John Collier and Indian Termination Policy

As Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier was a long-term advocate for Indian tribes. In the 1920s, John Collier, a trained sociologist, led efforts in Washington, D.C. to repeal the Dawes Indian Allotment Act (1887) and its overt attempt to assimilate Indians. John Collier was very critical of the Indian Office and in 1928 wrote the Meriam Report, published as, “The Problem of Indian Administration” with the support of Congress. In 1962, John Collier had this to say about his earlier understandings of Indian society.

“In those years, I still took for granted our modern fatalism: that the Indian’s spirit, and all aboriginal and ancient spirit, had to die… The ensuing twenty-five years seem to have proved that the fatalism was wrong, not only as applied to the American tribal Indian but as applied to groups in many parts of the world” (Collier 1962).

John Collier

John Collier’s constant struggle for reform against “corrupt government” got him appointed by reformer President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. Collier immediately got to work establishing programs in support of American Indians, many of which are still in existence. These are the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps (1933), the Indian New Deal (1934), the Indian Reorganization Act (or Wheeler-Howard Act 1934), and the Johnson O’Malley Act (1934). John Collier was tasked with reducing services to tribes while he attempted to increase tribal sovereignty over their own affairs. Collier was arguably the most significant political figure in Indian Affairs in the 20th century.

There were two schools of thought about how to solve the “Indian Problem”, one was that of Congress, to quickly assimilate Indians, and the other was Collier’s inception, to support self-determination and tribalism.  Throughout his career, John Collier worked directly with tribes to understand what they needed by making extended visits to reservations and working directly on Indian legislation. In 1945, John Collier, criticized for not doing enough to solve the “Indian problem”, tendered his resignation.

In 1943, John Collier participated in one of the first in-depth discussions about termination, in the hearings before the Committee on Indian Affairs. During these hearings, Collier fully explores the possibility of the relieving Federal supervision if the tribes with the Senators.  First, Collier presents a letter from a un-named attorney from California.

“Of this 400,000, how many of them are full-blooded Indians, how many are half-breeds, and how many of the blood of a lesser degree? Should the Federal government be concerned with 400,000 Indians through its Indian Bureau? I suspect that probably not more, if 200,000 of them, are half-blood or more. Are we not just handing out political pap to a great number of persons who are not Indians; who do not live as Indians, and should not be subsidized as Indians? Are we not, in order to do this, maintaining a considerable administrative staff that should not exist in the Indian Bureau?… Should not a means be devised to eliminate the guardianship and place these Indians, or so-called Indians, depending on blood, irrevocably in the normal citizenry of the country where they belong? Could not practically the whole California situation be terminated as a federal problem within the next 5 to 10 years at the outside?” (Committee on Indian Affairs 1943:15-16).

Then, Collier responds and appears to agree with the un-named attorney and states,

“Why not begin and find out how many of the Indians, here and now, can be relieved of Federal supervision, or relieved after certain definable intermediate steps? I suspect that you will find that more than 100,000 could be released, or could be “shed-off” from Federal subsidy…. The Indian Service is spending a million dollars a year, or even more, on the unproductive handling of fractionalized heirship land…. I have made it a point… to tell them that we are spending unnecessarily millions in these unproductive real estate operations, and legislation is needed to terminate this waste” (Committee on Indian Affairs 1943:16).

In this issue, John Collier agrees that there is significant waste in the Indian Bureau. In Collier’s statements, he is agreeing and even proposing the principles behind the termination, regardless of his past support for Indian self-sufficiency and self-governance.

Under the John Collier directorship (1933-1945) the policy was changed to self-determination for many tribes. Collier supported the growth of tribalism (McNickle 1973), and Tribal political power increased. Collier helped tribal governments with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), as well as a host of other acts. Indian reorganization has tribes in 1935 andd1936 creating constitutions where they had to elect leaders in democratic elections in order to gain the status of self-determination. Most tribes did this to gain some freedom from Federal management.

