The Termination Era

In 1945 Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, who had emphasized cultural pluralism for American Indians, was forced to resign by congressional opponents who sought a return to the policies of assimilation. The new approach was that of termination. The idea was to force individual Indians to assimilate into mainstream, English-speaking, Christian American society by getting rid of Indian reservations, by terminating all treaty obligations to Indian nations, and by terminating all government programs intended to aid Indians.  

In this approach, Indian cultures were considered to be irrelevant at best and anti-American at worst. With little understanding of the historical, cultural, and legal basis of reservations, the proponents of termination viewed reservations as a form of segregation which retarded the assimilation of individual Indians.

Termination was intended to dismantle the reservation system, to transfer the natural resource wealth of the reservations to private non-Indian corporations, and to place Indians at the mercy of local state and county governments. The Terminationists emphasized the need to get the federal government “out of the Indian business.”

Former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell wrote:

“In Washington’s infinite wisdom, it was decided that tribes should no longer be tribes, never mind that they had been tribes for thousands of years.”

The Nez Perce Tribe puts it this way:

“This era marked another abrupt change in what can only be described as a schizophrenic federal Indian policy.”

The inspiration for the termination argument stemmed in part from a sense of innate superiority by non-Indians and in part it involved money. It would be cheaper for the United States, which was now heavily committed to rebuilding the war-torn countries and economies of their former enemies, to do away with treaty rights, tribal governments, and support for Indian programs. Under termination reservation lands could be sold and would be subject to local property taxes, a concept strongly supported by local governments which had traditionally been anti-Indian.

Following World War II, the United States underwent a massive housing boom. This meant that there was an increased demand for natural resources, particularly timber. Many of the tribes which were initially selected for termination had valuable timber and mineral resources. With termination, these resources could be privatized-that is, transferred from the public domain to the ownership of large corporations-and then developed.

Termination was set against the backdrop of the Cold War in which the United States saw itself as being involved in a deadly struggle against Communism to maintain its way of life. In the anti-Communist hysteria of the time, many people viewed Indians as aliens and viewed tribal ownership of land as a form of Communism and therefore un-American. To be Indian with a distinct history and culture was viewed as anti-American.

Another aspect of termination was a political philosophy of states’ rights: often used as a shorthand designation giving tacit approval to racial discrimination. Returning to the anti-Indian racism of the nineteenth century, Indians would have little support from local governments.

The cry used by those who wished to return to assimilation and to terminate the relationship between the tribes and the federal government was “Free the Indian.” In order to free Indians from federal control, it was first necessary to destroy the tribal governments.

While the mood of the post-war Congresses was clearly in favor of assimilation and termination, the first strong step toward assimilation as the official policy of the United States came in 1952 with   House Joint Resolution 698. This resolution called for an examination into the conduct of Indian affairs and a list of tribes which were sufficiently prepared for termination. Tribes subject to termination were supposed to have attained a significant degree of acculturation, to be economically self-supporting, and to be willing to accept the termination of government services. In response to the resolution, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) developed an extensive questionnaire for BIA officials to use in evaluating each tribe. The resulting report reflected the judgment of reservation superintendents and BIA staff.

The following year, House Concurrent Resolution 108 called for the formal termination of Indian tribes. The writers of the resolution apparently were unaware that Indians are citizens (Congress had granted all Indians full citizenship 1924 and again in 1940) and that they were not “wards of the state”. As usual, Indians were not consulted. The Resolution specifically expressed the intent of Congress as supporting unilateral withdrawal from its treaty obligations to Native Americans as soon as possible.

Members of Congress were particularly interested in opening up Indian lands for sale and taxation, particularly if those lands contained valuable natural resources such as timber. The Klamath and the Menominee, whose reservations included valuable timberlands, were specifically singled out for early termination.

In response to this resolution, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) held an emergency meeting in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to block the legislation. According to NCAI President Joe Garry (Coeur d’Alene):

“Most of the pending legislation, if passed, would result in the end of our last holdings on this continent and destroy our dignity and distinction as the first inhabitants of this rich land.”

Apache tribal leader Clarence Wesley told the NCAI delegates:

“Either the United States government will recognize its treaty and statute obligations to the Indians . . . or we will continue down the bitter road toward complete destruction.”

