Two Visions for the Freedom of Native Americans


By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

At the same time that many people were striving for black equality in America, the freedom of Native Americans defined exclusively in terms of civil rights and equality was anything but progressive. In fact, people hostile to Natives used this concept of freedom to attack tribal governments, reservations, tribal cultures, and the so-called special rights guaranteed to them by various treaties.

Silhouette of two Native Americans in traditional clothes playing music at sunset.
Part of self-determination was teaching others that the Native Indian tribes were different from ethnic minorities. (Image: Sogno Lucido/Shutterstock)

Termination, the New Freedom?

This hostile view brought some people to their vision of freedom: termination. Termination intended to eliminate all federal obligations to tribal nations. Through termination, reservations would become counties. Tribal governments would become municipalities. 

The responsibility to provide services, including health care, welfare, and education, as well as criminal and civil jurisdiction, would be transferred to the states. Treaties—and all the rights they honored—would become dead letters rather than living documents that acknowledged inherent sovereignty.

Terminationists, in other words, envisioned a citizenship of sameness. They wanted the only nation Native people to claim as their own to be the United States of America. Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, a Republican from Utah, was one of termination’s leading proponents. And Senator Watkins literally referred to termination as a freedom program, going so far as to liken it to the abolition of slavery.

“Following in the footsteps of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Watkins trumpeted, “I see the following words emblazoned in letters of fire above the heads of the Indians—These people shall be free!”

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Old black and white image of an African American audience, some standing on railroad box cars.
Although activism for black equality had progressed, the hostility towards Native Americans continued. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Destroying Tribal Nations in the Name of Freedom

Termination, of course, had nothing to do with freedom or with emancipation. What it really had to do with was intolerance toward cultural pluralism, a desire for access to tribal lands and resources, the reduction of federal expenditures, and the abolition of treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. 

Termination’s vision of civil rights and equality, then, amounted to ending the federal government’s trust relationship with tribal nations. During the 1940s and 1950s, proponents of termination began to put their plans into action. Ironically, one of the most effective tools was the Indian Claims Commission, something tribal rights advocates had been demanding for decades.

Established in 1946, the Indian Claims Commission created a forum in which tribes could bring forward claims associated with treaty violations—including the illegal taking and undervaluing of land and resources—and then secure compensation for them.

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Indian Claims Commission

The Indian Claims Commission had its virtues. Indeed, it eventually resolved 285 cases in favor of tribal plaintiffs that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But terminationists put the Indian Claims Commission to an entirely different purpose. 

People like Sen. Arthur Watkins used successful claims as leverage. For instance, he would draft legislation that required tribes to terminate their relationship with the federal government simply to receive the claims they had justly won in the Indian Claims Commission. 

Successful claims, according to Watkins’s view, represented final payments and would enable the federal government to walk away from its trust obligations—or, as a common phrase held—get out of the Indian business. Even if tribes won, in other words, they could lose in the end.

House Concurrent Resolution 108

A black-and-white photo of a group of Native Americans in traditional garb
Termination was really just destroying the way of life the tribal nations followed. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

If the Indian Claims Commission and relocation gave termination momentum, the House Concurrent Resolution 108 and Public Law 280, both of which were adopted in August 1953, put the dreaded policy into action. The language deployed in House Concurrent Resolution 108 is instructive. 

It affirmed that it was the sense of Congress that all of the tribes in California, Florida, New York, and Texas, as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Klamath, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, should be “freed from Federal supervision and control and from all disabilities and limitations especially applicable to Indians.” Here, in a nutshell, was freedom rendered as the citizenship of sameness.

In some remarkable turns of phrase, House Concurrent Resolution 108 defined the special status and rights of tribal nations as unjust inequalities. Two weeks later, Congress passed Public Law 280, which provided for the extension of state civil and criminal jurisdiction over tribes in California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin—without even having to secure tribal consent. Public Law 280 also opened the door for other states to take similar action.

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Counter Vision for Freedom

Native rights organizations, such as the National Congress of American Indians, countered the termination movement by advancing a very different vision of freedom, one that you could think of in terms of self-determination. This vision of freedom included all the rights accorded to US citizens. 

But, it also distinguished tribal nations from other racial and ethnic minority groups. As citizens of tribal nations, Native people also insisted on the continued acknowledgment of treaty rights, tribal lands, and self-government. As hearings on the termination bills began in February 1954, the NCAI issued a formal “Declaration of Indian Rights”. This document is important because it flatly rejected the notion that termination gave Native people anything. 

As sovereign equals, argued the National Congress of American Indians, tribes had accepted “Federal protection and the promise of certain benefits”. And this was in return for title to the very soil of our beloved country. 

Reservations weren’t places of confinement, the NCAI countered. Instead, they argued, “They are ancestral homelands, retained by us for our perpetual use and enjoyment. We feel we must assert our right to maintain ownership in our own way and to terminate it only by our consent.”

Common Questions about Two Visions for the Freedom of Native Americans

Q: How was termination presented as a kind of freedom for Indians?

Terminationists wanted Indians to accept the United States as their official country and have the federal government let go of its obligations to Indian tribes. This was disguised as a step towards the freedom of Native Americans.

Q: What was the House Concurrent Resolution 108 in a nutshell?

The language used affirmed that Indian tribes should be freed from federal supervision and control. This was their way of twisting the notion of freedom of Native Americans.

Q: How did NCAI respond to the notion of termination as a way of freeing Indians?

They responded with their own counter definition of what freedom for Native Americans meant. They argued that reservations were not to be thought of as mere confinements but rather as ancestral homelands.

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