To Improve the Status of Our First Citizens: The Irony and Fraud of Tribal Termination

“To improve the status of our first citizens”

Oregon Governor Douglas McKay, July 14, 1950


McKay’s comment, is meant to be a statement of assurance and commitment to the tribes from the Oregon State government. However the irony is that the agreement reached did not honor the promises implied. The tribes were not treated as first citizens, and were in fact lied to by federal officials. There was no improvement of the status of these native peoples, because native people generally were an outcast minority and treated very similar to how Blacks and Latinos were treated. Other non-terminated tribes treated terminated Indians as if they were no longer Indian, as if they willingly gave up their heritage and culture. The title of Urban Indian and Terminated Indian were negatively used to disallow such people any rights to attend tribal gatherings on reservations. Then their lands, their foundations were literally sold out from under them by the government. Native people became dispossessed in their traditional lands. The mission of the government  to assimilate the tribes and dispossess them of their lands and resources was fully realized with termination. The actions of the federal government amount to the final actions colonizing their lands.

The effects of termination can we seen today all around us. Tribes formerly terminated have to fight for their rights to have some sovereignty in their lands. Other tribes have taken advantage of the lapse of oversight of tribal territories during termination, and claimed rights outside of their usual sphere in other traditional territories. Federal and state offices now have to be retrained to consult with formerly terminated tribes. Histories and cultural narratives have to be written to support the rights of tribes in their traditional lands. Then, many terminated tribes have spaces in their documentation of the tribal records. Some of this is causing negations of enrollment for people unlucky enough to have left the reservations before termination occurred. Many times their records are missing, and as such, they have little or no options for becoming members of the contemporary tribe. In short, federal assimilation policies worked by completely dissociating perhaps thousands of people from tribal membership

In 1954, two congressional bills terminated 64 tribes in Oregon from three reservations and other rural groups. The federal government terminated more tribes in Oregon than any other state. An estimated 13,000 Indians were terminated nationally, roughly 4,000 of them from Oregon (Ulrich 2006). Of the reservations terminated, 2,500,000 acres of land was removed from trust status (Nations 2008).

The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, Public Law 588, (P.L. 588) terminated the western Oregon Indians, including Grand Ronde, Siletz, and the tribes in southwestern Oregon that did not reside on reservations, in 1954. In addition, P.L. 588 mentioned several tribes that had traditional territory within Oregon, but who resided in either Washington or California states, altogether 60 tribes. P.L. 588 gave the reservation tribes two years to put their affairs in order and correct their membership rolls. Final termination was in 1956. All federal services ended in 1956 and members received their share of the community land sales soon after.

Pre-Termination: Indian Office Termination Meetings in Western Oregon

From at least 1948 until 1956, Indian agents traveled to Siletz and Grand Ronde to have meetings with the tribal councils and the general assemblies, to discuss termination. Many of the meetings were poorly attended and yet the general assemblies of both Grand Ronde and Siletz voted to accept termination and to accept provisions of early termination between 1949 and 1952 (See Appendix G for the Grand Ronde resolutions). On September 28th a meeting was held in Siletz attended by twenty-eight people, who voted to hold another meeting on October seventh (Towle 1951). The initial vote in favor of termination was sixteen to nothing with exceptions. Siletz members were concerned about the remaining reservation lands and wanted to establish a corporation to manage the tribal land once the land was issued fee patents and transferred to the tribe (Towle 1951). This understanding of how the BIA would manage the land transfer represents an early misconception of termination by the Siletz tribe. With a bare forty-four votes in favor at the October 7 meeting, out of a population of about a thousand natives, BIA Agent L.P. Towle, nevertheless felt justified in stating, “If Secretary of the Interior will approve sale of Tribal timber land now we believe no further opposition by Siletz in approving proposed legislation” (Towle 1951).[1]

The telegram reporting the meeting states that the Siletz tribe was negotiating the proposal and considering approval. Their main concern was for the timberlands, which would be the basis of the tribe’s future wealth. The proposal for the formation of a corporation was similar to the 1954 termination bill for the Menominee tribe, which allowed the tribe to form a corporation to manage its vast timber holdings following termination (Peroff 1982).

In 1953, BIA Portland Area Director E. Morgan Pryse reported on his meetings with Siletz and Grand Ronde, detailing the amount of time he contributed to termination:

The writer spent much of his own time on Saturdays and Sundays from 1948 to the present in meeting with various Indian groups, County and State officials in proposing withdrawal of the Indian Service over affairs of Western Oregon Indians and knows of no one opposing such a proposal; therefore it is recommended that the proposed legislation . . . be presented to Congress with strong recommendation for favorable action thereon at an early date (Pryse 1953f).

In Pryse’s summary, it is unclear which tribes he met with. There is evidence to assume that the Siletz and Grand Ronde committees approved of the concept of termination (Indians 1951a; 1951b; Oregon 1951a; 1951b). Although, Pryse does not reference any actual documents that contain such information. It may be that no minutes were kept of the meetings, but Pryse does form a record of the meetings in his monthly reports to the BIA.  Despite the lack of documentation, the discussions set the tone for termination of the tribes.

Constant discussion of the topic by Indian agents led Indian people to expect that termination was an inevitable event. Grand Ronde elder Bob Tom, who has family at Siletz and Grand Ronde, recalls that his father knew that termination was happening and moved his family to Salem in advance of the termination date:

My folks moved to Salem in 43’, 44’, and my dad and mom moved there specifically so that we could go to public school there and get a better education. My dad and mom may have bought into the termination methodology of, you need to go out there and compete with the greater society, as an equal (Tom 2006).