Between 1945 and 1960 Congress terminated more than one hundred tribes and small bands. This action left these groups with the same legal status as the unrecognized tribes. Through the termination process, about 11,500 Indians lost their legal status as Indians, and nearly 1.4 million acres of land lost its status as trust land. None of the tribes which were terminated improved economically: in most cases the impact of termination was to increase poverty. On the other hand, many non-Indians became wealthy through this process and many corporations gained a great deal of wealth.

Former Commissioner of Indian Affairs Philleo Nash would later write:

“The termination era may appear as a unique event, a failed experiment that was soon corrected. But termination was actually an expression of the national will that the ultimate goal of government policy toward Indians was ‘assimilation.'”

In 1970, President Richard Nixon asked Congress to pass a resolution repudiating termination. He told Congress:

“Because termination is morally and legally unacceptable, because it produces bad practical results, and because the mere threat of termination tends to discourage greater self-sufficiency among Indian groups, I am asking the Congress to pass a new Concurrent Resolution which would expressly renounce, repudiate and repeal the termination policy as expressed in House Concurrent Resolution 108 of the 83rd Congress.”

Since the end of termination, 78 of the 113 terminated tribes have been recognized again by the United States government and 35 now have casinos; 24 of these tribes are now considered extinct; 10 have state recognition but not federal recognition; and 31 are landless.

Denying Indian Nations Legal Representation

With the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934, the United States government sought to bring economic development to Indian reservations by making them into a kind of corporation. Under the IRA, tribes could now enter into contracts and, more importantly, they could hire their own attorneys. Following World War II, government policies regarding Indian tribes changed. In order to pay for the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, the United States turned to the Indian reservations, the poorest sector of the country. If the United States could just get out of the “Indian business,” stop worrying about upholding any treaty obligations, and get the Indians to assimilate into American society just like immigrants, then this would free up money which could be spent overseas. Thus the United States began the process of dismantling the Indian tribes.  

In 1950, Dillon S. Meyer was appointed as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He had previously been in charge of the Japanese-American Relocation Camps during World War II. He ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a dictatorship with the goal of destroying Indian cultures and dismantling Indian reservations so that their resources could be developed by private, non-Indian, corporations. He viewed the existence of Indian cultures as “un-American” and a force that weakened the fabric of American society. Indians, according to Meyer, were helpless and unable to elevate themselves into the non-Indian world of mainstream America. From an Indian viewpoint, he was one of the worst, and perhaps the worst, Commissioner of Indian Affairs ever appointed.

While federal Indian policies during the Meyer regime reflected the larger Cold War and the strong anti-Communist sentiments of the time, Blackfoot tribal chairman George Pambrum would charge:

“The Indian Bureau is now using methods of Communist dictatorship against our people. … Stalin could learn a lot about how to run a dictatorship by watching the Indian Bureau.”

One of the major conflicts between Meyer and the Indian tribes stemmed from their desire to obtain legal counsel. One of his first acts was to issue new rules which required that all attorneys who contracted with the tribes had to have his personal approval. In response to the proposed rules, the Association on American Indian Affairs (1951: 1) editorialized:

“The proposed rules, by interfering with free choice of counsel, collide head-on with the due process guarantee of the Federal Constitution.”

In South Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux attempted to hire their own attorney, to be paid out of tribal funds, to help in the negotiations regarding lands taken in the Pick-Sloan dam projects. The tribe wanted legal counsel which was totally independent from the politics of the Department of the Interior. However, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon Meyer rejected their choice of an attorney and allowed only a one-year contract.

The attorney selected by the tribe, James Curry, was an outspoken critic of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was one of a number of Indian claims lawyers against whom Meyer had a personal vendetta. The tribe protested Meyer’s decision to the Department of Interior, but the Department of the Interior did nothing as Meyer continued to publicly attack Curry.

In 1951, Dillon Meyer outlined his new Indian policy at a speech before the National Council of Churches. He announced that the private sector or state governments could better serve the Indian people and the time had come to weaken or dissolve the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government. He asked that religious groups help Indians to assimilate into American society.

Following his “new” policy, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs notified all tribes that money for hiring private attorneys to represent tribal claims would no longer be available. The Commissioner explained that public money was being wasted on private attorneys when government attorneys could perform the same tasks. In other words, when Indians needed to sue the government, then they would have to use government attorneys, attorneys whose primary responsibility was defending the government against such suits. It was evident that Meyer wanted to take Indian litigation hostage and prevent Indians from having access to the court system.

In Nevada, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs denied the Pyramid Lake Paiute the right to hire their own attorney in settling a claim for disputed land on their reservation. Paiute tribal chairman Avery Winnemucca and a three-member delegation traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand a hearing with the Secretary of the Interior. They failed to see the Secretary and to gain support for their cause.

