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People Encountered - Government Policy

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Bureau of Indian Affairs map of reservations 1874Government Indian policy has long been likened to a swinging pendulum, swinging between one extreme or another. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the prevailing policy was a loosely-bound set of rules collectively known as the Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts. It was replaced in the 1820's and 1830's with Removal, a policy that resulted in the infamous “Trail of Tears” dealing with the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chocktaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) in the American Southeast. These tribes, along with others in subsequent years, were forcibly removed from their homelands to the southern Great Plains of Oklahoma, then called “Indian Territory”. Upwards of a third of those removed died along the way as a result of disease, lack of promised food and supplies, and other government support.

Following Removal, there was something of a transition period (1851-1887) that began with the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851. The idea among reformers was to avoid the holocaust visited upon the Removal victims by making treaties with the next group of Native Peoples with whom the federal government would come into contact: the plains peoples. Unfortunately, this policy also failed as one conflict after another arose resulting in considerable US Army losses. This culminated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, a fight that was a direct result of the US government’s broken promise to keep west river South Dakota in general and the Black Hills in particular safely in the hands of the Lakota Sioux.

The Dawes Act era (1887-1935) followed the failed transition period. Its basic premise was to break reservations into individual land allotments as a means of “assimilating” Native Peoples into white, American Society. By using individual land allotments as a means of breaking tribal culture, the federal government sought to end wardship status once and for all. In the end, it destroyed a culture that had existed for generations and in its place established broken promises, forced conversion to Christianity, farming, and the education of the young at boarding schools, sometimes at great distances from the reservation(s). The Dawes Act is to this day rightly considered the most destructive policy dealing with Native Peoples ever conceived.

In an effort to rectify some of the damage done, the Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, became policy under Franklin Roosevelt and his BIA director, John Collier. Although certainly an improvement over previous policies, it still was paternalistic in its implementation and sometimes heavy-handed. Nonetheless, a number of tribes voted to be part of the new policy. One of those who did not was the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa (Ojibwa); after losing some ten million acres to the federal government, they were understandably cautious about any new programs. The IRA (or Indian New Deal) lasted until disassembled by conservative Republicans in the late 1940's and early 1950's.

The Republican plan was to establish a policy that would eliminate tribal status all together in a plan referred to as “Termination”. The idea was to cut the ties between the federal government and tribes over the course of time. Part of this involved the relocation of certain tribal members to urban areas where, it was hoped, assimilation would take place. The policy was an abject failure as tribes who had their tribal status terminated became poverty stricken. This would lead to yet another change in policy, this time under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and was part of the Great Society.

Finally, in 1973, President Richard Nixon implemented what became known as “Self Determination”, a policy meant to allow tribes autonomy while at the same time still benefitting from government treaty obligations. Implicit in this was protection from state government interference as well, something increasingly important as a result to the rise of gaming on reservations.

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