In the 19th century, in the United States, Tribal nations were rounded up and placed on reservations. There Tribal people were subjected to the forces of assimilation that worked to change Tribal culture and make the people into Americans. The national policy of this time was to assimilate American Indians into the “melting pot” of the United States.and eliminate the need for reservations.
First the Tribes needed to be removed and dispossessed from their land, then the children were removed, and imprisoned in schools to remove their culture. Gradually the tribes changed, survived in many ways, but changed to American culture. This process worked well as population counts on reservations were dropping.
In fact, early anthropologists were so alarmed at the population losses that they feared that very soon there would be no Native culture for them to study. The future looked dim for the tribes.
In the late 19th century a series of wars and conflicts, Modoc war (1872-1873), Nez Perce War (1877), Geronimo (1873-1886), Wounded Knee (1890) were significant points of resistance to United States colonization and imperialism in Indian Country. Coupled with the numbers of escapements of individual tribal people from the reservations, and it appeared that the tribes were not simply giving up and accepting their fates. They were not being the depressed end-of-the-trail Indians as many Americans hoped they would be. They were instead defiant and planting seeds of pride within the hundreds of thousands of Native peoples on reservations.
Out of this spirit of defiance, came a generation of energized partially-assimilated Indians who excelled in intramural sports. Football, baseball, track and long distance runners, and basketball were common games then played and excelled at by young native athletes.
The plans and desires of the mid-19th century American Politicians to eliminate Indians was not occurring. Even though reservation populations were declining as Indians left to go to school, to find work, or died,the reservations were in no danger of completely disappearing.
By the 1880s, a plan was hatched to allot the Indians with land. The Dawes, or, General allotment act was created to give individual Indians a permanent farm, an allotment, and to sell off the remainder acreage to white settlers who needed land. By the 1880s, most of the frontier was claimed and the last remaining lands not claimed by whites were on the large reservation holdings. White settlers were thought to to be able to more efficiently make use of the land, and the tribes were wasting the land on the reservations, and the new generation of pioneers needed their opportunities as well.
So the Dawes allotment act (1887) was passed and presented to the tribes. A few tribes refused to accept it, understanding that through the bill, they would lose a good portion of their remaining lands. the tribes had given up 100’s of millions of acres to get a few hundred thousand acres for their permanent reservations. But most tribal people wanted their allotments. They had already been through one or two generations of assimilation by the 1880s, most of their peoples had been to school and knew how to read and write. And they too wanted their piece of the American dream. Such was their education in American boarding schools, that they all deserved opportunity, even if few were American citizens. (American citizenship was not given to all until 1924.)
The Dawes Act did a few other things to the tribe. First Dawes instilled the notion of individualism among the tribes. Tribal people learned to understand that in order to get ahead in American society they had to be individuals and not simply part of a community. And Dawes taught the tribes about the value of blood quantum. In order to receive am allotment under Dawes, tribal people, those defined as “Indian”under other federal policies, had to have one half Indian blood or better (even though this was not a stipulation in the treaties). In this manner, through this bill thousands of Indian people were dispossessed of the rights of citizenship in their nation because they had too much non-Indian ancestry. The real effect was felt in the following generation as thousands more people who were even further assimilated and because they were more likely to marry out of the tribe were dispossessed of their and their children’s rights to be a part of their tribes. In this manner, the federal government had no further reason to re-allot the Tribal reservation lands, there were too few “official” Indian people (1/2 Indian blood or better) who could get allotments.
Literally in a few generations, the tribes went from owning thousands of acres down to almost nothing. In 1856, the tribes at the Grand Ronde reservation had between 60 thousand acres and 69 thousand (we have yet to find the actual number). In 1901 the acreage was reduced to 33,000 acres after the Dawes Act, By 1920, thousands of acres went out of tribal hands by either sale, or through decisions made by the BIA. In about 1911, the BIA began a series of heir-ship investigations to find out who were the direct relations of the people who had died with allotments. By 1918 these were concluded and the original allotments were sold, and the proceeds given to the descendants. Also under Dawes, allottees received their fee simple titles in 20 years, then many turned around and sold their land. In this manner by 1950 there were 497 acres remaining in Tribal hands at Grand Ronde.
Perhaps the most egregious effect the practice of allotting from the Dawes Act had, was instilling the notion of blood quantum in the tribes, based on the definition of an “Indian” used in federal law, as a person of 1/2 Indian blood or better. Tribes began accepting blood quantum as a measure of citizenship. Under the Wheeler-Howard act (1934), many tribes wrote their own constitutions and wrote into their membership requirements that they had to maintain a certain blood quantum of tribal blood.