In 1951, the Standing Rock Sioux sent a delegation to Washington to obtain a hearing about their choice in an attorney to represent their interests. For 26 days the delegation camped out in the office of the Secretary of the Interior, lobbied in Congress, and gave interviews to the news media to present their case. Finally, the Secretary of the Interior overruled the Meyer’s decision about the tribe’s contract with the attorney of their choice. This was seen as a victory not only for the Standing Rock Sioux, but for all Indians. It appeared that Indian tribes would have the right to select their own attorneys and to make contracts on their own terms. However, Dillon Meyer managed to circumvent the decision of the Secretary of the Interior by refusing to allow the tribe to spend more than $300 per year for the attorney’s services. It should be pointed out that the money which was used for tribal attorneys was not from federal funds, but from tribal funds: money which they had obtained from leases and other tribal enterprises.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1952 abandoned the Indian reorganization program started in 1934 and set out with enthusiasm to take the government out of the Indian business. The BIA intended to destroy bilateral United States-Indian treaties and to end the government’s commitment to its trusteeship obligations. With no legislative authority, Dillon Meyer made an offer to all Indian tribes to end their federal relationships. In the annual report of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Meyer wrote:

“If any Indian tribe is convinced that the Bureau of Indians Affairs is a handicap to its advancement, I am willing to recommend to the Secretary of Interior that we cooperate in securing legislative authority to terminate the Department’s trusteeship responsibility to that tribe.”

Like many of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Commissioners of Indian Affairs, Meyer had little understanding of the needs and desires of Indian people or any concern over their culture and well-being.

In 1952, federal representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs met with the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux to seek an agreement over lands taken from them under the Pick-Sloan dam projects on the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux asked that they be allowed to spend $500 to have their attorney attend the conference with them. Dillon Meyer refused the request, calling it a “highjacking game.” The Secretary of the Interior, however, overruled Meyer’s decision.

Dillon Meyer’s lack of concern for the legal rights of Indians can be seen again in 1952 when he has a bill introduced to Congress which would authorize BIA law enforcement officers to carry arms, to make arrests, and to engage in searches and seizures for alleged violations of BIA regulations, both on and off the reservation. The proposed bill makes it clear that insofar as Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rights were concerned, Indians had only a tenuous claim to these constitutional protections. The bill failed to pass.

The BIA also petitioned Congress for blanket authority to terminate trusteeship of land, to veto any tribal expenditures, and to remove tax-exempt status from Indian Country. The BIA also asked that the BIA be exempt from any review or correction in the courts. In other words, Dillon Meyer wanted his friends in Congress to put his agency above the law.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs is a political appointment and with a new President in 1953, Glenn Emmons was appointed to the position. Emmons, who was from New Mexico, was a staunch supporter of Indian termination. His appointment was supported by the Navajo tribal council. While the conflict of legal representation calmed down somewhat under Emmons, the push by the federal government to get rid of any federal obligations toward Indian nations continued. The BIA continued to obstruct tribal contracts for legal services.


The Termination of the Menominee

Following World War II, the United States wanted to get out of the Indian business: that is, to sever all relationships with Indian tribes. In the spirit of assimilation and with the intent of reducing government’s role in Indian affairs, Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act in 1946 as a vehicle to extinguish all pending Indian claims and thus end the federal government’s obligation to provide support for the tribes. In other words, it would act as a kind of severance package which would help Indians to abandon their collective traditions and enter into American society as individuals.

In 1951, the Menominee were awarded $8.5 million to settle historic grievances regarding the mismanagement of their timber resources. Being awarded the money, however, does not mean receiving the money. Before the Menominee can receive this money, it must first be appropriated by Congress.  

Two years later, without consulting any Indians, House Concurrent Resolution 108 called for the termination of Indian tribes. The Resolution called for the unilateral withdrawal from treaty obligations to Indian nations as soon as possible. Utah Senator Watkins was one of the leaders of Indian termination in Congress. He felt that the 1924 citizenship act had ended all special federal relationships with Indian tribes.

The Resolution also called for the rapid termination of five large tribes-Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Pottowatomie, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa. The United States, and the west in particular, was in the midst of an economic boom and non-Indian economic interests wanted to open up Indian reservations for corporate economic development. Two of the reservations singled out for termination-the Klamath and the Menominee-just happened to have timber resources which corporate interests desired.

