How the Book of Mormon Inspired the "Termination" of Native American Tribes
In anticipation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, subscriber,
Let’s head back to 1953, when a Mormon senator tried to help native peoples become “white and delightsome.” Even Richard Nixon knew it was a bad plan. Alas:
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Next time on Skipped History…
We explore the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance, originally written in 1892. However, God only became part of the pledge in 1954. Not coincidentally, this timing coincided with corporate executives’ attempts to roll back the New Deal...
And speaking of corporations, next week I’ll write to paying subscribers about Brackeen v. Haaland. This ongoing case could overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978), legislation that helped restore autonomy to native tribes after Termination. Surprise, surprise, the legal battle has a lot to do with secretive fossil fuel companies.
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Otherwise, see you in two weeks with our episode on the pledge. This week’s transcript is below.
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin and welcome to Skipped History. Today’s story is about Senator Arthur Watkins and the termination of Native American tribes. I read about it in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer; Beneath These Red Cliffs by Ronald Holt; and an article by Carolyn Grattan-Aiello.
In 1886, Arthur Vivian Watkins was born in Midway, Utah. A devout Mormon, his faith guided him as he studied at Brigham Young University and Columbia. Afterward, he practiced law and started a ranching business in Utah, and in 1946, he won a seat in the US Senate. Soon, Watkins became chairman of the Senate Interior Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and, according to a colleague, “one of the nation’s leading experts of Indian affairs.” There was one problem with this characterization: Watkins never consulted Native Americans on their affairs, and in the 1950s, he helped devise a short-lived yet damaging policy called termination.
For context, let’s go back to 1887 when Congress passed the Dawes Act, or “allotment.” Dating back to the Civil War, various US policies have pushed Indigenous peoples to adopt more “American” traditions like speaking English, making sequels of sequels of prequels of remakes of street racing movies, and owning private property. The nominal goal of allotment was just that: to teach Native Americans “the virtues of private property,” as Senator Henry Dawes said, by breaking up reservations into private allotments owned by individual Native Americans. In reality, allotment licensed Congress to appropriate 91 million acres of native lands and sell them to white settlers and businesses. This expropriation continued until 1934 when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, revolutionary legislation that restored a measure of autonomy to Native American tribes. So, entering the 1940s and 50s, things were looking up for native communities. The nightmare of allotment was over, and tribes had regained substantial control over their own affairs.
But then Arthur Watkins, a senator who art maybe in heaven, hollow be his brain came along.
“The more I go into this Indian problem,” Watkins wrote to a church father in 1954, “the more I am convinced that we have made some terrible mistakes.” His viewpoint reflected a growing consensus in Congress that, as the US moved away from the broad federalism of the New Deal toward smaller government, federal funding for things like healthcare and education on reservations should be cut. Never mind that American Indians were on reservations because for centuries they’d faced encroachments on their land, genocide, and most poisonously, this guy’s canned oyster stuffing. Now, as Watkins put it, “The time has come to… help the Indians stand on their own two feet” and “become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied.”
Now, I for one don’t trust the Book of Mormon, if only because it clearly suggests that dressing like an accountant boy band will help you fit in when riding public transportation. But the book shaped Watkins’ political views, and guided by racist, religious, and paternal instincts, in 1953, he pushed the Termination Act through Congress. The act listed specific tribes to “be freed from Federal supervision… and from all disabilities and limitations specially applicable to Indians.” In other words, reservations would disappear, federal assistance would vanish, and on paper, Native Americans would suddenly just become Americans, living from paycheck to paycheck like anyone else, or as I like to say, from Fast and the Furious to Fast and the Furious to Fast and the Furious to Fast and the Furious—
Termination was considered “voluntary” and required tribal consent. Then again, erasing hundreds if not thousands of years of culture overnight wasn’t so appealing to native peoples. Take for example the Paiute in southern Utah, the first tribe slated for termination. As one tribe leader wrote in a telegram to Congress, “We are against federal termination… We desire to remain for the time being as wards of the Government, as we have lived on the reservation and have not paid taxes for so long and we feel we should live as we have always lived.” Another tribal leader said, “We do not wish Termination.” In response, Watkins visited the Paiute and promised that if they agreed to termination, then “taxes would be taken care of” and they would gain land. Neither statement proved to be true, but the Paiute believed Watkins—he was a US Senator after all—and agreed to terminate.
Watkins also went after the Menominee, a tribe long located in modern-day Michigan and Wisconsin. After surviving repeated encroachments on their land throughout the 1800s, the Menominee started a sustainable logging business that by the 1950s employed hundreds of native workers and had earned the tribe more than $10 million in savings. Put another way, they were doing just fine “standing on their own two feet.” And in 1954, after a prolonged legal battle, a federal judge awarded them $8.5 million in damages for land they’d lost during allotment, a significant sum and a step toward righting some of the wrongs of the past. But Watkins, who believed that termination was “better for” American Indians, “even if they don’t like it,” said the Menominee could only get the money if they agreed to terminate first. Coerced, the Menominee gave in, joining the Paiute.
Without federal assistance, basic services such as waste management and firefighting disappeared, hospitals and schools closed, and the Menominee’s savings dwindled to $300,000. As part of the deal, a white-controlled board also took over their logging business, which soon authorized the construction of an artificial lake and sold waterside lots, further diminishing what little land the tribe had left. As for the Paiute, they lost 15,000 acres of land, including farming enterprises that had helped them “stand on their own two feet,” and from 1954 to 1980, nearly half of all tribe members died due to lack of basic health services. And these are just two examples of the horribly misguided policy going terribly wrong. By the time Richard Nixon ended termination in 1970—even he viewed it as “wrong”—over 100 tribes and reservations had been terminated, leading unemployment rates among Native communities and the number of Native Americans living in poverty to skyrocket.
Meanwhile, as more and more American Indians moved from terminated reservations to cities, they encountered segregation and redlining. But when the Paiute raised concerns about discrimination to Watkins, he insisted it was their fault. In his words, “The Indian would have to conduct himself in a respectable manner if he expected society to accept him,” and he had “eaten in places where no one could enter unless he wore a coat, but that didn’t mean the establishment was discriminatory.” Which is kind of like pointing out for the 300th consecutive year that the stuffing you’re forced to stomach on an already problematic holiday is disgusting, and this guy saying, Have you tried adding salt? Um, you’re skirting some deeper issues here!
Today, some of Watkins’ work has been undone. The Paiute reconstituted in 1980; the Menominee did the same in 1973, and their logging business survives to this day. On the other hand, some tribes are still fighting to regain federal recognition, all because Watkins believed that the Book of Mormon supported his quest to eliminate the native in Native American. And lest you think they’re the only ones still paying for the mixing of politics and religion in the 1950s, well, US students didn’t always pledge allegiance to “one nation under God.”
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