Collier did follow through with an inventory of federal assets n the nation’s reservations. The inventory called the “10-year plans” (1944) was completed for every reservation and tribal community. The “10-year plans” details all assets on the reservations, as detailed in the society and economics of the reservation communities. For the most part, the reports from the reservations in Oregon glowed with how well the tribes were doing. The report for Grand Ronde-Siletz detailed that the tribal people were fully employed and everyone had nice houses and were fully assimilated people. this is likely all true for the most part as many of the tribal people in 1944 were employed in the war industry in Portland Oregon or elsewhere, as they had taken jobs that normally went to white men, most of whom had enlisted and gone to war in either the Pacific or Europe. Even Native women were fully employed in the Keiser shipyards in Portland many taking “Rosie the Riveter” type jobs in manual labor like welding. The tribal people then looked assimilated enough to go ahead and liquidate the reservations and they would be OK. Unfortunately, when the war ended and white men left the service to return home, they were given preference to any jobs and then most native people lost their positions and had to return to their reservations where there was little or no wage labor, and so they returned to poverty.

Collier was tasked with reducing government expenditures and reducing tribal reliance on the federal government. When self-determination did not produce quick results, Collier was ousted (1945) and the liquidation policy became the notion of termination of the reservation system and the Indian service. The federal government needed to eliminate any extra overhead in the administration because the military budget had grown immensely during WWII. That budget did not go away after the war as then the US had to help rebuild Europe and Japan and set up a series of bases around to world to keep an eye on world politics and other things to fend off threats to the US and their allies (Marshall Doctrine extreme). In 1952 the planned liquidation policy officially became Termination policy because, in order to liquidate the reservations, the federal government had to find a path to terminate the treaties of the tribes first, the foundation for most tribal rights, and treaties are considered part of the “Law of the Land” as noted by none less than the U.S. Constitution.

Termination policy actions proceeded unequally based on the whims of the federal officials who had some passive or active experience with a few tribes. When Governor Douglas McKay of Oregon, In his second term, was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be Secretary of the Interior (1952) termination policy actions proceeded quickly. McKay had been in a group of 17 Governors who were discussing the implications of termination legislation for at least 4-5 years. McKay was already well sold on the idea of termination and politicians in Oregon saw termination as beneficial to the economy of the state. By 1950 timber profits were well down, most of the old-growth of the Cascades and Coast ranges were already logged and the last remaining large stands of old-growth were on a few remaining large reservations.

McKay, along with Senators Neuberger and Condon, saw the opening of the Klamath Reservation ponderosa stands, almost 1 million acres, as potentially beneficial to logging in the state. McKay pursued Klamath for their wealth of timber, and their ownership of the headwaters of the Klamath River. There was already a plan in place to dam the Klamath for California hydropower needs, requiring the termination of at least four reservations (Klamath, Yurok, Karuk, & Shasta) and the rights of these tribes to fishing in the Klamath. At termination, the Klamath tribe was only paid for timber stands and nothing was paid for water, fishing, hunting or any subsurface resources. Klamath was terminated by their termination bill in 1954 (PL 587), but final termination did not happen until 1961 and the disposition of the Klamath timberlands was decided. The last unsold lands became the Winema National Forest.

The question of the Western Oregon tribes. Grand Ronde and Siletz remained. These tribes remained small and had few lands left. Siletz had about 2,000 acres of the original 1.1 million-acre reservation. Grand Ronde had about 597 acres left of the original 60,000-acre reservation. So they did not have much in the way of resources to help the Oregon economy. Reasoning this out, it seemed that Secretary McKay, as the de facto leader of federal termination policy, needed to set an example for other states, and so began early termination proceedings for “his” tribes in the State of Oregon. Once the Governors and other politicians saw Secretary McKay set the example of how to get it done, they would likely follow suit to terminate the tribes in their states. The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act  (PL 588) was passed in 1954, and the final termination took place in 1956.

From this effort, 64 tribes in Oregon were terminated in two termination bills Public Law 587 and 588, which terminated the Klamath, Grand Ronde, and Siletz reservations and some 60 named tribes, some in California, some in Washington State and others living off-reservation. 109 tribes were terminated nationally in numerous states. Within 2 years the final dams were built on the Klamath River at Shasta.

Termination policy continued until the 1980s when President Jimmy Carter “officially” changed National Indian Policy to Self Determination.


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