At Grand Ronde, Cheryle Kennedy, present Tribal Council Chair, said her uncle Abe Hudson reported on Indian Affairs on a regular basis. She described her feelings about termination as a child:

We knew we were involved in the sessions, when we would come. We had an uncle, Abe Hudson, married to my aunt, grandma’s sister, that was on the council . . . . I remember they’d be sitting around the table like that and talking. . . Something dreadful is going to happen. And we don’t know how to stop it . . . We knew that something bad was coming cause I was Indian (Kennedy 2006).

That feeling of inevitability caused many Indians to make decisions to preserve their families well before there was any assurance of termination occurring. The feelings of inevitability were strong enough to influence children’s emotions and prompt tribal families to begin moving off the reservation.


Oregon Politicians Preparing for Termination

Governor Douglas McKay, Senator Wayne Morse, and Senator Richard L. Neuberger were the primary state officials who were in charge of individual Indian rights at the federal and state level as the Indians came under their state jurisdiction following termination. In 1952, Governor Douglas McKay was in the midst of his second term as governor. He had promised to serve the full six years, but instead accepted the position of Secretary of the Interior offered to him by President Eisenhower. As Secretary of Interior, McKay was in a position to use much of the information he had received about the Oregon tribes following his installation as Secretary, preparations for termination continued unabated and through the next few years, McKay led the federal government’s policy of termination of Indian reservations. The Secretary used the termination of the Oregon tribes as an example of termination for the rest of the nation.

Political officials in the state of Oregon played a large role in the liquidation of state Indian reservations too. Senators, representatives, mayors, attorneys, state departmental directors, and the Governor’s office all worked with the issue of termination in committee meetings and in discussions with the tribes. E. Morgan Pryse, BIA Supervisor of Indian Affairs for the Portland Area office, was also a member of the advisory committee. Governor McKay opened the initial conference on July 14, 1950 with a list of discussion topics and/or goals:

(a) Bring about the early and equitable settlement of Indian treaties

(b) Accomplish the social and economic rehabilitation of Indians with emphasis upon the initiative and self-reliance of the Indian himself

(c) Equip Indians for living with and in our American culture through education and training

(d) Encourage Indians to preserve, as individuals, their best traditions as an integral part of American life

(e) Bring an early end to federal ward ship, with adequate federal aid in the interim (McKay 1950).

The topics clearly followed the previous goals of the federal government to bring about an efficient termination to the tribes. One goal, “preserving their traditions,” however differs from that proposed by Congress or that practiced for almost one hundred years by the Indian Service. The Congressional goal was to assimilate Indians, and not to retain Native traditions. National Indian policies of assimilation did not include a priority to preserve tribal culture as well.

Goal (a), the “equitable settlement of Indian treaties” is similar to a goal of the “Ten-Year Programs” established in 1944. The goal was to dispose of Indian land claims forever. There was likely some communications between Governor McKay and Indian Agent Pryse over some of these goals. The settlement of Indian treaties was beyond the jurisdiction of the states. Letters from E. Morgan Pryse to Governor McKay disclose ongoing meetings between the two, even before the creation of the Indian Affairs committee. In one letter, Pryse summarizes their discussion on Oregon Indians and thanks Governor McKay for coming to an agreement over the Indian problems:

I was especially gratified for the opportunity to visit with you on March 22 to discuss problems to the Indians in your state. I am very pleased that you agree on a mutual approach to the solution of Indian problems since I firmly believe that it is only through combined efforts that solutions may be obtained which will be beneficial to the Indians, the federal government, and the State of Oregon (Pryse 1950a).

The collaboration between Governor McKay’s and the Indian Office helped McKay to become well informed about federal Indian policy and termination legislation. McKay’s experience with these issues may have been reason for his appointment to Secretary of the Interior in 1952. It is clear from McKay’s statement of goals for Indian management at the state level and Superintendent Pryce’s statements about termination that Pryce influenced Governor McKay.

Education was a particularly important issue that the tribes understood was necessary for people to make a living in American society. Sam Kash Kash from Umatilla addressed education as related to their human rights:

“There should be a law to educate the white people so they would know that Indians are human. I can speak well of Umatilla County, and the public schools have taken care of our children very nicely. . . [But] Several children on the reservation have not been able to continue school because of lack of funds” (McKay 1950).

Coquelle Thomson of Siletz states his thought about education: “We have a choice of sending our children to Chemawa or to the public schools. I find that the majority of the people are sending their children to public schools” (McKay 1950). Those of Abe Hudson from Grand Ronde mirrored Thompson’s statements:

“As far as our schools are concerned the Grand Ronde Indians have been self-supporting for some years. I was a member of the tribal council when this thing started. We have the privilege of sending our children to Chemawa if we want to but most of us are taking the advantage of sending them to the public schools” (McKay 1950).

The statements indict the federal government and make favorable comments about the state’s schools, suggesting that it would be beneficial to have the state take over this service completely. At termination, education of the terminated tribal members was coordinated between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state.

Ultimately, the conflict between Indians remaining under federal supervision and their termination made some Oregon Indians question whether they were Indians. At the 1950 conference, Abe Hudson expressed these identity questions: “I am getting old and I don’t know where I stand, I don’t know what I am – they call me an Indian and I guess I am an Indian but I really don’t know what makes an Indian” (McKay 1950). Many younger people saw the value in selling the land and gaining control of their finances, but doing so constituted a loss to the overall tribal community.

