The Cloud of Mistrust

A member of the English faculty at Leland Stanford for thirty-fire years and an acknowledged authority on the short story, EDITH M IKHI spent much of her childhood within half a mile of an Indian reservation and later, at the invitation of John Col Iyer, then Commissioner of Indian Affairs, served for a number of years as a consultant in education in the Southwest. The present policy of moving Indians off land which they owned by treaty and of relocating them in metropolitan areas has been, as she demonstrates, a grave injustice.



IN AUGUST, 1953, President Eisenhower signed Public Law 280 — a law providing for the termination of a long-established federalIndian relationship. In the same year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs notably quickened its pace in carrying out its project for settling Indians off their reservations, usually in areas remote from the reservations. These two, law and project (bulwarked two years later by a Bureau memorandum dealing with land), are representative of policies which have directed Indian Bureau action since 1950 — the one, a policy of termination; the other, of aided dispersal. Each has been a center of sharp controversy. Each, therefore, is worth a careful look.

Of the two, relocation has had the larger share of public attention — of white attention, that is. The plan for relocation in its present form was developed during the Commissionership of Dillon Myer (1950-1952), but its implementation has been accomplished chiefly under his successor, Glenn L. Emmons. Its immediate direction is from a Denver office headed by Charles F. Miller, khe main features of the program are these: Agents are sent to the various reservations to announce the Bureau’s interest in relocating Indians and the assistance it offers — free transportation from reservation to relocation point, money for the weeks immediately after arrival, help in settling and in finding a job. To make good these promises, offices have been opened in a number of the larger cities, and it is to these cities for the most part that relocating Indians are sent.

Both in Denver and in Washington, much emphasis is put on the movement’s being voluntary and having been undertaken in answer to requests from Indians themselves. There is no occasion to doubt either statement. In the wake of World War II many veterans returned reluctantly to their tribes and found themselves discontented there. These were men who had lived and worked with whites and so were acquainted with two ways of life. When one of them (or, for that matter, any Indian with a long period of outside experience) decided on the one life as against the other, he knew what he was doing. His decision was voluntary in the full sense of the word.

As for the rest? Certainly no Indian was dragged, unwilling, from his accustomed living place to be set down in Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver. Every one of those relocated (except perhaps some wives) chose to go. However, for those who had had no experience comparable to that of veterans, whose lives had been reservation-bounded, the word “voluntary” takes on a different meaning. The choices they made were grab-bag choices; they could not be otherwise, no matter what the explanations offered in advance.

And reservation Indians hesitating over their decisions were subject, too, to a pair of pressures intended by nobody. One was the lure of “something for nothing” in the form of free transportation and subsistence; the other, an uneasiness, a kind of fear. Once an individual had shown an interest, let himself be talked to, listened, would he lose the agent’s good will if he refused to go? Would he get the agent and the powerful Bureau “down on him"? It is a fear familiar to the insecure everywhere, but in Indians it is often stronger than in others. Indian history explains that. “We’re like wheat,” a Hopi woman once said. “The wind blows, we bend over. It blows the other way, we bend that way. All we know is, you better do what they want. You can’t stand up when there’s wind.”

Influenced, then, by their own inexperience and by these added pressures, not all who chose to go chose wisely. It was not to be expected that they would. Yet for the years 1953 to 1955 the Bureau records show that of 5017 relocated persons, only 1308 were known by the Bureau to have returned to their earlier homes. Out of a little more than 5000, a little more than 3700 settled into new places, oftenest cities, and stayed there. On the face of it, a good record for the early experimental years of any program.

Unhappily, though, the face of it is not quite trustworthy. What it fails to show is the fact that while the government pays the costs of transportation from the reservation, it does not pay for transportation back again. Not, so far as can be learned, under any circumstances. Not though the job is lost. Not for sickness. Not though wife and children, and husband too, hate the new environment and fear it.

“At the time Indians make application for relocation services,” a letter from the Denver office states, “it is explained to them clearly that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is unable to pay return transportation to their homes in the event they elect to return.” An employee in one of the offices put it more briefly. “We couldn’t. When we brought them, we brought them to stay. And besides, if we did, they’d just come for the ride.”

Some would come for the ride, no doubt of it. Limits would need to be set. A trial period, perhaps, in the new place? A refusal of aid for any second attempt? But a flat no — a mistake once made and no help, ever, for unmaking it — is unthinkable. The more it is pondered with all the circumstances in mind — the visiting agents, the tempting ready money, the urgency to try the unknown merely because it is the unknown — the more unthinkable it becomes. It is like offering a child who is in your power food he has never yet eaten. If he takes it, tastes it, detests it, still (he being in your power) he must, eat it to the last spoonful.

Not all, of course, do eat to the last spoonful. In the two years covered by the record, 1308 (rumor makes it more than twice as many) had already escaped from the consequences of their misjudgment. How? Again, the Denver office: “It is generally known that transportation costs of those who do return are obtained from employment.” And how many, lacking those costs, apply to the Bureau for help and are refused? “There is presently no record of persons in this category.”

Let it be said at once that refusals are no fault of Mr. Miller, who heads the Denver office and whose past dealings with minority groups are of the best. Neither are they the fault of personnel in the various offices, some of whom show a missionary zeal in their efforts to reconcile newcomers to the new environment. Decisions presumably are made at the top.

Wherever made, however, this is a decision that needs remaking—for the Bureau’s own sake. As it stands, it discounts official figures and lends weight to the unofficial. It leaves the door wide open to exaggeration and misunderstanding. And on the reservations and among interested whites, it breeds a sense of outrage. The Bureau is asking Congress for an extra million this year for this particular program. Surely a fraction of that million spent in returning the unhappy to their homes as readily as they were brought away from them would be money well invested.


ELOCATION does not, of course, concern only the relocated. If every one of these stayed, prospered, and was content; or if every one dragged on in misery, longing for escape, still the question of the program’s wisdom and purpose would be only a fortieth part answered. Conservatively estimated, more than 200,000 Indians live on reservations. What, if anything, do these think of the emphasis now placed on this particular program? IIow do they feel it affects their present and their future?

Nobody, of course, can answer for the whole 200,000. It is impossible to say “Indians have found . . .” or “Indians are convinced . . .” — exactly as it is impossible to say the same of Europeans or of white Americans. This much, though, can be ventured: many Indians look upon relocation as a part, and the smaller part, of a concerted Bureau movement aimed at their destruction. Why they believe this, why they continue to believe it in the face of official disclaimers, is not difficult to understand if we recall some of the unsavory history of federal-Indian relations.

Relocation, in itself, is no new thing in that history. Tribes have been relocated time after time. As soon as the land on which a tribe had been placed came to be coveted by whites — farmers, stockmen, miners — that tribe was on the move. Usually the move was westward. Usually, too, it was from better land to worse. The acrid comment of a Navajo teacher, “There is, it appears, an affinity between Indians and worthless land,” says a good deal as to why Indians in numbers are suspicious of the Bureau programs of the last half decade, relocation along with the rest.

Two of the justifications for that suspicion cannot be lightly dismissed. For more than a hundred years Indian landholdings decreased steadily in amount. In 1934 the decrease was halted and an upward move began. That upward movement in its turn has now been halted and reversed. Half a million acres were lost to the tribes in 1955 alone, although one of the reasons given for relocation is that there is not enough reservation land to support the Indians. Some reservation lands, too, have become valuable, as they were not when they were set aside for tribal use. The Navajo is an example — hand so poor that several hundred acres could barely support a cow; land now so rich in subsoil wealth that prospectors abound in it and mining interests compete for leases.

It is not, then, so much relocation in itself that is a cause of suspicion as relocation as part of a program that leads to loss of land on the one hand, and on the other to the pushing off by Washington of long-accepted responsibilities. Which leads, of course, to Public Law 280.

What Public Law 280 did was to withdraw from the federal courts in five states — California, Nebraska, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin — their jurisdiction over criminal cases involving Indians and to vest that jurisdiction in the states. It also gave to states other than the five named the power to make the same change on their own initiative. No requirement was laid on them to obtain consent either from the tribal councils within their borders or from the Department of the Interior. Other changes in federal-Indian relations became law at the same time — one ending federal restrictions on Indians’ buying of liquor, another doing the same for firearms and ammunition, another authorizing payment for Indian land taken for a reclamation project — but in importance the two provisions first cited, and especially the second of the two, outweighed the rest.

President Eisenhower, though he signed the measure, did so with expressed reluctance, acknowledging “grave doubts” as to its wisdom and urging that it be amended at the next session of Congress. Nonetheless, once a bill reaches the White House desk, it is signed in its entirety or it dies. This one was signed.

Protests came promptly, one of the earliest from the New York Times, which had given very full news coverage to the bill. In a soberly worded editorial, the Times pointed out what might seem to be obvious, that

in the absence of an emergency, it is usually wiser and safer to withhold approval of a bill until its dangerous provisions are eliminated rather than to grant approval in the hope that at some time in the future they will be eliminated.

A final sentence laid on the Administration and on Congress “the unmistakable responsibility ... to see that the offending sections are corrected.”

