Sovereignty

By the 1930s, reform groups were criticizing Indian affairs policy by pointing to fiscal mismanagement and social injustice. In 1924, Congress had declared Indians to be citizens of the United States, yet they still were considered wards of the federal government and denied the right to vote in many states. The reform movement laid the groundwork for a major change in Indian policy when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1933. His administration worked with Congress to pass legislation to allow Indians to participate in the recovery programs that benefited all Americans during the Depression.

In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) ended the allotment of reservation land, permanently established trust title to Indian land, provided for the purchase of more land for Indians, established a credit program for Indian communities, and recognized the legitimacy of tribal governments. The new policy reaffirmed that Indians were tribal citizens, as well as U.S. citizens (just as other Americans had dual citizenship in other countries). Congress also provided for freedom of religion for Indian people.

Indian people subsequently pressed for more control over their communities and more personal freedom. Indian veterans of World War II introduced more assertive strategies in their communities and played an important role in the establishment of the National Congress of American Indians in 1944. This organization lobbied in Washington DC for Indian rights.

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By the 1950s, responding to a backlash among their constituents, Congress tried to reverse the policy of supporting tribal communities. New legislation provided for the termination of the trust relationship if Congress decided that a tribe no longer needed protection. In such cases, funds could be withdrawn for tribal health and education. And the trust title to land protected Indians from the loss of land to state and local taxes. In 1954, Congress terminated the Menominee, who had a lumber business that was competitive with non-Indian lumber interests.

Congress also passed legislation enabling Michigan and Wisconsin to extend legal jurisdiction over Indian reservations without tribal consent. Many Indian children were removed from their communities and sent to non-Indian foster homes. And, a national “relocation” program promoted the resettlement of reservation Indians in cities, including Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids.

WHAT HAS COMMUNITY LIFE BEEN LIKE FOR URBAN INDIANS SINCE RELOCATION?

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Federal policy changed again in the 1960s, when Democratic administrations extended War on Poverty programs to Indian communities, revitalizing tribal governments in the process. The American Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968, which, among other things, required states to obtain Indian consent before assuming jurisdiction on Indian land.  Many communities started or elaborated on “powwows,” rituals that served as expressions of Native pride.

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In 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM), a new organization whose membership was young and often from urban areas, began to use public demonstrations to publicize the social injustices that Indians still faced.

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In the 1970s, Indian advocacy and public pressure led to a new emphasis on Indian sovereignty. Both Congress and the Supreme Court acknowledged that the federal government was bound by its treaties with Indian tribes and that tribes had the right of self-government and economic self-sufficiency.  In 1973, Congress restored the Menominees’ tribal status and put their land back in trust.

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With support from President Richard Nixon’s administration, in 1975, Congress provided that tribal governments, not the federal government, would administer federal services and programs. Tribes took over responsibility for child welfare, ending the adoption of Indian children by non-Indians. Tribal programs employed Indians and tried to provide more culturally appropriate services.

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In 1978, tribes not recognized by the federal government gained opportunities to have their tribal status legalized, and Congress increased funding for education.

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The Supreme Court affirmed tribes’ exemption from state taxes and exempted tribal citizens living on reservations from state property and sales taxes. In the 1980s and 1990s the Court also affirmed the Ojibwas’ treaty rights to hunt and fish on ceded lands and the right of tribes to operate gaming establishments on trust land without state regulation. In the wake of the support for tribal sovereignty and increased sensitivity to Indian issues, signs of a backlash began to emerge.

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