Oregon Indians knew well the impact of the loss of federal services and administration. Even before P.L. 280 was passed in 1952, making state law the prevailing law on some reservations, the tribes were thinking about how this would work. The transfer of criminal and civil jurisdiction to the state had a significant impact on sovereignty rights for tribes. Jackson advocated for the transfer of law enforcement to the state:

I believe in turning law enforcement over to the state. Our plans are such that we intend to continue as a reservation setup, and legal problems will crop up; things we can control we will, and things that are too deep for us I think we should be able to pass along to the state (McKay 1950).

Early Withdrawal Bill, Oregon


The first attempt at termination of the western Oregon Indians was the Program for the Early Withdrawal of Selected Activities and Withdrawing Federal Supervision over Indian at Grand Ronde-Siletz and Southwestern Oregon (Pryse 1950b). Pryse drafted this initial proposal to expedite termination of the western Oregon Indians. He felt that the western Oregon Indians were “well advanced in the ability to handle their own affairs” (Pryse 1950b:3). They had expressed to him a desire to be free of government interference.  They seemed to be ideal candidates for termination (Pryse 1950b:6). Pryse said:

Indians of the Grand Ronde-Siletz Administration have already experienced most of the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship. They have long been accepted by their white neighbors on the same basis as other citizens and are permitted to act on the local school and election boards, as well as other civic affairs (Pryse 1950b:6).

Pryse also noted that many of the southwestern Oregon Indian communities had not received assistance from the government and were running their own affairs (Pryse 1950b:6). Pryse argued that all of the tribes and communities in western Oregon were assimilated and ready for termination.

The Indian Office held discussions with the Grand Ronde, Siletz, and southwestern Oregon communities to seek the approval of the communities for early termination. Siletz was the sole tribal government to agree to early termination (Indians 1951b; Indians 1950). Grand Ronde initiated resolutions that began to eliminate much of their administrative oversight (Oregon 1949; Oregon 1951a; Oregon 1951b), as did the southwestern Oregon and coastal tribes (Alcea 1951; Coquille Tribe 1951) (See Appendix G for the Grand Ronde Resolutions). Given this positive feedback, in 1951 Pryse submitted his opinion to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon Meyer: “I believe the commissioner would be justified in starting action without formal resolutions since not one Indian has objected” (Pryse 1951).

The early withdrawal proposed settlement of fourteen issues. Many of the issues were ongoing problems between the tribes and the federal government that could not be resolved quickly or easily. Indian Claims settlements were one such problem, as the tribes previously stated a desire to settle the awards before they would approve termination. From the federal perspective, the proposal gave too much to the tribes, not requiring them to pay for allotments or communal lands. The fourteen settlement points were:

  1. Disposal of tribal lands.
  2. Transferal of unrestricted tribal lands to the Siletz tribe.
  3. Patents in fee to be issued covering the communal lands and buildings at Grand Ronde and Empire.
  4. Patents in fee to be issued for 126 Indian allotments in western Oregon.
  5. 31 allotments to be sold.
  6. Early determination of pending Indian claims cases.
  7. Almost ten thousand dollars in funds be issued to cover this effort.
  8. Bring tribal rolls up to date.
  9. All tribal trust accounts to be transferred to a bonded officer.
  10. Settle funds owed the Empire community.
  11. Pay Tribal member funds owed them, except minors.
  12. Grant Siletz and Grand Ronde members same rights as all other Americans. Revoke all special privileges including treaty rights.
  13. Appoint a special commission to expedite Indian claims awards.
  14. If applications for patents in fee or sale of land is not received in six months dispose of the property (Pryse 1950b:1-2).

The reason for the proposal’s failure was that there were too many unresolved issues between the tribes and the federal government for early withdrawal to occur. The federal government still needed to conduct a full reconciliation of funds spent on the reservation. In addition, the tribes would need a couple years to create their termination rolls. Finally, the tribes had not fully agreed.

On the part of the federal government, Congress ordered the early withdrawal bill tabled and Pryse to write a new bill. Congress did not want to give away the land that was technically owned by the federal government under land trust laws. So regardless of the fact that many Indians at Grand Ronde and Siletz were living on allotments granted to them under the Dawes Act (1887), and received in 1891, and they had been living on their properties since then for roughly 50-60 years, they still did not technically own their land. Congress ordered Pryse to rewrite the bill to have the Natives have the first rights to buy their land.

National Policy becomes Termination

The passage of P.L.108 helped to make the second attempt at termination of the western Oregon tribes a success. P.L. 108 changed official federal Indian policy to terminate all tribes based on their level of assimilation.  P.L. 108 made the status of the Grand Ronde tribe to be in the  “fully assimilated” category from the list created in 1947 (Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs 1954a). The appointment of Oregon’s Governor Douglas McKay to the position of Secretary of the Department of Interior in 1953 probably spurred this change. In 1947, seven years earlier, William Zimmerman’s tables indicated that Grand Ronde has “no resources” (Committee on Civil Service 1947:545-546). With national termination policy set, and Grand Ronde elevated to “fully assimilated” status, termination of the western Oregon tribes began in earnest.