Responsibilities unmistakable to an editor, however, can sit lightly on governmental shoulders. If, when Congress reconvened, there was pressure from the White House to alter the law, it was pressure that brought no result. The law stood as it had been signed. A paragraph in the Secretary of the Interior’s 1955 report disposes of the subject:—

Amendments were proposed in Congress . . . which would require Indian consent before the extension of State jurisdiction to any Indian reservation. The Department, however, recommended an amendment which would require consultation rather than consent. Neither type of amendment was enacted.

Clearly, a victory for the Bureau. Consent not necessary. Consultation only at the Bureau’s pleasure.

Actually, Commissioner Emmons has been assiduous in seeking out Indian groups. Consultations have been frequent, but they are consultations where unhampered authority speaks on the one side and the subjects of that authority on the other. A blanket congressional resolution made certain that, within very wide limits indeed, authority would be unhampered. In conformity with it, federal responsibility toward Indians has been shifted in many instances away from the Bureau — shifted as fast, apparently, as another body is found willing to assume it. Local Extension agents have begun to supersede those of the Bureau. Public Health Service takes care of Indian health. Indian children (except where distance prevents) go to public schools.

How far the shifts are good, how far bad, from the Indians’ standpoint, is still of course a matter of controversy, and will be for a long time to come. One thing, however, is certain: except in the rarest instances and in the smallest degree, the changes were made without that “consent of the governed” which is supposed to be of primary importance in a democratic land. Where consent did come, it came as agreement to a course already charted.

Among the many changes made, those embodied in Public Law 280 stood out from the rest (or did until the spring of ‘55) in that their effects were swiftly obvious. It is common knowledge that Indians are frequently at a disadvantage in state courts. When the disadvantage leads to obvious injustice, it becomes newsworthy and so perhaps draws enough public notice to bring about correction. Most cases, though, are not newsworthy. The slightly lessened probability of an Indian’s being acquitted, the slightly heavier sentence a convicted Indian draws, the extra grain of credence a white jury gives to white witnesses — these are the handicaps under which Indians on trial suffer, and these have no news value.

The handicaps do not, of course, always exist. Discrimination is not present in every state, nor in all trials in any state. It tends, though, to appear oftener in state courts than in federal, and for reasons easily understandable. Until a little over a year ago, the shift made possible by Public Law 280 seemed to have bred more bitterness than any of the accompanying Bureau changes — not only in Indians brought to trial but in those who watched the sometimes lopsided process.


THE federal withdrawals cited so far affected many individuals but only as individuals, not as communities. An Indian farmer who complained, “They told us this way [by using local Extension services] we would have lots of experts to help us. I haven’t seen even one expert,” was after all only one farmer. An Indian family brooding over its children’s difficulties in a white school was still only one family. In May of 1955, however, a move was made which struck at the community — struck at all organized Indian life. A memorandum sent to “all area directors except Juneau,” its subject “Issuance of patents in fee to competent applicants,” reversed (the word used in the memorandum is “modified”) the terms on which an Indian might sell his land allotment.

By the older ruling it was required that the sale “have no serious adverse effect upon the applicant’s family, his land, or the tribe,” and “would not destroy or jeopardize a timber unit or grazing area.” The so-called modification nullified these restrictions. Sale by an individual “need not be subordinated to the interests of his tribe, nor to the management of the land as a part of a timber or grazing unit. ... In the administration of this liberalized policy you may approve applications for patents in fee on allotments without making arrangements for access to other lands remaining in trust status.” The area director may grant applications on his own authority. He may not, though, deny them. “When in your judgment the application . . . should be denied, you should submit the case to this office.”

Private associations dedicated to Indian aid are patient groups, careful not to antagonize, trusting to persuasion. This memorandum, though, brought them, fighting, into the field. Within five weeks after it was made public, Indians and whites laboring together, the National Congress of American Indians, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the Indian Rights Association, the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation, had taken counsel with one another, had formulated and publicized their protest: —

Both the federal government and the Indian tribes of the country have spent millions of dollars in recent years in order to consolidate their grazing and timber lands. This effort and expenditure is endangered by a change of policy recently stated by the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Glenn L. Emmons, in a memorandum to area directors. . . .

Indian Bureau policy, until this administration, was at least a brake to the sale of lands that would destroy tribal timber or grazing units. The new policy . . . disregards completely the possibility that a land sale may ruin a valuable tribal or grazing unit. It even instructs area directors to disregard the need of preserving access to lands remaining in trust. This policy violates basic principles of land use and conservation.

The change . . . has been adopted without consultation with, let alone the consent of, the Indian peoples — a violation of the promise to consult made by President Eisenhower and reaffirmed as a Bureau policy numerous times by Commissioner Emmons. . . .

Indian individual trust allotments had been carved out of the lands originally owned by the tribes. . . . Given to individual Indians without charge, it has heretofore been the policy of the Government to require that where an individual sells his interest, the results of his action for the tribe had to be considered. . . .

In the case of grazing units non-Indian stockmen would frequently attempt to obtain control by purchasing so-called “key tracts” — for instance, those having water.

It is the strong opinion of the National Congress of American Indians (an organization composed of Indian tribal and individual members), the Association on American Indian Affairs (a citizen group with a long-standing record of informed concern on Indian matters), the Indian Rights Association (with its tradition of active work in Indian Welfare), and the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation that the Indian Bureau’s new fee-patent policy will do great harm to the overwhelming majority of American Indians living on allotted reservations.

This was a pronouncement no Administration could wholly ignore. The welfare work of the Friends stands high in public esteem the world over. The National Congress of American Indians, though new, is already of importance. The Association on American Indian Affairs, the Indian Rights Association, both have long and honorable records. Within days other protests came — from tribes, from individuals. How many of these went direct to the Bureau or to the Secretary of the Interior (at that time, Douglas McKay) and now lie in their files is impossible to know. Some protests appeared in local newspapers and in open letters to members of the government. The letters that did reach an audience spread often over a whole field of grievances but with two always at the core: land — its ownership, its protection — and those agreements with the United States government, now being pushed off, which had induced or compelled Indians to surrender other land. An open letter from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to Commissioner Emmons is representative: —

We are an aggrieved people. The disappointments and injustices extended to us through the violation of the spirit and terms of our treaties with the United States Government have brought endless humiliation, misery and despair to our people. . . .

We have repeatedly petitioned that the sale of lands on our reservation to non-Indians be prohibited. . , . You have persistently indicated that you will not change your policy of permitting the sale of Indian lands to non-Indians, and you have stated . . . that it is the American Way and the American Tradition.

This may be in the American Way and the American Tradition of ignoring treaties and . . . breaking the pride and will of our people and relocating us. . . . But it is not in the tradition of keeping treaties, and it is not in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln.

The same treaties that created Fort Hall Indian Reservation unconditionally guaranteed the fulfillment of every grant for which . . . we do here petition. Are we to expect less of honor from our own government than is exhibited toward . . . foreign nations?

Defense of the Bureau’s actions and purposes came from the Commissioner, from the Secretary — usually in speeches and usually with space given to several points other than those involved in the memorandum. None bridged the gulf between the official attitude and that of the protesting groups. If anything, the official pronouncements served chiefly to show how wide that gulf was. Nonetheless, because of the attention the controversy drew, and still more because of an altered climate in Congress, the four associations found some encouragement,, chiefly through the increased publicity and support given to their Point 4 Program — their unanimously endorsed plan for reservation betterment.

Point 4 is what its name implies. It urges on Congress and on the Administration the provision of money and technical aid for reservations as these have been provided for foreign nations. It urges that the help be given as it has been to foreign nations — through the established Indian governing bodies and accompanied by counsel, not compulsion.

The chance of such a plan’s being taken seriously, adopted, put into execution? At the moment, very slight. The present Commissioner dismisses it as “a tremendous expenditure of Federal funds" made to no purpose because “on most reservations there simply is not enough land to go around,” and there are therefore “definite physical limits to what can he done.” With some well-informed persons, however, his disapproval, though it cannot be discounted, has less weight because of the land policies followed during his term of office and because of the years of experience and observation and study of those who formulated the program.

To these and others —a growing number — the program seems to offer the most hopeful solution that has appeared since the Indian Reorganization Act (1934-1953) inaugurated what a Friends’ publication named the government’s “return to longforgotten principles of just and honorable treatment for Indians.”

There used to be a saying in Washington in the early twenties — perhaps there is still — that any man who let himself he appointed to the Commissionership of Indian Affairs showed by doing so that he was not fit to be a Commissioner. The task is acknowledgedly one of disheartening complexity. Every Commissioner is, in part, the victim of all the Commissioners who have preceded him. He finds himself caught in webs of laws, treaties, resolutions, prohibitions, which he had no hand in making and which may differ from tribe to tribe. Whatever he does, he must do in haste with usually four years or less for his full accomplishment. And he works against a cloud of mistrust grown thick with time.

If the Commissioner, then, seems here to have been cast as the villain of the piece, these handicaps should be remembered. Still more it should be remembered that he does not act alone or solely on his own motion, though he is the one who stands out in full view. Above him is the Secretary of the Interior. Above the Secretary is the President. Behind all three is Congress with its power to initiate legislation, grant or deny appropriations. And behind Congress, of course, lies the huge, often indifferent, bulk of the American people, who, when they care to take the trouble, mark out the path the other four will follow.

So far, in regard to Indians, they have not taken the trouble. Now, with clearly set, opposing programs facing them, it looks a little as though they may begin to do so.