Narrative Historical Overview


20th Century Indian Relations with the United States

This site is currently under revision. It should be revised by Summer 2011


For the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, federal relations with Indian nations remained essentially the same as during the previous 110 years. Indeed, the federal government continued to spearhead the campaign to remake Indians in the image of white Americans. Additionally, the US Supreme Court continued to make rulings about Indian people according to the two competing theories of tribal sovereignty: the tribes have inherent powers of sovereignty that predate the "discovery" of America by Columbus; and the tribes have only those attributes of sovereignty that Congress gives them. In the two cases below, we can see that the Court continued its limited sovereignty interpretation in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, while allowing American Indians some powers of sovereignty over their water rights in Winters v. United States.

  • Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903 ) began when Kiowa leader Lone Wolf sued Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock to halt congressional approval of allotments occuring on the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Reservation. The Kiowa leader argued that allotment violated the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge by failing to obtain the required consent of three-fourths of adult male tribal members to land cessions. The question before the US Supreme Court was whether Congress had the authority to substantively change the terms of the 1867 treaty and open two million acres to settlement. In a unanimous decision, the Court determined Congress did have ultimate power over Indian property “by reason of its exercise of guardianship over their interests." They further ruled that the allotments did not violate property rights of tribal members or deprive them of due process and that the United States could unilaterally abrogate provisions of treaties made with Indian nations, subject only to the requirement that its actions toward its “wards” be guided by “perfect good faith.”
  • The Winters v. United States (1908) case is tied to the 1888 federal creation of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. Fort Belknap MapThe Congressonal agreement did not reserve any water rights from the Milk River for the reservation. Consequently, as non-Indian settlers moved into the area, they claimed rights to the water, as well as built dams and reservoirs which prevented the reservation from receiving water needed for agricultural purposes. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether non-Indian settlers could do anything -- such as build dams or reservoirs -- that would prevent a sufficient amount of water for irrigation from reaching reservation lands. The Court ruled that when American Indian tribes were created by the United States government, they were created with the intention of allowing the American Indian settlements to become self reliant and self sufficient. As American Indian reservations require water to become self sufficient in areas such as agriculture, it was found that water rights were reserved for tribes as an implication of the treaties that created the reservations.

Despite the legal inconsistency imposed by the federal government, American Indians endured and survived in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Many people found resourceful ways to adapt to their new lives, without losing touch with their traditional roots. Colin G. Calloway in First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Third Edition, 2008) provides examples of survival and adaptation:

"... Mohawk men from Kahnawake near Montreal...traveled south to New York during the city's building boom in the 1920s, working on the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the George Washington Bridge. In Alaska, Tlingit people continued the subsistence economies of old but also joined the labor market. Tlingit men fished for the canneries and worked in mining and lumbering operations...In New England, Indian women continued to make baskets, but now they sold them door-to-door or to tourists. Many young Indian women found employment in textile mills...Native American men continued, as they had since the eighteenth century, to go to sea, while others found work closer to home as trappers, as guides, or in the logging industry...Native people in New England maintained important ties of kinship and community and began to develop regional networks and pan-Indian organizations....On the Plains, many women earned cash by selling bead work and other crafts to off-reservation markets. Plains Indian men...adjusted to the new conditions and the post-allotment world by hunting smaller game, herding, gardening, and working for wages." (395-396).

As Indians across the nation struggled to maintain their heritage in the midst of the ongoing Americanization campaign conducted by the US government, a few policymakers began to examine the consequences of federal Indian policy. Beginning in the 1920s, at least two efforts were undertaken to undo some of the damage produced during the previous 140 years: the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 and the 1928 Meriam Report about the status of Indian Country across the nation.