Tribal Reviews of the Termination Bill, 1953

Morgan Pryse, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Portland Area Office, and his staff were an integral part of the termination process in the 1950’s. They spent much of their time traveling to meetings at Siletz and Grand Ronde. Following the meetings, Pryse sent reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and tribal leaders. He and his staff maintained a dialogue with the tribes, communicated to the commissioner information about tribal attitudes regarding termination, and wrote the initial drafts of the laws. The Commissioner then reported to Congress how the tribes felt. At times, Pryse traveled to Washington, D.C. and testified before Congress. The actions of Superintendent Pryse were essential to getting termination approved by Congress and by the tribes.

In 1953, during the second attempt to terminate the western Oregon tribes, Pryse stepped up his efforts. Mindful of the failure of his first attempt at termination, in part caused by the federal governments slowness in settling the Indian Claims cases, Pryse worked harder to build a case for termination that would be successful. His reports maintained that tribal members exhibited continuous support for termination, and pushed the point that the tribes had assimilated enough to run their own affairs. Pryse needed a list of the tribes of western Oregon.  Pryse stated that it was a difficult task to find every name, “we keep finding more tribes and groups all the time scattered throughout western Oregon” (Pryse 1953e).[4]

In October 1953, Pryse began building his (and the federal government’s) case for termination by seeking tribal approval. The first communication regarding tribal review of the bill was to Mr. Vernon Reibach of the Grand Ronde Tribal Council, establishing a deadline for review of the draft termination act (see Appendix I for the Draft termination bill):

October 6, 1953

This proposed bill is a rough draft for discussion purposes only. It is requested that each Indian group meet together with their respective tribal bodies at the earliest practicable date and make any changes or additions that they believe advisable. Any suggested changes or additions adopted by tribal action should be drafted and sent to this office immediately for further consideration. It is recommended that resolutions similar to those contained in the “Plan for the Withdrawal of Federal Supervision over Indian tribes of Western Oregon, Portland Area Office, 1951” be prepared and submitted as evidence of affirmative action on this proposed bill. We have been instructed by the Washington Office to submit a draft of proposed legislation not later than November 1, 1953 with your comments (Pryse 1953d).

Pryse understood the need for current resolutions, as those drafted in 1949 and 1951 for the first proposal for termination were outdated. In addition, his letter to Vernon Reibach carefully explained that the draft was for discussion purposes only, considering that the tribes were not in full agreement. Later in October, Pryse informed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs of the timeline for community meetings and his expectations as to their outcome:

October 23, 1953

We expect to hold meetings with the Grand Ronde- Siletz people November 1. These folks are scattered over a very large area up and down the coast and since it is also their busiest season it has not been practicable to hold meetings at an earlier date. We do not anticipate anything but favorable action on the Grand Ronde-Siletz bill (Pryse 1953c).

The Superintendent set the tone for the commissioner by stating an expectation of approval of the draft plan by the tribes. His positive attitude came from previous public statements and resolutions from both tribes in favor of termination. Pryse’s tone in the report began to lay the basis of the passage of the law for the Commissioner.

However, in a meeting in Siletz on November 1, 1953, Indians from western Oregon expressed concerns about the Indian claims awards and stated they desired that they be resolved before they could approve the termination bill. Some tribal members questioned why Congress had not approved the Alsea Indian claims case settlements yet (filed 1947). Others wanted more time to review the draft termination bill before they would approve it. Superintendent Pryse communicated the tribes’ desires to the Commissioner and stated simply: “I believe it would be good business to grant their request” (Pryse 1953a).

On November 5, 1953, the Superintendent telegrammed a second report about the tribes to the commissioner. He was again optimistic about the expected outcome of the future meetings:

Preliminary reports on legislation . . . [meeting of] November 3. Indians have taken no affirmative action yet. Expect affirmative action on Grand Ronde-Siletz after meeting with them again November 22 (Pryse 1953b).

Unexplained in Pryse’s November report is why the tribes did not take affirmative action in their November 3 meeting. Pryse did not elaborate on any issues brought up in the meeting and the brevity of the report did not bode well for affirmation.

In the December 7, 1953 report, the Superintendent continued to make the case that the tribes favored termination, while noting that they reiterated a desire for a final settlement of the Indian Claims Cases. He submitted no new evidence suggesting that the tribes supported the current termination bill, and in fact, included a statement suggesting that the tribes did not approve of termination:

The attached report . . . contains resolutions from the affected tribes, together with statements from local officials, including Honorable Douglas McKay, Secretary of the Interior, who was then Governor of Oregon. Both Siletz and Grand Ronde Indian groups, in recent meetings, asked that no withdrawal program be carried out pending distribution of the moneys which were recovered by the plaintiffs in the case Alcea Tribe of Tillamooks, et al v. United States. We do not believe, however, that there has been any change in their general attitude which favors the termination of Federal responsibility at an early date. In fact some Indians have expressed informally their displeasure in the delay in obtaining legislation to accomplish Federal withdrawal (Pryse 1953f:Emphasis mine).

In the December report, Pryse made statements inconsistent with tribal testimony. He reported that the tribes did not desire termination before Congress settled the Indian claims awards, and that they had stated this in the last few meetings. This statement is revealing, as Pryse did not mention claims cases in his report on the meetings of November 3 and 22nd, when he simply stated the expectation of a positive outcome. He continued to suggest that the previous acceptance of termination gained from the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes in 1949 and 1951 was an acceptance of the 1953 draft legislation of termination (Indians 1951a; 1951b; Oregon 1951a; 1951b). It is true that tribal elders in 1952 made public statements approving of termination, but there is no indication that they still approved of termination in 1953 (Oregonian 1952a) (see Appendix H for the statements). In addition, Pryse referred to unnamed “some Indians,” a continuation of his strategy of building an impression of success with the Commissioner. Furthermore, Pryse invoked statements of the Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay to build his argument.

