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For as many Native American advocates that have existed throughout the history of our country, why in 2020 are individual Indians and their tribal governments still considered to be dependent wards of the federal government?
Perhaps the answer begins in testimony given to Congress by Alice Lee Jemison in 1940.
Who was Alice Lee Jemison?
Even back in the 1930’s and 1940’s those who carried powerful messages criticizing the federal government were marginalized and diminished, and this standard operating procedure seems also to have included individual Indians who saw and understood the truth of what was happening to Native Americans.
In the case of Alice Lee Jemison, she was considered by some to be an unpleasant remnant of the United States Native American assimilation policies. For the most part, there is little to be found about her on the internet, perhaps because it is censored so as to “erase” unpopular views from the historic record. However Wikipedia says the following of her:
Alice Mae Lee Jemison (1901–1964) was a Seneca political activist and journalist. She was a major critic of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the New Deal policies of its commissioner John Collier. She was supported by the Seneca Tribal Council, and also lobbied in support of California, Cherokee, and Sioux Indians during her career. Her work was condemned by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and she was described harshly in press conferences and before Congressional committees. For a time she was put under FBI surveillance.
We found Mrs. Jemison in congressional hearing documents in 1939 and 1940, first for the full repeal of the Indian Reorganization Act, and when that proved unsuccessful, then to exempt certain Indian Tribes from it. Even that effort was unsuccessful despite the fact that some tribes did in fact wish to be exempted, but according to Mrs. Jemison’s testimony, were afraid to speak out about it.
At these hearings, Ms. Jemison spoke for the American Indian Federation, however many other individual Indians also testified. We point her testimony out because it explains the notion of Indian “wards”.
WHEELER-HOWARD ACT, EXEMPT CERTAIN INDIANS
FRIDAY, JUNE 14, 1940
House of Representatives, Committee on Indian Affairs, Washington, D. C.
My name is Alice Lee Jemison and I reside at 638 C Street, NW., Washington, D. O. I am a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians of New York State and my home is near Irving, N. Y., on the Catteraugus Indian Reservation. I am president of the Sixth District of the American Indian Federation and the Washington representative of the national president of this organization, Joseph Bruner, full-blood Creek Indian at Sapulpa, Okla. …..
The purpose of this Indian Federation is to secure for all Indians the rights, privileges, immunities and responsibilities of free-born American citizens. Everything which we do or say, whether in support of or in opposition to anything or anyone, is presented solely from that viewpoint. Our work has been and necessarily must continue to be with the Congress of the United States.
To fully understand the reason for this and to fully appreciate the utter helplessness of the Indians to protect themselves from the subversive program of the present Indian Bureau regime and the dangers to American security in that program, it is necessary to have a complete understanding of the legal status of the Indian wards of the United States Government. While I appreciate that undoubtedly all the members of this committee are familiar with the facts about the legal status of the Indians, I would like this record to be as clear and comprehensible as possible, so if it is agreeable to the committee, I will make a brief statement on this subject.
To begin with, restricted Indians are the sole and absolute wards of Congress. Briefly stated, jurisdiction over the Indians is conferred upon Congress by the Constitution of the United States In section 8, article I. All authority in Indian affairs arises in and flows from Congress. The Indians have no court of appeal from the authority of Congress. The Constitution of the United States does not extend judicial jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to include the Indians, as such. (See sec. 2, art. Ill of the Constitution.)
For this reason, the Supreme Court has consistently and rightfully held that “Congress has paramount and plenary power over tribal Indians and their property which can neither be denied nor controlled by the judicial branch of the Government.” Thus the Indians are a people who have no fundamental rights because there can be no judicial review of any action taken by Congress concerning them. One Congress can grant the Indians something and the next Congress can take it away or completely nullify it by other legislation. Congress first delegated administrative jurisdiction over the Indians to the War Department. The first Indian Bureau was created in that department. Indian affairs were transferred from military to civil jurisdiction in 1849 when Congress delegated administrative authority over the Indians to the newly created office of the Secretary of the Interior and a Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
The Indians are governed by direct laws of Congress, which apply to no other people in the United States, and the rules and regulations of the Indian Bureau which have been promulgated under those laws and which, in themselves, have all the force and effect of laws.
This Bureau has control over both the person and the property of tribal Indians. It maintains its own schools, hospitals, courts, and governmental functions of every description. It controls all timber, grazing, mining operations, leasing of property and irrigation operations on Indian reservations. It controls tribal funds and personal accounts. It controls all work-relief projects on reservations, and all State relief such as old-age pensions, is handled through the local agency offices. In law and in fact, it does everything for the Indian which a guardian, duly appointed by a court, would do for any “incompetent.” The Indians are held in this status of “incompetent wardship”, from which there is no escape. It is a virtual status of dictatorship. Restricted or ward Indians can do nothing without the consent of the Bureau officials.
They can neither sell nor lease their property. They cannot legally employ an attorney to represent them in court. They have nothing to say about the way their money is spent. Many of them whose individual accounts are handled by the Bureau never receive any actual cash from their accounts but receive only purchase orders for their needs, as the local agency officials may see fit to grant. Many of them do not know and never have known and cannot find out how much money they have on deposit at the agency, nor where it has gone if it is not there.
In 1924 Congress enacted a bill which made all Indians of the United States citizens. Although many of them became voters through that act, the Bureau continues to manage all of their affairs for them and they are now merely “voting wards.” For example, the Klamath Indians of Oregon have vast timber resources and their tribal estate is valued at millions of dollars. They vote in all elections, State and national. They pay all of the expenses of operating the United States Indian Agency on their reservation and for the maintenance of their schools, hospitals, timber operations, and public welfare out of their own tribal funds.
Yet the Indians cannot remove, or have removed, even the least important employee of the Indian Bureau who works upon their reservation. Indians are born into this status, live in this status, and die in this status. The only tribunal to which they can appeal for relief from any situation which may arise because of this status is to the Congress of the United States. In law and in fact they are the “incompetent ward children” of Congress whose care and well being have been largely relegated to a hired nursemaid, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Congress is the only body to which we can appeal for protection, or eventual release from this condition. Hence, all of the work of this organization must, of necessity, be with Congress…..
Note: Her testimony goes on to explain the ACLU origins of the IRA and the methods that were used to seek Indian support of it, and its ratification in Congress.
The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) – Howard Wheeler Act
An Act to conserve and develop Indian lands and resources, to extend to Indians the right to form business and, other organizations, to establish a credit system for Indians, to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians, to provide for vocational education for Indians, and for other purposes.
What Ms. Jemison and other Native Americans testifying in front of Congress may or may not have realized at the time, is that the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) had quite effectively finished the job of stifling individual Indian voices.
This was demonstrated throughout the hundreds of pages of testimony at these hearings when Senators and Representatives consistently queried Indians about their “authority” to speak, and to determine whether they represented the newly formed tribal government corporations that the IRA legislation had authorized.
In the end, it mattered not to Congress that some tribes showed support for a full repeal of the IRA legislation, or that testimony showed that the government’s effort to sell the reorganization act misled Indians into voting to accept it without understanding its implications.
Additionally, the litanies of corrupt activities by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their own Tribal Councils were also of little interest to the Senators and Congressmen who heard these testimonies. If any investigations were to be done anyway, they most likely would have been assigned to those who may have facilitated the corruption in the first place.
Many tribal council government corporations, created under the authority of the IRA, opposed any efforts to repeal the act. Despite the fact that testimony indicated that many tribal council members were on Bureau of Indian Affairs payroll, Congress willingly turned a blind eye to the plight of the very people their policies were supposed to “protect”.
We could reasonably argue that the IRA, also known as the Indian New Deal, upended any federal government notion of a trust responsibility for individual Indians and instead replaced it with a trust and financial responsibility only to federally chartered tribal government corporations. In the same sleight of hand, this act also made individual Indians wards of these new tribal and arguably communist government corporations authorized by the act under the guise of “self-governance”.
The passage of the Indian Reorganization Act set the stage for the problems that exist with both the Indian and non-Indian citizens living in western Montana today.
In a country founded upon the principle that all men are created equal, why isn’t the notion of any kind of trust or ward status of individual Indians repugnant to every person?
Why do our U.S. Senators and Representatives choose to pretend this subservient status of individual Indians doesn’t exist?
And why hasn’t Congress instituted meaningful and comprehensive reform to federal Indian policy, to right this wrong, as well as many others?
Is it because they prefer the status quo, or in the case of Senator Daines S3019 compact, to make a bad situation far worse than it already is?
Perhaps the Indian Reorganization Act, should more appropriately be called the “Individual Indian REPRESSION Act”.
Check out these other posts that continue with Mrs. Jemison’s testimony:
Part 2: Corporate Charters and Constitutions Under the IRA
Part 3: 1940 Alice Lee Jemison’s Closing Testimony