The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which extended citizenship and voting rights to all American Indians, was one of many 20th Century efforts by Congress to assimilate Indians into the mainstream of American life. While two-thirds of all Indians had already gained citizenship through some other means, the 1924 Act was designed to bring all Indians under the citizenship umbrella. The Act was controversial among some tribes who feared that they would have to give up their more sovereignty and that the federal government would deny its treaty obligations. In the words of one Native American:


"United States citizenship was just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. How could these Europeans come over and tell us we were citizens in our country? We had our own citizenship. By its [the Citizenship Act of 1924] provisions all Indians were automatically made United States citizens whether they wanted to be so or not. This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our nations." (See "1924 Indian Citizenship Act: What Citizenship Meant.")


Other Indian peoople saw voting as a right that had been too long denied. Henry Mitchell, an Indian canoe maker living in Maine, had long sought citizenship.


"The Indians aren't allowed to have a voice in state affairs because they aren't voters. All they [the politicians] have to do out there is to look out for the interests of the Indians. Just why the Indians shouldn't vote is something I can't understand. One of the Indians went over to Old Town once to see some official in the city hall about voting. I don't know just what position that official had over there, but he said to the Indian, 'We don't want you people over here. You have your own elections over on the island, and if you want to vote, go over there.'" (See "1924 Indian Citizenship Act: What Citizenship Meant.")


Regardless of the 1924 federal act, American Indians continued to be denied the rights of citizenship in several states. By 1948, with three states (Maine, Arizona, and New Mexico) still denying full citizenship, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trujillo v. Garley that states were required to grant American Indians the right to vote. However, full constitutional protection under the law was not explicitly extended until passage of the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968 that gave constitutional protection to American Indians living under tribal self-government on reservations.


Citizenship was just one of several issues in Indian Country. In 1926, widespread poverty and unemployment on reservations prompted the U.S. Department of Interior to conduct a survey on the state of Indian affairs across the nation. Published in 1928, the Meriam Report primarily concluded that:

  • the traditional economic foundations of Indian culture could not be restored;
  • the Allotment Act had weakened the communal and family basis of Indian life; and
  • rural as well as urban Indians faced myriad problems, especially poverty, ill health, and despair.

To remedy such problems, the report recommended reforms to increase the efficiency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and to improve the economic and social advancement of Indians via assimilation, "so that they may be absorbed into the prevailing civilization or be fitted to live in the presence of that civilization at least in accordance with a minimum standard of health and decency." Foremost among these reforms were recommendations to terminate allotment and phase out Indian boarding schools.


Eight years after the Meriam Report was released, the US government gradually began to revise its federal Indian policies. Despite stated efforts to dramatically reform federal Indian relations, from 1932 to 1989, three policies - reorganization, compensation and termination, and self-determination - continued to vacillate between the competing theories of tribal sovereignty introduced by the Marshall Trilogy of US Supreme Court cases during the 1820s and 1830s: tribes have inherent powers of sovereignty that predate the "discovery" of America; and tribes have only those attributes of sovereignty that Congress gives them.


Beginning in the late 1960s, the duality of these policies was challenged by a growing group of Indian activists. Consequently, a fourth policy was belatedly undertaken in the late 1980s - self governance. Thus, for the last two decades of the 20th Century, both the federal government and a growing group of Indian activists began to redefine sovereignty.

The remainder of this section includes a brief narrative history of the four main federal policies utilized in the Twentieth Century - reorganization, compensation and termination, self-determination, and self-governance - as well as an explanation of the "Red Power" movement - a period of Indian activism in which the term "Red" was used by Indian people as a term descriptive of their activism and empowerment.


