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1938 Alice Lee Jamison, representative of the American Indian Federation library of congress photo
Our last two articles about the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act provided excerpts of the 1940 testimony of Alice Lee Jemison (Jamison), a member of the Seneca Tribe located in New York. She was the president of the Sixth District of the American Indian Federation and the Washington representative of the national president of the organization, Joseph Bruner, a full-blood Creek Indian at Sapulpa, Okla.
This article provides the closing summary of her testimony in support for S.2103, a bill to exempt certain Indians from the Indian Reorganization / Howard Wheeler Act. Her words are powerful and require no additional commentary, however, we would like to ask you to consider this question:
In a country founded upon the principle that all men are created equal, shouldn’t the notion of any kind of federal dependent, incompetent, or ward status for individual Indians, simply because they are Indians, be repugnant to every American?
House of Representatives, Committee on Indian Affairs, Washington, DC
S.2103 Howard Wheeler Act – Exempt Certain Indians
Excerpt from the June 1940 testimony of Mrs. Alice Lee Jemison:
My reasons for being opposed to the so-called Wheeler-Howard Act and in favor of the bill S. 2103, which will exclude certain Indians from it, are as follows:
- It is contrary to the 150-year-old policy of the Federal Government because it seeks to keep or take back into a tribal status all the lands of the Indians and thus place it in a status where the Supreme Court cannot take cognizance of what is done to it or with it, by either Congress or the Indian Bureau. As soon as title to property vests in an individual (the courts have held that such title does vest when the Indian has selected or accepted or even just filed for allotment, whether or not a patent-in-fee is issued), the courts can then take cognizance of that land under the usual laws which apply to any other property. It certainly cannot be considered a step forward to keep these lands in a tribal status and thus under the dictatorial rules of the Congress, and through it the Indian Bureau, with no right of appeal to the courts for relief from any legislation affecting that property. Such a step is distinctly a step backward.
- All Indians who voted to accept the so-called Wheeler-Howard Act unwittingly changed their legal status from that of “involuntary wardship” to that of “voluntary wardship.” No one told the Indians this before they voted. Thus they accepted the bill through misconceptions. No one explained to them that when they came to Congress to ask that this act be repealed or changed that they would be told, “Well, you voted for this and by that vote you agreed that the Secretary of the Interior should retain control over your affairs forever.” I dare say the majority of them voted upon accepting the act without ever seeing the act itself and with only the glowing promises of the Bureau that they could borrow money to build homes, go into business, buy land and educate their children, to guide them in a momentous decision which affects their lives and property in that it changed their legal status.
- There is no self-government in the act, all final power and authority remains in the Secretary of the Interior, which is exactly where it always has rested heretofore. The act provides increased power for the Secretary of the Interior in the mandatory provisions for control of grazing and timber operation.
- It does not provide land for landless Indians, as was promised. It merely provides land for the “use” of the Indians, as long as they do not offend the Bureau, and this in itself increases the absolute and autocratic control which the Bureau exercises over these helpless wards.
- The act legalizes communism on Indian reservations, in that it provides only one form of living for the Indians, communal living, with all property, both real and personal, held in common, and that it is being administered to destroy the rights of individual enterprise, private property, inheritance, free speech, free press, free assembly, and trial by jury, and that Indians are being encouraged to defy State laws.
- The act has caused more hatred, strife, and turmoil among the Indians themselves than anything which has heretofore happened to them. The act itself and the campaigns conducted among the Indians to secure approval of them has aroused the dying embers of race hatred among the older Indians; has served to emphasize to all Indians that they are Indians, separate and apart from other Americans, instead of teaching them that they are Americans, the same as all other races and nationalities which live in the United States; has widened and increased the gulf between full-bloods and part-bloods; has disturbed the peaceful relations of tribes who occupy reservations jointly; has broken up life-long friendships, caused divorces between husbands and wives, and sot children against parents and vice versa.
In conclusion I want to say this:
In 1934 Congress exercised its autocratic, dictatorial powers over these helpless ward Indians by enacting the so-called Wheeler-Howard Act, over the protests of many Indians, and by that action compelled these wards to vote upon this proposition without making adequate provision to protect the Indians from the Bureau in the elections or to insure that the Indians fully understood exactly what they were doing when they cast a ballot for or against the act.
On the contrary, Congress provided the Bureau with ample funds and facilities to campaign for the act, and all opposition campaigns had to be carried on at the expense of individual Indians, most of whom were verging on starvation. Much misery among the Indians has come from this act. Indians have been brutally beaten, jailed, fined, denied work, or removed from their work because of opposition to this act.
Although I have affidavits from only one reservation, it has been reliably reported to me from three others that employees openly stated, or else intimated, that all Indians who refused to come under the program or objected to it could just starve to death.
Now, it does not seem to me that the question before Congress is whether or not to subject the Indians to another siege of campaigns and coercions in an election about this act. It seems to me that the question is whether or not Congress, as the duly constituted guardian of the Indians, wishes to keep such a program as this in force over the Indians by allowing this act to remain on the statute books.
Before the committee takes final action on this bill, I respectfully ask that some examination be made of the hearings held by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs over a 4-year period. Page proofs of all this testimony are now being rapidly completed. I thank the committee for the time which has been granted me to present this argument in favor of the bill, S. 2103.