Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, had a highly supportive attitude toward Indians. President Harry S. Truman had his hands full with international problems—the governing of Germany and Japan, the Berlin Airlift of 1948, testing the atomic bomb, and constant harassment from Republicans—and mostly had a hands-off attitude toward Indian affairs. When he had the time to think about Indians, Truman revealed himself to be a total assimilationist, as all the presidents had been for three-quarters of a century.
Right after World War II a conservative reaction started to set in around the nation. Politicians were reacting to big government, socialism, communism, welfare recipients, foreigners, non-English speakers, liberals, and civil rights groups. One of the first actions in Congress was the hearings by Sen. William Langer of North Dakota in 1947 to reduce the size of government. As the Chairman of the Civil Service Committee, Langer brought in BIA to testify about its operations and the number of employees it had. After two days of testimony, he advocated abolishing the BIA and letting Indians take care of themselves.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his western Republican henchmen took a decidedly anti-Indian approach. They went beyond assimilation to trying to take away what little remaining resources Indians still had. When Eisenhower took office in 1953, he had majorities in both the Senate and the House. These majorities could and did ride roughshod over several groups and issues, including Indians. They believed it was their right and duty to reverse Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” He put the former head of the Japanese internment camps, Dillon Myer, to run the BIA.
The Republicans believed in less government; the Bureau of Indian Affairs was one of their favorite agencies to belittle. Few of them mouthed racist arguments, but all of them mouthed anti-government arguments. And Eisenhower signed all the dozens of Indian termination bills that made it to his desk.
It was not always conservative Republicans who advocated termination. In fact, the first termination resolution was introduced in 1950 by a liberal Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Reva Beck Bosone. In addition to being the first woman elected to Congress from Utah, Bosone had been the first woman judge in Salt Lake City. She had also been a member of the Utah legislature. And like Vivian Watkins, she had no previous experience in Indian affairs. Her Bosone bill would have authorized the BIA to study tribes to determine which ones were ready for termination. Indians would have had to agree to be terminated. And tribes would have had to be ready for termination.
Watkins, who over the years would allow no one to challenge his primacy over Indian affairs, opposed Bosone’s termination bill, House Joint Resolution 490, and it was defeated. Bosone, who had expected to have his support, was surprised. His opposition was strictly about power and control, since he was in favor of both termination and elimination of the BIA. But he wanted credit for all actions in Indian affairs.
Rep. William Henry Harrison of Wyoming introduced House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108) on June 9, 1953. Harrison’s great-great-grandfather of the same name was the ninth president. Harrison was only a sophomore representative when he was asked to introduce the legislation, indicating how low it was on the national agenda. He was a Republican. Watkins had asked him to introduce it.
Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington, a Democrat, introduced the same resolution in the Senate. Jackson, whose parents were both born in Norway, was from a family that wanted to be totally assimilated into the U.S. They insisted that he speak only English from a young age, and refused to speak Norwegian around him. So termination of Indians fit perfectly into his scheme of things. He thought everyone should be assimilated, including Indians.
HCR 108 was a resolution expressing the sense of both legislative bodies, and not a legislative act of either house. It did not in itself terminate any Indian treaties; each tribe that was terminated had to have a separate bill passed in both Houses of Congress and signed by the President to break its treaty. HCR 108 passed on August 1, 1953, less than two months after it was introduced. There was in effect almost no opposition to the resolution. P.L. 83-280, the transfer of legal jurisdiction over certain Indian reservations from the federal government to the states, passed only two weeks later.
By July 15 the Indian Affairs Subcommittee and the Interior Committee had reported it out. It reached the House floor on July 27. After passing one minor amendment, the bill was passed—with no one speaking in opposition. No Indians were notified or asked to testify on the resolution. The Senate passed it the next day, July 28. Indians in general had no idea that the most important piece of legislation affecting them had passed the Congress. It was the most important and devastating piece of Indian legislation since the Dawes Act of 1887 took two-thirds of Indian land.
This earth-shaking document passed in record time. HCR 108 stated:
Whereas, 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 of the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship.
Whereas, the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States should assume their full responsibilities as American citizens, Now therefore be it resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that it is declared to be the sense of Congress that, at the earliest time possible, all of the Indian tribes and the individual members thereof located within the States of California, Florida, New York, and Texas, and all of the following named Indian tribes and individual members thereof, should be freed from Federal supervision and control and from all disabilities and limitations specifically applicable to Indians: The Flathead Tribe of Montana, the Klamath Tribe of Oregon, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, the Potawatomie Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and those members of the Chippewa Tribe of who are on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, North Dakota. It is further declared to be the sense of Congress that, upon the release of such tribes and individual members thereof from such disabilities and limitations, all offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the States of California, Florida, New York, and Texas and all other offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs whose primary purpose is to serve any Indian tribe or individual Indian freed from Federal supervision should be abolished.
The people who passed the Resolution were almost all westerners. They had the lowest seniority in the Congress, which is why they were assigned to Interior and Indian Affairs in the first place. Then, as now, Indian Affairs was one of the lowest-ranked committees in both Houses. As soon as members get enough seniority, they would move on to other more important committees such as Defense, Ways and Means, and Appropriations.
As westerners, they had obligations to the people who had elected them. Mining interests, water users, agriculturalists, timber people, ranching companies, and developers were and are the people who put representatives into power in the west. And very often they are seeking to use Indian lands to enrich themselves. Indian water, oil, gas, land, minerals, and timber, while small compared to other holdings in the nation, are significant. This fact is not widely known by the general population, but it is widely known and discussed by the oil drillers, uranium miners, and timber cutters. Indian timber, water, oil, gas, and minerals are still highly sought after.
It is ironic, for instance, that about 25 percent of all the energy sources in the nation are located on the scrublands that were made into Indian reservations in the 19th century. The coal, oil, natural gas, geothermal, and uranium mines are found on Indian lands in Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and other states with Indian populations.
The westerners who sat on the Indian committees were mostly Republican. The exceptions, such as the Democrat Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, had a philosophy very similar to the Republican credo. Anderson and the others clearly desired to get at Indian water, timber, land, and minerals for their own enrichment and for the enrichment of their friends.
Congress and the President terminated 179 Indian Tribes following the passage of HCR108. Most of them are still terminated. My tribe, the Lumbee Nation, is the only tribe what was federally recognized and terminated in the same piece of legislation. Indians must be continually alert to the threats of termination, which are still around. Next time we must fight it with everything we have.
Dr. Dean Chavers (Lumbee) is Director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Indian students. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. This column is an excerpt from his next book, “Termination of Indian Treaties.”