Reorganization, 1934 to 1946

Beginning in 1934, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier reorganized the BIA and the attitudes that had shaped its policies. Calling for an Indian New Deal, Collier sought to revitalize Indian cultures, languages, governments, and spiritual practices. While Collier's crusade to champion Indian rights was genuine, it was tainted by paternalism and his belief that he knew what was in their best interests. Historian Colin G. Calloway in First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Third Edition, 2008), describes Collier's "New Deal" strategy:


"... the Indian New Deal was not new, but another attempt by non-Indians to do what they regarded as the right thing for Indians. It was another paternalistic promise to bring "a new era" in Indian affairs, one of many twentieth-century shifts in Indian policy that left Indian people distrustful of anything coming out of Washington. It was another blueprint for reform, mandating one policy for all Indians, and making little allowance for the tremendous diversity of Indian America. (441)

The centerpiece of Collier's New Deal was the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). In essence, the IRA:

  • restored the right of Indian Peoples to live and worship in a traditional manner;
  • permitted tribes to obtain federal loans for economic development;
  • appropriated funds to reacquire a small amount of Indian land;
  • prohibited new allotments and terminated the Dawes Act; and
  • sought to promote tribal self-government.

Under the IRA, each tribe was to accept or reject its policies through referendum. Upon acceptance by a majority of adult tribal members, the tribe then elected a tribal council and wrote a constitution, had it approved by majority vote, and submitted it for final approval of the Secretary of the Interior. Tribes that had their constitutions approved by the federal government became recipients of federal funding. In all, 174 tribes accepted the IRA; however, 78 others rejected the Act because they believed it failed to recognize the diversity of Indian life by expecting Indians to function as uniform and unified tribes, imposed majority rule upon tribes - a practice that was alien to traditional consensual agreement - and/or gave the federal government even more control over Indian political, social, and economic decision-making.


However well intentioned, many Indian scholars and attorneys believed the federal government's reorganization policies cost the Indians more than they gained. They argued that traditional forms of tribal government were replaced by "Indian chartered corporations," or tribal councils, that had constitutions set up under the auspices of the BIA. They further argued that although many tribal councils constructively represented the best interests of their people, some became "puppet governments" that reflected BIA, and often non-Indian values, rather than those of traditional American Indians.

In the midst of reorganization efforts, the United States became involved in World War II. Iwo Jima PhotographAbout 25,000 Indians served in the armed forces - which included the AIwo Jima Memorialrmy, Marines, and Navy - during the course of the War and another 40,000 Indian men and women worked in war-related industries. Some Indians became famous for their wartime roles, most notably the Navajo Code Talkers in the Pacific theater who stumped the Japanese with their Navajo-language code, and Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian and American marine, who participated in the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Some Americans interpreted Indian involvement in and commitment to the United States as evidence that they were ready for assimilation. Thus, the federal government returned to its historical assimilationist mentality and adopted two other directions for future Indian policies: compensation and termination.


Compensation and Termination, 1946 to 1963


Compensation. By 1946, Congress was ready to admit that some injustices had been committed throughout its history with Indian nations. Thus, it proposed to compensate tribes for the loss of their lands through the newly-created Indian Claims Commission (ICC) which was designed to review tribal grievances about treaty enforcement and management and to resolve long-term disputes between the US governments and various Indian nations. The process, which was expected to be completed within ten years, required tribes to file grievances within the first 5-year period and to prove aboriginal title to the lands in question, The Commission was then required to review each case and assess if any and what amount should be paid in compensation. Any claims not brought before the Commission by August 13th, 1951 would be forever barred by the statute.


The three-member ICC operated until September 1978, when the U.S. Court of Claims reassumed jurisdiction over outstanding cases. During its lifetime, nearly every federally-recognized Indian nation filed at least one claim before the ICC. Ultimately, the ICC named 342 awards totaling $818,172,606.64 in judgments ranging from several hundred dollars to $31.2 million. The settlements, however, exacted a toll on many tribes who were divided internally about the process. Some split as one faction favored a cash payment for land, while another faction argued that land, not money, had formed the traditional basis of their culture. Other tribes disagreed over whether payments should be made to individuals within the tribe, or invested by tribal officials in the reservation economy.


Termination. In 1943, a U.S. Senate survey of Indian conditions on the reservations found that most were extremely poor and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal bureaucracy were responsible for extreme mismanagement within Indian Country. Congress began to discuss a new idea for federal Indian policy - discontinuing federal protection of some Indian reservations and assimilating them into off-reservation, mainstream American society. Thus, in 1953 Congress expressed its new policy through House Concurrent Resolution 108 which called for the immediate termination of the Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa, as well as all tribes in the states of California, New York, Florida, and Texas. The resolution stated that terminating a tribe meant ending reservations and immediately withdrawing all federal aid, services, and protection to those living on reservations; requiring individual members of terminated tribes to become full United States citizens who would receive the benefits and responsibilities of any other United States citizens; and calling for the Interior Department to quickly find more tribes who appeared ready for termination.


Resolution 108 was buttressed by the passage of Public Law 280 that transferred legal authority in some parts of Indian Country from the federal government to state governments. Termination - which was passed without discussion with or consent from the Indian nations to be affected - gave the six "mandatory states" - California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Alaska - extensive criminal and civil jurisdiction over tribal lands within their boundaries.


Termination, then, sought to eliminate the federal government's historical trust responsibilities to the Indian nations in the six mandatory states. Almost immediately, the negative affects of transferring responsibilities for the terminated Indian nations from federal to state control were apparent. During a mid-1970s Senate investigation of termination policies, investigators found that terminating federal services to Indian tribes largely resulted in negative effects.In particular, the termination policy had disastrous effects on the Menominee tribe (located in Wisconsin) and the Klamath tribes (located in Oregon), forcing many members of the tribes onto public assistance rolls.


The Menominee experience. For thousands of years, the Menominee Nation occupied a vast territory - over 10 million acres of what is now Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. The loss of their land began in 1822 when Congress encouraged the Menominee to sell some of their land to the Iroquois so they could be resettled in northern Wisconsin. In 1832, the Menominee signed a second treaty with the U.S. government in which they received $285,000 for 3 million acres (about 8 cents an acre). A third treaty in 1836, forced the Menominee to sell another 4.2 million acres - including all of their lands in Upper Michigan - for $620,000. A final, and the most influential treaty, was signed at Wolf River in 1854, thereby establishing a reservation for the Menominee in northern Wisconsin. Menominee Map


The Menominee Reservation contained 235,000 acres, less than 3% of their ancestral homeland, which included 350 square miles of White Pine timber. In 1872, the Menominee began operating their own tribally-owned saw mill which competed with private non-Indian timber companies in the area. In 1908, the Menominee began a program of sustained yield harvest to ensure an income for future generations. The program was so successful that by 1955, the United States Treasury had accumulated over $10 million in a Menominee trust account from their timber operations.


In 1961, however, the federal government terminated the Menominee's tribal status and their reservation became a Wisconsin county. Because the saw mill could not provide enough tax base to pay for the services required of a county government, the Menominee went from being one of the most self-sufficient Indian Nations to having the lowest standard of living in Wisconsin. Shortly after termination, the Menominee were forced to sell part of their reservation as lakefront lots for vacation homes. Federal recognition was restored in 1973.


The Klamath Experience. At the time of white contact, the Klamath Tribe owned about 22 million acres of land, almost one-quarter of what was to become the State of Oregon. The Treaty of the Lakes, signed on October 14, 1864, led to the establishment of the Klamath Reservation on a small portion of their ancestral land. Klamath Reservation Map


Because most of the Klamath Reservation was covered with prime forest land that was rich in Ponderosa pine, much of the reservation was unsuitable for agriculture. Thus, the Klamaths developed their timber resources and by the 1950s, had built a sound economic base for the reservation and had provided a reliable source of income to individual tribal members. For many years, the Klamath Tribe ranked as one of the richest self-supporting Indian Tribes in the United States.


However, in August 1954, the U.S Congress passed the Klamath Termination Act that ended the trust relationship between the Klamath Tribe and the United States and abolished the Reservation. Since the tribe was no longer “federally recognized”, federal benefits for both the tribe as a whole and for individual members ceased and federal health and educational services were withdrawn. The State of Oregon became responsible for the tribe, despite the fact that it was generally unprepared and unwilling to assume federal services.


The Klamath people were given a choice of placing their share of the money derived forest land sales into a trust, or taking their share of land sales in cash. Those who placed their money in trust soon found that the legal fees allocated to the trustees often consumed much of their inheritance, while those who took the cash received no financial or investment counseling or consumer education. After termination and leaving the reservation, most Klamaths suffered extreme social disorganization, and as a result, many were incarcerated in state mental and penal institutions.


During termination, over 70 percent of the Klamath Reservation was purchased by the U.S. government. In 1958, approximately 15,000 acres of the Klamath Marsh, the heart of the former reservation, was purchased to establish a migratory bird refuge under the jurisdiction of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1961 and 1973, other large forested portions of the former Klamath Reservation was purchased and became part of the Winema National Forest. While Congress returned tribal status to the Klamath people in 1986, their land was not restored. The balance of the Klamath Reservation remains in private, Indian and non-Indian ownership either through allotment or sale of reservation lands during termination.


Termination was a dramatic failure in its attempt to assimilate the Indians into society and to end the federal government's role with various tribes. Between 1953 and 1964, Congress terminated federal recognition of a total of 109 tribes and bands as sovereign dependent nations. During this period, over 13,000 Indians (about three percent of the total Indian population) lost their tribal affiliation, approximately 2.5 million acres of trust land was removed from protected status and sold to non-Indians, and one in eight Indians in the six states left the reservations and moved to cities - most of whom joined the ranks of the urban poor in low-paying jobs. Thus, the federal government returned to the drawing board and created yet another Indian policy - self-determination.


Self-Determination, 1963 to 1989

In the early 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement continued to spread throughout the American South, a new model for reform gradually evolved in Congress. Eventually, the plight of American Indians worked its way into the Civil Rights agenda. In 1964, Congress created the Office of Economic Opportunity with a special "Indian Desk." In 1965, the newly-created Department of Housing and Urban Development helped many reservations build new housing. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson called for the creation of a new Indian policy "expressed in programs of self-help, self-development, and self-determination." Thereafter, he established the National Council of Indian Opportunity to review existing federal Indian programs. Furthermore, he supported the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA) which required states to obtain tribal consent before extending legal jurisdiction over Indian reservations, thus discouragingthe spread of termination, and extended most protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendments to tribal members in their dealings with tribal governments.


ICRA, however, had contradictory consequences for Indian people. While it extended civil rights protections to individual Indian people, it also required tribes to meet specific legal standards, which, in turn, forced tribal judicial systems to mirror mainstream American courts and procedures. In so doing, ICRA homogenized tribal courts and limited their sentencing powers.


From 1968 forward, Congress passed several pieces of legislation and the U.S. Supreme Court handed down several decisions that seemed to protect Indian rights and increase Indian involvement in their own political and economic affairs.

  • In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act committed the federal government to encouraging "maximum Indian participation in the Government and education of the Indian people." The legislation contained two provisions: Title I, the Indian Self-Determination Act, established procedures allowed Indian Nations to negotiate contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to administer their own education and social service programs, and provided direct grants to help tribes develop plans to assume responsibility for federal programs; and Title II, the Indian Education Assistance Act, attempted to increase parental input in Indian education by guaranteeing Indian parents' involvement on school boards.
  • In 1978, the U.S. v. Wheeler the Supreme Court conceded the existence of tribal sovereignty in regard to the Navajo Nation's criminal punishment of a tribal member, but "only at the sufferance of Congress and is subject to complete defeasance." American Indian tribes were sovereign, but such sovereignty was subject to Congressional whim. The Court held that the "Navajo Tribe in criminally punishing a tribal member for violating tribal law acted as independent sovereign rather than an arm of the federal Government."
  • In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)responded to growing revelations that Indian families were being broken up by the wholesale removal of Indian children from their families and tribal settings through adoption and foster homes placement with white families. ICWA grants child custody jurisdiction over Indian children living on reservations to the tribe and requires state courts to transfer such cases to tribal court upon the request of the tribe, parent, or Indian custodian.

