Section 3: Termination

In 1953, Congress considered a bill that was meant to promote the assimilation of American Indians. The bill, House Concurrent Resolution 108 or HCR 108, proposed the end of the reservation system. Congress intended termination to lead to full assimilation of American Indians. In other words, American Indians would no longer be tribal members. They would be individual American citizens without ties to a tribe. Under termination, American Indians were expected to give up their cultural heritage.

Members of Congress believed that many people lived in the depths of poverty on reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had so mismanaged tribal affairs that there were few opportunities for work on reservations. Congress passed the bill which named ten tribes that were economically ready to have their reservations terminated. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was named in the bill as a tribe to be terminated “at the earliest possible time.”

Termination meant that reservation trust lands would be sold, and the income from the sales would be divided among the people. There would be no reservation and the residents would no longer have federal services such as Indian Health Service or federally supported schools.

Senator Arthur Watkins of Utah was the chair of the Senate CommitteeThe Senate Interior Committee, subcommittee on Indian Affairs was chaired by Senator Arthur V. Watkins of Utah. He held a deep-seated, religious belief that Indians would be better off without tribal ties. It was the relationship between tribes and the federal government that held Indians back. Watkins pushed ahead with termination even when it was apparent that most Indians and most tribes did not want it and were not prepared for it. Watkins, believing that he was the savior of American Indians, said: 'Following in the footsteps of the Emancipation Proclamation ninety–four years ago, I see the following words emblazoned in letters of fire above the head of the Indians – 'THESE PEOPLE SHALL BE FREE!' on Indian Affairs. He asserted great control over the committee. Watkins believed that termination would be good for the tribes. When tribal representatives appeared before the committee, he told them that termination would force tribal members to “walk on their own.”  He stated that he wanted to “help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people.”

Some people thought that the money individuals would receive from the sale of the land would help families relocate to cities where they might find work. In reality, though, the people were so poor that they needed the money for healthcare and housing. There would be little money left for education, job training, or relocation. Of the ten tribes listed in HCR108, some went through the entire termination process. Members of these tribes who were not prepared to leave the reservation and find a job in another place did not fare well. Many fell into poverty.

The Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa tribe feared the results of losing their small reservation. Though the Chippewas had always managed to make a living with the resources available to them in the Turtle Mountains, few Chippewas had the skills necessary to find jobs off the reservation.

Because tribes did not have representation in Congress, the Turtle Mountain Chippewas raised money to send a delegation from their reservation to Washington, D.C. Tribal council chairman Patrick Gourneau led the delegation. The delegation presented evidence to a Congressional committee that showed that members of the Turtle Mountain band were “still extremely poor, and because of . . .Termination they would be freed from Federal Supervision and control.”  Chairman Gourneau’s testimony helped to prevent the imposition of termination on Turtle Mountain reservation. Because of their efforts to avoid termination, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was removed from the list of tribes to be terminated.

Why is this important? The tribes were not prepared for termination because the Bureau of Indian Affairs had not provided for adequate housing, education, or jobs on reservations. However, termination held more than economic change for the tribes. Termination meant losing the place where the people gathered together to celebrate their culture, their families, and their past. This loss would have terrible implications for many people.

Termination was a fearful idea to many Indians and tribal leaders, but they knew it could happen again and they had to protect themselves against further loss of tribal rights. They began to think about ways to protect their tribes and reservations with their own resources. Many of the tribal leaders who fought termination later organized the United Tribes Technical College to provide post-secondary education for young American Indians.