Will Trump Terminate Tribal Reservations?

In the spring of 1954, the United States Congress was deliberating the termination of the western Oregon Tribes. Oregon Indian Agent E. Morgan Pryse sent numerous reports to the Secretary of the Interior, stating that the tribes, Grand Ronde, and Siletz, had not responded in approval to the termination bill (PL588) but “approved of termination in principle.” In fact, the tribe was mainly concerned that if they were terminated that they would not be able to collect the awards from pending Indian Claims cases and so they recommended that termination not proceed until the results of the cases are concluded. Pryse wrote to the Secretary of the Interior that termination hearings should begin and that the Oregon tribes would not be able to attend and testify because they were too busy. Thereafter, on the strength of Pryse’s reports, Congress deliberated termination for a short time, and passed Public Law 588, The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, terminating some 57 tribes of western Oregon. Subsequently, Klamath Reservation was terminated under Public Law 587.

Many years later, elders at Grand Ronde stated that the tribes had never heard that the termination bill had a hearing in Congress, and that if they had heard, they would have sent someone to testify. At the Grand Ronde tribe, most people did not know what had happened. Letters were sent to the Indian program asking if they had kept their hunting and fishing rights, and whether they could enroll in a tribe. After the termination bill passed, the Business Council at Grand Ronde had to create a termination roll of members, settle their accounts with the federal government, and sell the remaining trust lands. The termination bill had set in motion a process to sell off all trust land as community property, unless the Indian people could afford to buy it. Even though many families had lived on their allotments for over 50 years, many people could not afford to buy their land as they had never fully integrated into American society. In 1956 when the final termination bill was passed by Congress all members of the tribe receive $35 as their share in the remaining trust lands and tribal accounts.

Looking further back into the history of the Grand Ronde Tribe, to 1856, some 29-35 tribes were removed to the reservation from throughout western Oregon. In one hundred years, the reservation lands were reduced and sold so that only 597 acres remained in 1950. With termination in 1956, the federal government succeeded in fully colonizing the tribe, completely dissociating them from their lands and removing their rights to hunt, fish, and cancelling treaties that promised a permanent reservation forever. Despite the President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower declaring that the tribes must agree, termination occurred without tribal agreement.

Agreement may not have to happen, as the United States Government claims the plenary power to abrogate any agreement with foreign countries at any time. This power has yet to be overtly used against Tribes, tribal treaties or reservations, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

During this same time period, the Dalles Dam was built on the Columbia River, and was completed in 1958, and once active, completely inundated the Celilo fishery. The dam was built under stiff opposition from the tribes, in order to produce hydro-electric power to aid to growth of the west. A daisy chain of dams were built from the 1930s into the 1970s on the Columbia, and their hydro-power was added to the west coast power grid. States like California helped create the need for power, as its population was growing exponentially, and this growth was producing one of the largest economic regions in the world, in fact ranked as high as 7th. The power production included damming the Klamath River and within two years of terminating the tribes on the Klamath Tribe (1961), the Shasta dams were completed and in operation.

The termination of Tribal reservations, from the 1950s to the 1960s, caused the release of millions of acres into the public domain. Logging, mineral and power companies benefited by having new resources to exploit. But in the following decades environmental groups and tribes noted that the exploitation of many of the resources was causing the environmental health of the region to decline. Salmon fish populations dropped as dams caused impediments to their journey back to their spawning beds. Clear-cut logging caused declines in diversity of life in the west when replanting introduced monospecies forests. The loss of vast forests of old growth trees caused many animal species to collapse, and once forests were no long holding together top soils, water runoff caused floods and landslides. In the past 60 years, there has been created an extensive record of attempts to solve numerous environmental problems caused in large part by the over-exploitation of our natural resources.

When the United States made termination the national policy in 1952, they began the latest phase of colonization of Indian country. Colonization began in the 18th century with warfare, treaties, and removal to reservations by the United States government. The Tribes had to be removed to make room and opportunities for Americans to take the land and make better use of it. The tribes in Oregon collectively sold their lands for a penny an acre. Over the cause of the next 100 years, the United States sandpapered away at the landholdings of most tribes. The Dawes Act (1887) sold half the landholding of most tribes. Termination efforts that began in the 1940s, was the final attempt to get all tribal lands away from the tribes. Those tribes who were small and had desirable resources were targeted first and were terminated first.

It is entirely possible that the US Congress used termination as a way to get access to tribal resources while they sold the idea of “Freeing Indians” from government oppression to sell the idea to the public. This exact argument is captured in a letter that addresses Klamath Termination between businessmen in Klamath County and Oregon Senators Morse and Neuberger previous to terminating the tribe. In the letter ( a copy in possession of the author) the author suggests that once Klamath is terminated, that logging would be revived, and the water resources would be freed up for further development of the region.

Termination was national policy for several decades in the United States. As such all tribes were slated to be terminated and many had bills drawn up and waiting in committee for Congressional approval. Many Tribes understood very early what termination would do to their rights and sovereignty. many of these tribes were fairly resource rich and could afford to attend national Indian coalition meetings to counter termination bills aimed at them. The National Congress of American Indians became the largest Indian advocacy group in the United States in the 1950s, largely because of termination legislation. Tribes that joined the organization found help, strength in numbers, to combat termination bills aimed at them. Many tribes survived attempts to terminate them because they got active early and began working int he coalition to halt their bills.

It is now 2017, and a new administration is in power in Washington, D.C. The President, Trump, stated in a Congressional hearing in the 1990s that Indians do not deserve the right to have casinos because they do not look like Indians. Congressional republicans have worked to reduce the government and there are now rumbling of selling off, privatizing federal lands. On January 24th , 2017, Trump shut down communications and access to public resources held by the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental laws are tools that help give tribes the right to protect natural and cultural resources throughout the United States. As well, Trump has signed Executive Orders restarted the Keystone XL and DAPL pipelines, originally halted by President Obama in 2016, both highly contentious projects that have the potential to heavily pollute the environment, especially tribal lands.

In the past 160 years, there have been many attacks on tribal resources and rights. Tribal removals of the 19th century opened lands and resources for an expansionist America. The Dawes Act of 1887 reduced tribal reservation holdings by nearly half, making millions of new lands open to American settlement. The termination policy of the 1950s eliminated 109 tribes, negated treaty rights, turned tens of thousands of acres over to the public domain, and caused many tribal people to become the least privileged people in America. The Fishing Wars of the 1970s and ’80s, and the string of legal cases about native fishing rights, were arguably caused in large part by the termination of tribes in the 1950s, leading to misconceptions of the effect of termination on Tribal fishing rights. Many of these attacks are lead by people who simply want the rights and resources held by the tribes, and work to use their political power to get them.

Historically, in an almost cyclical pattern, whenever tribes have been in the path of American development, tribes are attacked and removed, their rights stricken, their sovereignty reduced, and their lands taken. The colonization of Indian lands has been a slow process, and now with a new president seeking to reduce or end federal agencies, tribal reservations with their vast resources, will come open for discussion and may become a target for privatization.

Tribal trust reservation lands are held in-trust by the federal government, meaning tribes do not hold the ultimate titles. These lands may become subject to privatization without tribal consent. Tribes in the United States may very well be in the next phase of colonization, where the new regime will seek to liquidate tribal land holdings and terminate Tribal rights to exist.

David G. Lewis, PhD

Researcher and Scholar of the history of Tribal Termination in the United States

For consultation email:dgl.coyotez@gmail.com

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