These self-determination policies, however, did little to actually advance the cause of Indian sovereignty. Clearly the results of the three Twentieth Century policies - reorganization, compensation and termination, and self-determination - continued to reinforce the two competing theories of tribal sovereignty that had set a legal precedent via the Marshall Trilogy:

  • tribes have the inherent powers of sovereignty that predate the European "discovery" of America; and
  • tribes have only the attributes of sovereignty that Congress gives them.

Partially in response to such duality, and partially because many young American Indians were tired of dealing with the federal system that oppressed them, a distinct effort to make social, economic, and political gains as an exercise of Indian sovereignty arose in the late 1960s - the "Red Power" movement.

"Red Power"


Beginning in the late 1960s, many "young, urban, and relatively well-educated Indian leaders combined dark eye-glasses with traditional headbands, plains braids, and buckskin" as they reshaped the image of the American Indian from a "defeated victim" into "a symbol of exotic masculine strength." (Guillemin, 1989:162). "Red Power" became their motto and Indian empowerment became their goal.


These new leaders articulated a list of historical grievances and demanded mitigation for violated treaties, illegal appropriation and misuse of Indian land, neglect of basic social needs, and the political and cultural compromises of tribal leadership. The contemporary list of grievances was equally disturbing, as Indian activist Clyde Warrior told the President's National Commission on Rural Poverty in 1967:


"We are not free. We do not make choices. Our choices are made for us; we are the poor. For those of us who live on reservations these choices and decisions are made by federal administrators, bureaucrats, and their "yes men," euphemistically called tribal governments. Those of us who live in non-reservation areas have our lives controlled by local white power elites. We have many rulers. They are called social workers, "cops," school teachers, churches, etc....They call us into meetings to tell us what is good for us and how they've programmed us, or they come into our homes to instruct us and their manners are not always what one would call polite by Indian standards or perhaps by any standards. We are rarely accorded respect as fellow human beings. Our children come home from school to us with shame in their hearts and a sneer on their lips for their home and parents. We are the "poverty problem" and that is true; and perhaps it is also true that our lack of reasonable choices, our lack of freedoms, our poverty of spirit is not unconnected with our material poverty." (As quoted in Josephy, 1971:71-72.)

Additionally, activists criticized federal courts which generally refused to grant civil justice to Indian land claims; local and state courts as well as law enforcement officials which often treated American Indians as aliens; and the deplorable social and economic conditions faced by Indian across the nation - the infant mortality rate among Indians was the highest in the nation, and over half of all Indians could not read and write English.

What the newly-organized Indian activists sought in the 1960s was actual self-government, federal support for traditional tribal sovereignty, and improved living conditions. Because previous attempts to work with Washington policymakers had resulted in little progress, the new activists began to attack the entire trustee-ward relationship. One of the major conduits for the attack was the American Indian Movement (AIM), co-founded by Chippewa Indian organizer Dennis J. Banks. Begun in 1968 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, AIM initially sought to address local police brutality against non-whites. Banks and AIM supporters walked the streets, stopping police officers from harassing Indians and publicizing any incidents of police violence. Banks' message was one of desperation:


"Indians have a life expectancy of 44 years. On many reservations, there are no jobs. Unemployment on Pine Ridge is 87%. Indians have no hope. We live in rotten conditions, many in tar paper huts, without water or heat. We have little health care, and what we have is terrible. Our infant mortality rate is the highest. Our ancestors treated with the U.S. government. In return for peace, we were guaranteed our rights over small parts of the land our peoples had inhabited for generations, so that we could continue our way of life. Then the lands were stolen. Some for gold. Others for water or coal or uranium for the energy companies or for grazing land for white cattle ranchers. The government violated every treaty. Our way of life was stolen too. The missionaries came. Our religion was stolen. The Bureau of Indian Affairs came. Our way of governing ourselves, thousands of years old, was stolen. We are still a conquered people. Our children are taken away from us, stolen, sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away. They're punished for practicing their native religions, hit when they speak their native tongues...I just want my people to survive. No one listened when we spoke politely about injustice. Only when we raised our voices did people begin to listen."

And they did raise their voices. Beginning in 1969, AIM and other American Indian activists and organizations began to aggressively challenge the federal government and many of its Indian policies. In November 1969, the "Indians of All Tribes" occupation took place on Alcatraz island. Until June 1971, Indians remained on Alcatraz claiming that the island was more suitable for an Indian Reservation and should be used as an Indian educational and cultural center.

In November 1972, Indian activists traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Trail of Broken Treaties. They were armed with a 20-point proposal for revamping the BIA and establishing a government commission to review treaty violations. When informed that a planned meeting with BIA officials would not occur, over 400 remained at BIA headquarters. On November 2, guards on regular duty threatened the activists with forcible removal. The protesters evicted the guards and began a week-long siege of the building, during which time some government property was destroyed and government information stolen. Shortly afterwards, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) classified AIM as "an extremist organization" and added it to the list of "key extremist" organizations in the country.


In 1973, AIM activists gained even more public attention after its leaders were invited to the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota. Tensions were unusually high at Pine Ridge, the historical site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Violent animosity existed at Pine Ridge between those who supported the federal government and those who advocated traditional cultural, political, and spiritual lives. The tribal council, lead by President Richard Wilson, had enforced repressive federal/tribal rule on the reservation. Consequently, the traditionalists viewed Wilson and the tribal council as pro-government rather than pro-Indian.


To further complicate the picture, in the 1950s, uranium had been discovered on the reservation, not far south of the Black Hills city named for General George Armstrong Custer. In the late 1960s, interest in uranium rose with the creation of a domestic market for nuclear energy. Then, in the late 1960s, energy corporations began acquiring coal and oil mining rights to vast tracts of the western states, much of which was located on reservation lands. The BIA encouraged tribal councils to lease mining rights to the corporations and to share in the profits. In general, the Oglala tribal council, with BIA support, favored leasing. Many traditional Indians, however, felt that the long-term consequences of destroying their land would result in the destruction of their people.


Upon arrival at Pine Ridge, AIM leaders received a hostile reception from Wilson. Throughout and adjacent to the reservation, riots and fights erupted between the BIA-supported Oglala on the one side, and the traditional Oglala and their AIM supporters on the other side. On February 28, 1973, AIM staged the "Second Battle of Wounded Knee" vowing to fight, if necessary, to the death. The next day the FBI, U.S. Marshal Service, and BIA police surrounded the AIM compound at Pine Ridge.


On March 11, elders of the Oglala and AIM met and proclaimed the revival of the Independent Oglala Nation which proposed to discuss its treaty with the U.S. on equal terms, as equal nations. The Oglala cited the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 as its defense. The federal government cited the authority of the Congressional Act of 1871 that stated no Indian nation could be recognized as an independent nation capable of contracting with the U.S. government by treaty. It also attempted to portray AIM as a dangerous organization that did not represent the "good Indians" of the nation.


On May 9, after 71 days, AIM and the traditionals finally surrendered. Federal authorities then began to arrest, imprison, and eventually, try many local Indians and AIM activists who participated in the Wounded Knee takeover. Many Indians claimed that "Indian goon squads," local white police officers, and FBI agents continued to harass traditional Indians in the years after Wounded Knee, resulting in the execution and disappearance of over 300 Indian men and women (Mathiessen, 1992). Consequently, by 1975, tensions were still high at Pine Ridge.