In December 1953, confident that his arguments in support of termination would succeed, Pryse began writing the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act. In February 1954, only a few months before Congress was to pass the termination act, the Superintendent reported at length on the reasons why the tribes failed to produce a favorable review of the current draft:

Plans and procedures for terminal action have been formulated after thorough discussion and study by and with the Indian people involved, extending over a period of more than three years. The proposed legislation, in substantially its present form,[5] has been widely distributed throughout the area and has been discussed at length with the various groups of Indian people. By formal resolution they have expressed themselves as favoring early termination of Federal supervision over their affairs. They declined to take favorable action on recent drafts of proposed bills for the reason that moneys recovered several years ago as judgments by the Rogue River Indians, the Alsea Band of Tillamooks, and others in the area, have not yet been distributed to the members of the successful claimant tribes [Emphasis added]. These funds are presently deposited in the United States Treasury to the credit of the interested tribes, and bills are pending before Congress which would authorize and direct the Secretary of the Interior to distribute the funds. One such pending bill is H.R. 4118, which was introduced in the first session of the 83rd Congress.

Copies of the proposed legislation together with our program for the termination of Federal responsibility have been distributed to State and County officials and to prominent citizens interested in the welfare of these Indian people. No objections have been voiced. On the other hand there has been widespread approval of the proposal. The copies of the program which have been submitted by the Department in connection with its report include the favorable endorsements of officials in the counties where the majority of the Indian people reside, together with a copy of letter of approval by the then Governor of Oregon, the Hon. Douglas McKay, now Secretary of the Interior (Pryse 1954).

Pryse continued to build an impression of comprehensive support for termination. He reported that many prominent officials in Oregon, including local governments, prominent citizens, and the Governor (now Secretary of the Interior) agreed with termination, lending authority to Pryse’s case for approval. Pryse was still unable to document that the western Oregon Indians had agreed to termination. In fact, the only declarations the tribes made were that they still objected to termination because Congress had not settled the Indian claims cases. The only favorable opinions had been the 1949 and 1951 tribal resolutions passed in favor of termination under the early withdrawal plan. Pryse’s statements sidestep the issue of termination by stating that the tribes favored it, because all of his years of experience working with them suggested this to be so.

Pryse finished building his case for approval of termination by foreclosing on any possibility that the tribes could present their own opinions before Congress. By ruling out Indian testimony at the Congressional hearing, the Superintendent controlled the environment of the proceedings and assured passage of the law.

It is not believed the tribes will send delegates to appear before the committee. They approve the bill in principal, are conservative with their funds, and are busy making a living (Pryse 1954).

Although, this statement may very well have been true as few Indian people in western Oregon had the money or could spare the time to travel to Washington, D.C. and testify before Congress, it is more likely that Pryse never communicated with the western Oregon tribes when the hearings would take place. Since the Superintendent manipulated the reports, it is likely that he made a conscious decision to eliminate the possibility of the tribes’ testifying against termination. Grand Ronde elder Merle Holmes suggests that in fact the tribe did not know about the hearing:

There was not one word of a meeting, when it was to be, or what is was about I never knew anything about it literally until it was all over (Merle Holmes: Broadcasting 2000).

Merle Holmes’ statement suggests Pryse’s statements about the tribes’ being unable to attend the hearings were disingenuous. The Superintendent ensured that Congress would not invite the tribes, by leading Congress to expect that they would not to be able to attend the hearings. As such, Congress did not hear relevant Native testimony or opinions from the tribes regarding their termination. Additionally, Tribal elders have stated that if they had known such a hearing was taking place, they would have cobbled together some money and sent representatives by train to Washington, D.C. to testify.

Superintendent Pryse’s communications set the stage for full approval of the termination bill in Congress with assumed Indian consent. His communications did not convey what the Indians actually felt about termination at the time and led to the assumption that any further negotiations with the tribes were unnecessary. In short, Pryse effectively and bureaucratically manipulated the Indians and predetermined the outcome of the second termination effort.

Pryse’s document was misleading and lacking in critical tribal documentation representing the true wishes of the tribes. If the Superintendent’s December 1953 report was the deciding document to convey the tribal government’s wishes, then the tribal member stories, such as that from Merle Holmes, are correct in saying that the tribes never agreed to termination. In addition, it is possible that Pryse never asked the tribes if they wanted to testify and led Congress to believe that they did not want to testify, effectively cutting off communication between the tribes and Congress.

While Pryse sent several misleading communications about the tribe’s support for termination neither did the Grand Ronde tribe issue any official statements or current resolutions regarding the second termination act, as they had for the first early termination proposal. The final bill, as authored by Pryse, states repeatedly “upon request of the owners” in its presentation text (Affairs 1954a:136), and the follow-up report Withdrawal of Federal Supervision, Grand Ronde and Siletz Jurisdiction, State of Oregon submitted by E. Morgan Pryse (Affairs 1954a:140-153) states:

The attached resolutions indicate the desire of the Siletz and Grand Ronde groups that the Government withdraw its trusteeship over their properties. They are willing to accept the burden of taxation and otherwise to assume full responsibility of citizenship (Affairs 1954a:143).

The “indications” submitted by Pryse therefore do not rise to the level of “approval” of termination. Pryse present the original tribal Business Committee resolutions that date from 1949 and 1951 and were related to the original agreement captured in the first (1951) “Early Withdrawal” termination bill. This agreement, worked out in numerous meetings with the Tribal councils,  was that the tribes would get all of the remaining lands, so they can manage their own affairs, which at the time would have been a good deal for them. But the 1853 bill did not offer this deal, and made it so that all of the Tribal allotted had to now purchase their lands from the government. As such Pryse presented to Congress the agreements passed by the Tribal councils in favor of the 1951 bill, as if the Tribal resolutions represented the the approval for the 1953 bill, as his evidence of their willing Tribal agreement . It appears that  E. Morgan Pryse acted fraudulently. There is no record yet found that suggests that this action was ordered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The contention of the federal government has always been that the Grand Ronde tribe willingly consented to termination, but from the evidence submitted this is not the case. There is no documentation that the general council of the Grand Ronde tribe in 1953 or 1954 “desired” to be terminated under P.L. 588. From the evidence presented here it appears that termination of the tribe was hastened along by bureaucratic misdirection, perpetrated by staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The constant repetition of the story that the tribe willing submitted to termination, based as it was on outdated resolutions, is a fundamental weakness in the federal government’s case. This story of the “willingness of the tribe for termination,” is supported in several follow-up reports, which had the effect of legitimizing it. In the years following termination, many officials were convinced that the tribes had approved of termination and acted accordingly. The following is from H. Rex Lee, Associate Commissioner of the Department of the Interior in correspondence to Senator Wayne Morse on April 30, 1958:

The members of the Confederated tribes of Grand Ronde community thoroughly discussed the proposed termination on at least two occasions, and by resolution passed on August 20, 1951, voted to have Federal supervision withdrawn. . . . the wishes of the tribes as a whole were taken into consideration by the Department and Congress at the time the legislation was considered and the Act passed (Lee 1958).

The issue here is whether the 1949 and 1951 tribal resolutions truly applied to the 1953-1954 termination acts. Lee accepted the legitimacy of this application without questioning whether the agreement for termination changed in 1953.

The legend is so pervasive that despite a body of Tribal oral histories to the contrary many Native people have accepted it as fact. Over two decades later, federal Task Force Ten reports unveiled the truth: “No referendum vote on the subject of termination by Oregon Indian tribes ever took place” (Commission 1976; Ten and Commission 1976:52). Yet, despite lack of documentary evidence for 1953 Grand Ronde support for termination, the myth that the Tribe willingly submitted to termination persists within Indian Country.

The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act

On February 17, 1954, a joint bill S. 2746 and H.R. 7317 was submitted to a Joint Senate and House subcommittee of the Committee on the Interior and Insular Affairs. This joint bill is the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act. It listed sixty tribes, bands, and tribal reservation governments from, Oregon, California (Karok, Tolowa) and a tribe from Washington State (Chinook) (Congress 1954).[6]

The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act stated that the United States would have to settle all accounts owed the Indians and tribes, settle all land claims, and rectify all allotment issues owed the government. In addition, the bill provided for the “termination of Federal supervision over tribal real and personal property of individual Indians” (Affairs 1954a:138), and stated “Federal restrictions are removed from the property of each tribe and its members . . . thereafter such Indians will have the same status under State and Federal law as any other person or citizen” (Affairs 1954a:139).

The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, or Public Law 588, was passed August 13, 1954 (Congress 1954). Published with the act were the first sets of tribal rolls for Grand Ronde and Siletz. Both tribes and the southwestern Oregon communities were given almost two years before the final termination bill was passed to complete the rolls. In addition, the BIA area office had to settle the accounts, and sell all of the land. In the meantime, to facilitate the transition, the federal government began working on education and relocation programs to get tribal people to move away from the reservation and be retrained for their new lives.

Post-Termination Meetings

Following the passing of the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, the BIA continued to hold meetings and make plans with the tribes. In late January 1955, Indian Agent Martin N. B. Holm visited the Grand Ronde Tribal Council:

A short stop was made at Grand Ronde where I talked with Vincent Mercier, Secretary to the council. We discussed the proposed roll and I was assured that it would be submitted within a month or so. There is question as to whether or not they will wish to form a corporation to take over the tribal territory there. We need to discuss this with them in the meeting. Mr. Mercier stated that there was very little interest in Termination at Grand Ronde, and that it was difficult to get a council meeting crowd. He is concerned about the delinquent loans and asked that Credit send strong letters to those who are delinquent. This has been passed on to Credit (Holm 1955b).[7]

Since Grand Ronde had accepted reorganization under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1935, the tribal rolls had been kept up to date, and not much work was needed by the tribe to submit them. Interesting here is Vincent Mercier’s statement on the “lack of interest” in termination at Grand Ronde. It could reflect disagreement with the process or more likely since the legislation had been passed, a feeling of powerlessness among many in the community with the inevitability of termination.  However interpreted, it is not a ringing endorsement.

In 1955, Acting Area Director Martin B. Holm continued reporting and acting in the style of previous Area Director Pryse regarding the assimilation of the tribes in Oregon and their readiness for termination,

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has, over the period of many years, assiduously sponsored and promoted education of Indian children of the west coast tribes of Oregon, and in this process has mixed the Indian children with white children through school contacts. Association with the whites, in school and general society of their respective communities, has resulted in intermarriage and wide assimilation has taken place (1955b:19).

This positive comment on the eve of the final passage of the termination act helped to assuage any fears on the part of Congress as to whether western Oregon Indians were prepared for termination.


Confusion about Termination

The dozen years (1944-56) preceding termination of the Grand Ronde Reservation were fraught with confusion and misconceptions of the meaning of termination and what would actually happen once the tribe was terminated. The fact that the issues that the tribe and the Indian Office staff in Portland discussed and agreed upon changed during the course of ten years added to the confusion. The understanding that the Grand Ronde Tribal Council had of termination in 1951 was very different from that passed by Congress in 1954 (Congress 1954). In 1950, the Grand Ronde people assumed that they would keep the land, but in P.L. 588 in 1954, there was no provision for keeping the land as all reservation land was subject to sale.

Despite the many years of discussions between the Portland Area Indian Office and the tribal members as outlined by Superintendent Pryse, there was no indication that the people knew all that termination would entail. Confusion about hunting and fishing rights, rights to the reservation timberlands, and their ability to keep their allotted lands were some of the points of contention. In fact, in an example from the Klamath Indian reservation, in a Stanford University Research Institute Report, only fourteen Klamaths believed that the tribe had requested trust withdrawal, and four Klamaths believed that the tribal members were more assimilated than other terminated tribes (Fixico 1986a:123). Much of this confusion was aided by the fact that the BIA Indian Agents kept the tribes uninformed or misinformed about how the process for termination would work. The tribes, cut off from information, and afterward suddenly terminated, were understandably confused as to what their rights were.

Final Vote at Grand Ronde

There was a final vote before the general council at Grand Ronde that approved of termination. This vote took place after P.L. 588 passed. In 1975, before the Task Force Ten hearings in Salem, Oregon, Tribal Council member Merle Holmes discussed the final vote in favor of termination:

Mr. Holmes: . . . of the 882 people on our . . . termination roll . . . there were 79 yeses and 11 nos on this, and we feel that this isn’t enough to constitute the majority because it was [supposed to be] 2/3 of the adult population, as I recall, in our charter to, we feel, kind of slip it by the people there. There weren’t enough there to actually voice the will of those people . . .

Ms. Hunt: was this prior to the passage of the act or was this just on the distribution of assets?

Mr. Holmes: that was to accept the act as it was executed.

Ms. Hunt: and it was already passed into law?

Mr. Holmes: Yes (Ten and Commission 1976:128-129).

Merle Holmes testimony proves that the vote of the general council at Grand Ronde was not representative of the will of the people. In addition, it is unclear whether the vote was necessary. If P.L. 588 was already law, then there were no requirements of Congress to gain an agreement from the Grand Ronde tribe in favor of termination. The Indian Agents treated the approval of the tribes as a formality, though it was a recommended part of the government process.


Tribes in western states possessed great-untapped resources and lands, and the state and federal governments sought to possess those assets for the benefit of the new settlers and for the growth of the western economy. Previous agricultural methods had degraded the agricultural potential of the Midwest United States, causing a Great Dust Bowl, and the states of this region needed more natural resources to rebuild. Untouched natural resources were to be had on tribal reservations but access to them was limited by the continued existence of the tribes and the federal government who protected tribal sovereignty.

Termination was termed an experiment by at least one Indian Agent. Martin N. B. Holm, Assistant Area Director of the Portland Area office declared, “Western Oregon will be a testing ground” for Indian termination (Holm 1954a). Holm’s statement, on the eve of the termination of the western Oregon Indians, is telling. The federal government had never carried out such a policy as termination and did not know what would occur, or how termination would affect Indians that had always been protected by federal trust status. The experiment was a politically propelled assimilative movement based on the economic needs of many levels of government and individuals and the continued desire to eliminate American Indians as a perceived liability.

The State of Oregon’s preparation for termination commenced early in the termination discussions, but first the state government had to establish a relationship with the tribes. State politicians saw termination as a significant boon to the state as it would free up lands and resources to help the local economies. However, the state needed to rectify a few discriminatory laws in order to make termination more attractive. The most organized of the state’s preparations was that of education. Under Harvey Wright, Director of Education, many Indians entered education and training programs and were successful. Termination was not a seamless affair as many Indians entered the welfare rolls immediately.

The greatest impact on the tribes’ culture was the success of the program of assimilation in Oregon. The collaboration between the BIA and the State took Indian families off the former reservations and into the cities to live permanently. The combination of the federal relocation program and the state’s education programs proved to be particularly effective.

In the years following termination in western Oregon, many tribal people reacted with confusion, not truly understanding what the act did to their tribe. Many petitioned to be added to the final rolls only to be denied by federal and state officials. Others sought to practice their cultural rights as Indians to hunt and fish or participate in other tribal events. The non-terminated tribes interpreted terminated tribes as having sold-out, and as voluntarily giving up being culturally Indian. The state insisted that Indian people obtain regular state issue hunting and fishing permits even though the termination acts never took away these rights.

Finally, the majority of tribal members left the former reservation, causing a loss of family and impacting the quality of the lives of those in the native community that remained at the reservation. People scattered to far-away cities and lost connections with their families. Native languages, oral histories and community consciousness ceased to exist for many.

