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Termination: De-listed and Re-listed

Gale Courey Toensing
5/19/11

The Termination Era of the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government casually tossed the treaties with Indian nations to the wind, ending its special relationship with more than 100 tribes, has been called a social experiment, according to author Roberta Ulrich. (Read an interview with her here.) As an experiment it was a dismal failure whose effects are still being felt a generation or two after the ill-advised policy was dropped and the tribes regained federal recognition.

Ulrich, a retired newspaper reporter who was drawn into writing books about Indian country after a 50-year career in journalism, published her first book on Indian issues, Empty Nets: Indians, Dams and the Columbia River (Oregon State University Press) in 1999. She recently published a meticulously researched book called American Indian Nations From Termination to Restoration, 1953–2006 (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). The book tells the story of the Termination Era, its proponents and opponents—alternately known as its villains and heroes—and provides a wrenching portrait of its victims. Some 13,000 people in terminated tribes lost land, health services, education and more. Thrust into what Ulrich calls “the wilderness of termination,” they suffered the worst lost of all—the loss of their sense of identity as the indigenous peoples of this land.

Termination, like many books written by journalists, is clearly laid out and very readable. Chapter 1, “Policy: Kill the Indians,” outlines the overarching and ongoing theme of Indian policy.  Ulrich traces the near genocidal wars and epidemics that both preceded and followed the arrival of settler colonists in America, the elimination of the Indians’ food sources such as the buffalo, the unceasing land grab as colonists pushed their way across the continent, and the residential schools whose motto “Kill the Indian, save the man” lends itself to the chapter title.

The chief villain in termination efforts was Republican Senator Arthur V. Watkins, a Mormon from Utah, who kicked off the Termination Era in 1953 by amending a House Bill giving $1,500 per capita to members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin by substituting termination of federal supervision for the requested payment. “The amended bill, approved by committee without a hearing and passed by the Senate, set a deadline of December 31, 1958, for ending the Menominees’ status as a federally recognized Indian tribe,” Ulrich wrote.

Watkins, Ulrich said in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, was an out-and-out villain.

“He was the moving force behind termination,” she said.

In addition to the story of the Menominee’s termination in Wisconsin, Ulrich describes termination efforts against the Klamaths, western Oregon tribes, the Alabama--Coushattas of Texas and the Catawbas of South Carolina, the Utah Paiute Bands, several California tribes, Oklahoma and the Poncas of Nebraska. The federal government’s efforts included coercion, misrepresentation and a total disregard for what the tribes wanted.

“The termination program of the 1950s and 1960s was just another name for the continuing policy of the United States government from its beginning: Get rid of Indians,” Ulrich wrote in a recent entry on the University of Nebraska blog. “Like the other policies, termination failed to get rid of Indians. It did make many of them poorer, sicker and afflicted with a variety of problems.”

By the early 1970s it became clear that the termination policy was a disaster. Over the next 20 years the terminated tribes had their federal status restored and started on the path to recovery. But the collective trauma of the Termination Era is still felt today among some tribes, Ulrich said, and it’s hard to predict when it will end. The children of successful tribes will likely overcome the emotional burden of their parents and grandparents. But children in tribes that are still struggling will feel the effects of termination for a few more generations.

Ulrich said she hopes her book will reach the general public.

“I think there’s an attitude about Indians that still needs to be changed,” she said. “There’s still a lot of prejudice out there, unfortunately.”

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