Sec. 19. The term “Indian” as used in this Act shall include all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal jurisdiction, and all person who are descendants of such members who were, on June 1, 1934, residing within the present boundaries of any reservation, and shall further include all other persons of one-half or more Indian blood. For the purposes of this Act, Eskimos and other aboriginal peoples of Alaska shall be considered Indians. The term “tribe” wherever used in this Act shall be construed to refer to any Indian tribe, organized band, pueblo, or the Indians residing on one reservation. The words “adult Indians” wherever used in this Act shall be construed to refer to Indians who have attained the age of twenty-one years.
Its clear that the tribes wanted to maintain their Indian-ness. Many tribal people had the belief that people had to be active participants in the community to be members. In 1905 when the Applegate Report was submitted to Congress, there were statements from tribal elders about individuals who had moved away. They believed that those who had moved away had willingly stopped being a member of the tribe. This is a traditional value in many tribes. In American ethnography there are many stories of how tribal peoples could move to different communities and they would eventually be accepted into the community if they remained long enough. People had the autonomy to chose what was their community and they could decided to leave a tribe and integrate with another tribe if they chose that route.
In this period of late 19th and early 20th centuries, the people were under extreme pressure to assimilate. Many had little choices but to leave the tribe and find opportunity elsewhere. If their blood quantum was too low, or they had learned a skill in boarding school that they could not practice at the reservation, many chose to leave, move to a city and never returned. Some of these people maintained contact and may visit the res on the weekends or a few times a year, but much of the population loss was due to people being forced to move away to find more opportunities.
So by the time the tribes were forming governments of elected officials, with official rolls of members, under the Indian Reorganization Act, (Grand Ronde was 1936), many of their people were no longer around. At this time, it was not negative to marry outside the tribe, it was actually looked on favorably as your children would have more opportunity. But the IRA inculcated Blood quantum within the bill,
When the Grand Ronde tribe was undergoing restoration in the 1970s, Several generations of people have now lived under blood quantum as being the measure of Indian-ness and citizenship. There had been several more generations of people, in the termination era that had married outside the tribe. And now, after restoration in 1983, many people could not join because their blood quantum is too low. Today we are in a situation were every single family at the Grand Ronde Tribe, like many other tribes in the USA, have descendants who can not be members. The children and grand children of the people who worked to restore the tribe, many, cannot join because of blood quantum.
Remember, this is an imposed federal policy that was never a traditional measurement of citizenship. There is not a tribe before treaties and removal to reservations that measured someone’s blood quantum. This was a policy imposed upon an imprisoned and heavily managed people, which was designed and worked to Eliminate legal Indians. Discussions at the federal and Congressional level during their people was about the overwhelming cost of Indian Affairs, and the need to eliminate Indians and eliminate the overhead in the federal budget for Indian affairs. This is the same reasoning that was used against the Grand Ronde Tribe in the 1950’s when National Termination policy was imposed, because of the need of the federal government to eliminate Indians, that their budgets.
Dawes was successful in dispossessing thousands of Indians, and the next effort, Termination, was successful in eliminating many thousands more Indians. Now that tribes have some rights for self-determination, and have the rights to have casinos, the generations of assimilation are now working to dissociate many thousands of more Indians from the tribes. Now Indians from assimilated tribes want their individual rights, a piece of the profits for being Indian in a tribe. Now blood quantum works in their favor, as the less number of Indians in each tribe, the more money each member makes in per cap and services.
The Federal Government now does not need to lift a finger or say a word or make a decision. They planted the seeds of extinction of tribes in the 1850’s with forced education, and then planted the notion of Blood quantum as a measurement of Indian identity. Blood quantum is not even written into the treaties yet many tribes continue to accept it as a traditional characteristic of being Indian and allowed thousands of people to be dispossessed of their rights by Indian agents. (I am not sure the tribes in 1887 or 1934 knew how to challenge the notion of Blood Quantum.)
Continuing to accept blood quantum is a death sentence for tribes, as each generation a good percentage of the tribal members will marry outside of their tribe. In 100 years, unless things change, more Tribes will have half or less the members than they have today. In effect the tribes are self-terminating, and the federal government could not have planned it better.
Tribes appear to be in effect continuing to participate in this grand experiment of colonization in the United States. Every couple of generations there is a new challenge to tribes, from the federal government, which places their very survival are stake. The federal government is not our friend and their policies are not friendly to the tribes. We have accepted a new version of colonization that will continue to work to eliminate all Tribes unless it is directly challenged. Our challenge in this generation is to instill a spirit of Tribal sovereignty in the people so they act to take back from the federal government our rights to true sovereignty within our homelands. As long as we continue to accept these imposed policies we are a colonized people.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.