In the spirit of termination, Utah Senator Arthur V. Watkins placed an amendment on a bill regarding the distribution of money awarded to the Menominee that called for the tribe to be terminated before the money could be distributed. While the Senator did not feel that the consent of the Menominee was required for their termination, he did agree to speak to the Menominee General Council.

In addressing the Menominee General Council, Senator Watkins informed them that Congress had already decided to terminate them and that they would not receive their money until after termination. The General Council then voted 169 to 5 in favor of the principle of termination. Many of the Menonimee chose to be absent from the meeting as a way of expressing their opposition to termination.

In 1954, the Menominee were officially terminated by the federal government. Prior to termination, the Menominee had timber which had been valued at $36 million in 1936.  Each tribal members was to be paid $1,500 of tribal money and the tribe was required to pay for the administrative costs of termination. In voting for termination, many tribal members thought that they were voting on the distribution of the money which they had been awarded. The impact of termination was a fast slide into poverty.

Menominee Enterprises, Inc. (MEI) was created to oversee Menominee resources and tribal assets. All tribal members became MEI shareholders, but they had little control over the organization. The board of directors was composed of both Menominee and non-Menominee with a majority of the board being non-Menominee. The Indians were told that this is to show the state that MEI has stable management.

By 1961, MEI was administering all tribal assets, including land, forest, and the sawmill. Each of the 3,270 tribal members received a receipt for 100 shares of common stock in MEI. The actual shares, however, were issued to the corporation’s Voting Trust, which was empowered to elect the MEI Board of Directors.

The First Wisconsin Trust Co. of Milwaukee was assigned guardian powers to act as a trustee for all tribal minors and incompetents. Tribal members could be determined to be incompetent by the Secretary of the Interior without any judicial hearings and legal process.

By 1963 it was evident to many, if not most, of the Menominee that termination had not benefitted them, and 800 Menominee adults-a majority of the tribe’s adults-signed a petition asking the federal government to end the termination of the tribe. The federal government ignored the petition.

In 1969, the Menominee Indian Study Report found that the state had gained ownership of more than a million dollars of Menominee income bonds as needy families were required to assign their bonds to the state in order to receive welfare.

DRUMS – Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders-was organized by Ada Deer in 1969 to seek the full repeal of termination and the restoration of federal recognition and the reservation.  The first two chapters of DRUMS were organized in Chicago and Milwaukee, the two largest centers of Menominee population outside of Menominee County.

With regard to DRUMS in Menominee County, Chicago chapter president Jim White reported:

“We figured that MEI would threaten and harass people in Menominee County with loss of jobs if they started a local Chapter, so we knew it would be difficult to organize up there.”

At the first DRUMS meeting in the county, MEI hired 25 millhands to break up the gathering. In spite of death threats, the DRUMS chapter was organized and Laurel Otradovecs is elected president.

In 1971, DRUMS conducted a march to Madison to petition the Governor to end the welfare program that was taking tribal assets from the Menominee. In Madison, the Governor was presented with a list of eight requests. As a result of the march, the Governor toured Menominee County. In his meeting with the Menominee, the Governor realized that the Menominee want restoration of their tribal status.

Congress repealed the Menominee termination in 1973 and restored the tribe to federal status. The return to federal status did not erase the loss of tribal resources and the poverty that termination created. In 1970, President Richard Nixon spoke to Congress about termination:

“Because termination is morally and legally unacceptable, because it produces bad practical results, and because the mere threat of termination tends to discourage greater self-sufficiency among Indian groups, I am asking the Congress to pass a new Concurrent Resolution which would expressly  renounce, repudiate and repeal the termination policy as expressed in House Concurrent Resolution 108 of the 83rd Congress.”

In the years that follow, many of the tribes which were terminated during this era have their federal recognition restored.  

American Indian Relocation

( – promoted by navajo)

Following World War II, many American politicians wanted to end the federal relationship with Indian nations. They cited the cost of maintaining treaty obligations at a time when the United States was committed to rebuild the war-torn economies of Germany and Japan. The money which had been going to Indian reservations would be better spent, they felt, in Germany and Japan.

Furthermore, they argued, Indians needed to be assimilated into mainstream American society. After all, they often argued, the Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles, and many others had successfully assimilated when they came to this country and therefore Indians should be able to do the same. To make their arguments sound more reasonable they talked about “freeing” Indians from the reservations. They didn’t point out that once Indians were “freed” from their reservations, then the natural resources on these reservations would be “free” to be developed by non-Indian corporations.  

