Native History: the Epic Termination Battle on the Colville Indian Reservation

Courtesy University of Washington Press/Laurie Arnold's book tells the complex tale of Colville termination.

The word “termination” is enough to make any knowledgeable Indian cringe.

One of the federal government’s all-time biggest policy failures, it is recent enough to be in the lived experience of many Indians still alive today. Many will recall the devastation of the Menominee and Klamath Indians, whose stories are two of the most prominent—and heartbreaking—among those of more than 100 tribes that were terminated in the 1950s and ’60s. The Colville’s termination story, while less known, is of a tribe that narrowly averted a vote by tribal membership to terminate the reservation. It was a highly contentious battle that lasted 20 years, a complex tale of the triumph of self-determination and a pulling together of diverse interests for the preservation of land and culture.

Laurie Arnold

Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with Colville tribal member Laurie Arnold, professor and Native American Studies Program Director at Gonzaga University. She is the author of the only complete history of Colville termination, Bartering with the Bones of Their Dead: The Colville Confederated Tribes and Termination (University of Washington Press, 2012).

Termination is seen by many today as another in a long line of genocidal policies by the U.S. government to solve its so-called Indian problem. But what distinguished the Colville’s termination was the tribes’ strong pro-termination sentiment. Could you explain what termination meant to them?

The Colville bands never viewed themselves as “one tribe.” We were a confederation of tribes with different (but complementary) interests. Beginning in the nineteen-teens, Colville band members were already organizing against the U.S. government and white immigrants [to the reservation], allotment and citizenship. They were pushing back against the infrastructure. When they learned about termination from their senator, they said, “We’ll do that. If it means we don’t have to be part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs anymore, we’ll do that.” For the reservation people it was about regaining autonomy and managing their own lives. For the urban people it was more about the money.

What did the Colvilles learn from the experience of the Klamath and Menominee?

They certainly met with the Klamath more. The anti-terminationists used [the experience of the Klamath] to point out what happened to them. They had been a strong and proud community with all of these forest resources, and suddenly they’re no longer Indians. They’d burned through the cash that many had carried around in brown paper bags, and they had nothing left. The Klamath vote happened so quickly and with so little tribal input, context or discussion that no one fully understood what was happening. The Colvilles had almost 20 years of conversation, and it still wasn’t really clear, because it was an incredibly complicated policy and process. They saw the same thing happen to the Menominee.

The Colville experience with termination has been written about by other scholars like Vine Deloria and Charles Wilkinson. Wilkinson wrote that in 1963, pro-terminationist Senator Henry Jackson “controlled the fortunes of the Colvilles.” What do you think he meant, given that from your perspective the Colvilles themselves controlled it through their vigorous internal debates? How much influence did congress actually have on Colville termination?

Realistically, congress holds the fate of Indians in their hands every day because it has plenary power. But I think Wilkinson overstated it. By 1963 congress was already turning away from termination. The Colvilles never had a bill fully approved by the House and the Senate. It might have been true in 1960 or 1962, but by 1963 congress was turning away from it. One of the interesting things about Colville termination is that the Colvilles still pursued it for five years after congress had lost interest. Because the tribes couldn’t agree, they exerted a great deal of authority.

One of the things that makes the Colvilles’ termination story unique was that it included a negotiation to have land returned in exchange for their agreement to terminate, but instead all they got was hunting and fishing rights. Did this not seem like a bad omen? Given that all they really got from the federal government was crumbs, why did they continue entertaining the idea of terminating the reservation?

I think the tribal council believed they would lose all the land and thought they’d have to terminate anyway. The rights to the space were restored, which was very dear to them. It made a huge social and cultural difference, even if they couldn’t build houses on that land. I think that with the ways tribes continue to restore land and assert tribal authority, that land might yet be restored, because there are tribal members who still have it on their radar.

Why does the Colville termination story matter? What do Native people today have to learn from it?

There are so many answers to that. For our Colville people it matters because it demonstrates Colville ‘survivance’ and persistence. It also professionalized our tribal representatives to be sophisticated in the ways they worked with officials who represent us—state senators, U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, the BIA, the President. It has been really important as tribes bridged between the sixties and seventies and the self-determination era, into the eighties and nineties with gaming, and to where we are today. Those extensive conversations in the sixties gave our tribal leaders a head start on ways to work effectively with the people who try to exert control over our communities. For scholars it demonstrates that federal policy doesn’t just happen. The narrative of termination is that it happened whether tribes wanted it or not. The Colville story demonstrates why some tribes wanted it and why it was defeated. It’s important to acknowledge that tribes can disagree internally and still have valid points on both sides.

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