Most Native families struggled and many immediately began accessing state and federal social services and struggled with assimilation. On May 11, 1954, A. S. Wright, Chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Indian Affairs, addressed the issue of whether the terminated tribes were truly assimilated enough, or prepared to be terminated:

A quick survey of the Klamath Tribe would not support the thesis that these people have the necessary education, business experience, background, or the unanimity of purpose of managing a hundred-million-dollar corporation. If the assets of the reservation were liquidated and distributed among the members of the tribe, it is inconceivable that the people would have the necessary business acumen to handle their assets judiciously. Frankly the State of Oregon could possibly face the fiasco of having the reservation liquidated, all the timber cut off, the watershed denuded, and hundreds of Indians in relief (Wright 1954).

Wright’s statement reveals that the state administration in 1954 was well aware of the problems of termination, and, his last phrase, “hundreds of Indians in relief,” does in fact foretell the future for most of the Indians in Oregon that were terminated.

The termination of the Grand Ronde tribe is an example of an inconsistent and manipulative policy by Congress and the State of Oregon, in favor of assimilation and eradication of the state’s tribal resources, culture, and heritage. This experiment changed tribal cultures and communities in ways that descendant peoples may never recover from.

Essay note: This essay is adapted from Chapter 5 in my 2009 Dissertation. The full dissertation is online at the UO Scholars bank. Some of the following notes refer to sections in the dissertation. 



[1] Full transcript of telegram: September twenty-eighth results meeting Siletz September thirtieth, indicated vote twenty eight to nothing to hold another meeting October seventh when decision would be made on acceptance of legislation on withdrawal indicated by vote sixteen to nothing legislation accepted with few exceptions to be worked out next Sunday October seventh.

Unanimous opposition by the forty-four members present to accept sub section B of section two unless before corporation under state law is formed the tribal timber lands are sold and proceeds of sale distributed among membership contending that is corporation accepted fee patent and sold such land much of proceeds would be eaten up in Federal and State tax assessments thus dissipating their heritage. Apparently, Siletz Indians wish form corporation to conduct enterprise and operate cemetery following Federal withdrawal. If Secretary of the Interior will approve sale of Tribal timber land now we believe no further opposition by Siletz in approving proposed legislation.

[2] Douglas McKay owned a car dealership in Salem previous to being the Governor.

[3] Full transcription of Wright’s speech: The only way we will rid ourselves of the so-called Indian problem in Oregon is for the state, the counties, and the local communities to accept all Indians as citizens and accord them the same rights, benefits, and privileges as other citizens. I think the Indians must be given full citizenship rights, and that they must assume the obligations and duties of full citizenship; furthermore it seems only logical to me that the federal government should subsidize the state of Oregon during this period of transition.

I am aware of the legalistic web of some 4,000 treaties and statutes and the thousands of judicial decisions and administrative rulings that enshroud the Indian. I am also aware that the Indian is a mythical legendary figure in the eyes of the public, alternatively pictured as a cruel, crafty, bloodthirsty savage, or as a poor, misguided, misunderstood aborigine whose culture must be preserved at all costs.

If the state of Oregon sees fit to explore the proposals discussed at this meeting, we must first find out where we want to go. Is the Indian capable of becoming a first class citizen? Is he capable of learning? Is he capable of handling his own affairs, or will he ever be capable of doing so? Can the state take care of all its citizens, or are the Indians special problems that must be handled by the federal government? Is segregation the answer?

If we are to accept the thesis that the Indian is a normal human being, then we must initiate a program that will eventually give him full citizenship and assimilate him into our society. However, I do not think that the Interstate Council on Indian Affairs should make any change in the status quo without the advice and counsel of the Indians. I know from experience that it will take a lot of tenacity and courage to carry such a program through. There will be some Indians that will fight such a program, some of the leeches hanging onto the present program will fight any change, and we always have our sentimentalists that want to preserve the Indian culture.

If we believe in the democracy to which we give lip service, if we believe in the principals on which our country was founded, then we must carefully consider the possibility of accepting the responsibility of all or our citizens.

Our national policy in Indian affairs has been a zig-zag affair. Our first policy was extermination; we then tried the idea of segregation; and the latest experiment was an attempt to get the Indian to return to the tribal autonomy that his fathers were presumed to enjoy, and to preserve his culture. To me the logic of present events is all in opposition to segregation. I believe that our final policy must be assimilation. (McKay, 1950).

[4] For the full list of the tribes terminated in P.L. 588, see Appendix E, Reference 3.

[5] It is unclear if there were missing sections or the review copy was incomplete.

[6] See Appendix I or Appendix E, Reference 3.

[7] See Appendix E, Reference 1 for the full report.

[8] The programs closed for the tribes following their termination date, 1956 for western Oregon Indians, or 1961 for the Klamath.

[9] See Appendix E, Reference 3.

[10] See Appendix E, Reference 2.

[11] These petitions are likely in the BIA Portland Area Office desk files at the National Archives in Seattle. A few petitions were found in limited research in the desk files boxes. These were primarily for inclusion in the Grand Ronde, and Klamath tribes. Many wanted to be included because of the eventual larger payout from the Indian Claims cases.

[12] There is some confusion about this period. See discussion in chapter 6.

One thought on “To Improve the Status of Our First Citizens: The Irony and Fraud of Tribal Termination

  1. In the 1950s, the council of the CLUS always opposed termination. Buried in my files I have a letter written by then-chairman, Howard Barrett Jr, written to the UN trying to appeal to intervene – but that went nowhere.

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