The philosophical milieu which nourished relocation fever among non-Indians stemmed from two twentieth century world views. The first was that of anti-communism. In the minds of many people Indian reservations, which were communally held lands, were communistic and therefore inherently evil and, more importantly, un-American. Secondly, many western politicians, responding to the expressed desires of corporate interests, saw Indian lands as impediments to economic development. Since Indians could not develop these lands, they reasoned, they should be opened up for development to those who could develop them. Once the Indians were off the reservations, then non-Indians could once again economically benefit from lands which had once belonged to the Indians.

As a part of this program of “assimilation” and “freeing the Indians,” the Bureau of Indian Affairs embarked on a program known as “relocation.” The logic behind the program was rather simplistic: (1) there were jobs in the cities, (2) Indians were on reservations, (3) move Indians to the cities. Thus the “Indian problem” would be solved.

In 1951, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) opened four urban field relocation offices-Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Chicago-and began to pressure Indians to move to the cities. Migration always involves two basic factors: (1) the push factors which make people want to leave their homes, and (2) the pull factors which are the dreams of better things somewhere else.

To enhance the push factors, they told the Indians that all services on the reservation-schools, medical facilities, etc.-were going to be terminated and there would be nothing on the reservations to help them. The BIA then worked with the Indians to sell their land to non-Indians.

Unemployment is a major push factor for migration. To increase unemployment on the reservation, the BIA contracted most services to non-Indian companies and thus drove up unemployment.

To enhance the pull factors, the BIA painted glowing pictures of city life and all of the amenities that came with it: high-paying jobs, nice homes, modern household appliances, good schools, etc.

Once convinced (coerced), Indians were given one-way bus tickets to the city. When they arrived in the city, Indians found no help, no training, no housing, and no good-paying jobs. The BIA hadn’t bothered to find out if there were actually jobs in the cities and Indians were frequently sent to areas of high unemployment.

The BIA also ignored the skills that Indians would need to obtain urban jobs. There was no job training, no attempt to match Indians to specific jobs before they left the reservation. While the BIA sometimes touted this as a “jobs” program, it is clear they had no clear understanding of the employment market. While the BIA gave lip service to the idea that relocation was about jobs, in reality, the practice of relocation had little to do with jobs. It was based on the philosophy that reservations were bad and that Indians must be removed from them.

While Indians were often under the impression that there would be some services in the city to help them with finding work and housing, the BIA  did not actually provide any services for the relocated Indians. From the BIA perspective, once the Indians were off the reservation they were no longer a BIA concern. It was simply assumed that the free market would take care of the new arrivals.

Beyond bus or train fare to the city, the relocation program provided limited subsistence. Initially, this subsistence program was for two weeks and was later extended to three weeks. While the BIA wanted to make sure that the relocated Indians had money for food and bus fare, they did not want them to have money for cigarettes, phone calls, newspapers, or recreation.

The BIA envisioned relocation as a way of emptying the reservations and BIA officials were often dismayed as Indian people began to return home. The BIA had assumed that Indians, once in the city, would remain there. Many Indians, on the other hand, coming from cultures in which nomadism is valued, simply saw the cities as temporary residences. To counter this trend, the BIA tried to send Indians to cities as far from their reservations as possible.

In 1958 the General Accountability Office evaluated the relocation program and concludes that: (1) the areas selected for relocation did not offer adequate opportunities for Indians, (2) Indians were not adequately prepared for relocation, and (3) no standards for selecting relocatees had been established by the BIA.

During the relocation era from 1952 to 1972, more than 100,000 Indians were relocated to the cities. Many of the relocated Indians returned to their reservations or moved back and forth between reservations and urban communities. Many Indians found urban life intolerable and returned permanently to their home reservation.

Relocation also failed to take into account the cultural importance of the reservation. In the minds of the non-Indian planners, Indian religion and Indian spirituality did not exist. Therefore, they failed to understand the spiritual and religious ties which tribal members have with their reservations. They failed to understand that Native American spirituality is not based on spaces and monuments created by human beings, but instead is focused on natural elements found outside of the cities.

The BIA wanted to use relocation as a means of destroying tribal identity. In a number of cities, relocation created new Indian ghettos filled with Indians from many dissimilar tribes. With this melting pot from many different tribes, many began to identify ethnically as “Indian” rather than as their tribal affiliation. The urbanization of Indians began to create a sense of pan-Indian identity leading to the creation of urban Indian centers and organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM).