indians and the American West in the Twentieth Century. Indianapolis:
Indiana UP, 1994.

Thornton, Russell. Studying Native America. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1998.

Wilkins, David E. American Indian Politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

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