The Termination of the Reservations

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The Termination of the Reservations

In August 1953, Congress endorsed House Concurrent Resolution 108 which is widely regarded as the principal statement of the termination policy:

It is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, to end their status as wards of the United States, and to grant them all the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship.

In the same month Congress passed Public Law 280 which, in California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin, transferred criminal jurisdiction from the Indians to the state authorities, except on certain specified reservations. Congress also repealed the laws banning the sale of alcohol and guns to Indians. These measures could be justified as merely bringing Indians into line with other US citizens but, as one historian has observed, ‘the states were not as eager to control the reservations as the advocates of termination had expected’. In some Indian areas law and order disappeared altogether.

Many Native Americans were alarmed about the termination policy. One Blackfoot tribal chairman pointed out that, ‘in our language the only trans-lation for termination is to “wipe out” or “kill off”’. But in Washington, it was seen in terms of freedom and opportunity. Senator Arthur Watkins of Utah, the principal Congressional advocate of termination, claimed in a 1957 article that it could be compared to the abolition of slavery: ‘Following in the footsteps of the Emancipation Proclamation of 94 years ago, I see the following words emblazoned in letters of fire above the heads of the Indians – THESE PEOPLE SHALL BE FREE!’

These remarks were, of course, selfinterested. Termination would open up yet more valuable Indian land and resources to white purchasers. This explains why, in the Congressional committee hearings on termination, there was considerable controversy over the future of the first reservations selected, especially those of the Menominee of Wisconsin and the Klamath of Oregon who had large land holdings and valuable forestry and timber resources.

Termination proved very hard to resist. Opponents who stressed the backwardness of the reservations and the inability of individual Indians to cope without continued federal support only confirmed the Congressmen in their conviction that the IRA had failed and that a new policy was necessary. Even the lack of adequate facilities for Native Americans could be used as evidence that termination was necessary. When a Congressman from Texas tried to argue against the termination of the small reservation in his district, he had to admit that the federally-maintained Indian school attended by the Native American children was over 500 miles from their homes, and that it made more sense for them to be educated locally alongside white children.

The NCAI was also in difficulties because many Native Americans favoured termination. These were mostly the half-blood Indians who had moved to the cities and, in many cases, adopted the values and lifestyles of the white majority. They stood to gain financially if the valuable land on their reservations was sold and the money divided among tribal members. As Helen Peterson, a member of the Oglala Sioux and a former director of the NCAI, later recalled:

In the NCAI office we did all we could to support, encourage, and back up those people who dared to question termination, but it was pretty much a losing battle. The NCAI was in a tough spot. We were deeply committed to respecting the sovereignty of a tribe. Did the NCAI want to oppose termination even when the people involved wanted it? We never really came to a final answer on that question.

The NCAI was able to prevent the termination of some tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, but not the resource-rich Menominee and Klamath. However, the pace of termination slowed in the mid-1950s as it became clear that many Indians had not been properly consulted and few fully understood its implications. In 1958 the Secretary of the Interior, Fred Seaton, declared that ‘it is absolutely unthinkable ... that consideration would be given to forcing upon an Indian tribe a so-called termination plan which did not have the understanding and acceptance of a clear majority of the members affected’. In the 1960s the policy was abandoned.

The Impact of Termination

Judged by numbers alone, the impact of termination was small. It affected just over 13,000 out of a total Indian population of 400,000. Only about 3 per cent of reservation land was lost. But it caused huge anxiety amongst Native Americans and had the ironic result of stimulating the formation of the ‘Red Power’ protest movement of the 1960s. It remains an emotive issue among historians sympathetic to Native Americans. Angie Debo called it ‘the most concerted drive against Indian property and Indian survival’ since the 1830s. Jake Page concluded that it had been ‘an utter betrayal of trust responsibilities by the federal government’, and Edward Valandra has claimed that ‘termination increasingly resembled extermination’. However, it is difficult to see what policy, in the context of the early Cold War, could have replaced it. Even today, neither the Native American tribes themselves, nor the federal government, have successfully resolved exactly what the status and identity of the original inhabitants of the north American continent should be.

Sources Cited:

Boxer, Andrew. "Native Americans and the Federal Government." History Today, Sept.

2009. Web. 6 Feb. 2016.
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