Wilson' harassment of traditionals and AIM activists had intensified. He not only outlawed the Sun Dance, a sacred ritual practiced by traditionals, he also tried to persuade the Tribal Council to accept a cash settlement for the remaining Black Hills portion of the reservation. Consequently, several traditional families again turned to AIM for advice about the possibility of organizing Indian landowners to break away from the BIA and seek outside assistance to start their own self-supporting businesses. Tensions grew to an all-time high when on June 26, 1975, two FBI agents were shot and killed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It has since been claimed that


  • The FBI "raid" of June 26 was a diversion tactic to distract attention from Wilson's granting of mining rights to the U.S. government. Others take this accusation one step further, claiming that it was designed to invite fire from AIM and the traditionals to justify the use of a federal paramilitary force on the reservation that would destroy AIM and traditional power once and for all. (Mathiessen, 1992:192).

  • AIM activist Leonard Peltier was "illegally framed for the murders and was ordered to serve a life sentence in a federal prison." (Marable, 1984:158). At the time of this writing in mid-2001, Peltier had been in prison for a quarter of a century and every plea for parole had been denied.

With Peltier in prison, as well as Dennis Banks who was convicted for his role at Wounded Knee in 1973, the traditional Oglala at the Pine Ridge Reservation had no viable support. Four years later, however, the Nation was back in the news after a decision by the U.S. Court of Claims. The court found that no valid agreement had occurred in 1876 among the Sioux people to cede the Black Hills to the federal government. Not only had their land been taken illegally, it had been seized without compensation. In response, the federal government offered the Nation $17.5 million, the estimated value of the area in 1877. The traditional Indians and tribal councils of all seven Sioux nations refused the offer, demanding instead the return of their land which had never been for sale. In 1979, the government raised the amount to $122 million; in June 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that judgment. In April 1981, AIM established a camp in the Black Hills and reclaimed the land for the Indian people. The Oglala traditionalists then contested the decision and sought a temporary restraining order to prohibit the government from paying any part of the award. The request was denied. All the Sioux tibes have refused to take payment and the money remains in a federal escrow account where it continues to gain interest.

The militant activism of AIM and others was largely curtailed after this period. The Indian activism movement, however, was instrumental in propelling the US government into its fourth era of federal Indian policy-making - Self-Governance.


Self-Governance, 1989 to the Present

For Indian nations, the ultimate goal for federal policy at the end of the 20th Century was to gain greater sovereignty over tribal affairs. In the words of Douglas Endreson, a nationally-prominent American Indian lawyer in 1992:


The Indian future now depends not on the federal government, but on the choices that tribes make in the exercise of their sovereignty. Tribes are no longer on the defensive - they are on the offensive. (As quoted in Bordewich, 1996:336.)


The 1989 report of the Special Committee on Investigations of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs urged the federal government to recognize the tribes' "permanent right to exercise self-government" and "relinquish all its existing paternalistic powers." (U.S Senate, 1989.) To that end, in 1994, President Clinton pledged to honor tribal sovereignty:

"The United States Government has a unique legal relationship with Native American tribal governments as set forth in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, statutes, and court decisions. As executive departments and agencies undertake activities affecting Native American tribal rights or trust resources, such activities should be implemented in a knowledgeable, sensitive manner respectful of tribal sovereignty. Today, as part of an historic meeting, I am outlining principles that executive departments and agencies, including every component bureau and office, are to follow in their interactions with Native American tribal governments. The purpose of these principles is to clarify our responsibility to ensure that the Federal Government operates within a government-to-government relationship with federally recognized Native American tribes. I am strongly committed to building a more effective day-to-day working relationship reflecting respect for the rights of self- government due the sovereign tribal governments." (Executive Memorandum of April 29, 1994.)





A Summary of Twentieth Century Federal Indian Polices