Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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While the Potawatomi weathered the Great Depression of the 1930s by virtue of their ability to adapt to economic conditions, the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act on June 18, 1934, was another matter.

The act, officially called the Wheeler-Howard Act, dealt with Indian self-government, special education for Indians, Indian lands and a Court of Indian Affairs. This 48-page bill was authored by John Collier of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Potawatomi looked favorably on the termination of the allotment policies of the Dawes Act and the return of surplus land to the tribes, because by this time, the tribe had lost close to fifty thousand acres as a direct result of this disastrous law.

Self-government, on the other hand, was greatly opposed on the Potawatomi reservation. Basically, the tribe opposed the foreign concept of the formation of a new governing body.

In the history of the tribe, most decisions were made by the entire tribe, not a few individuals. Many tribal members were older people who looked with suspicion upon anything they didn't fully understand.

Collier, in a sense, imposed upon the Indians a tribal government and a tribal economy, when traditional Indian ways often called for organization on a smaller basis of bands or villages. And the paraphernalia of electoral districts, tribal councils, and majority vote was more befitting an Anglo-Saxon concept of democratic government than the systems to which Indians were accustomed.

For example, on the Potawatomi reservation, before the system of a tribal council or business committee was instituted, the tribe had an advisory committee, composed of seven members elected by the tribe, that had no real authority. They acted as advisors in handling relief matters and project work on the reservation.

These advisory committees were neither popular nor generally supported by the tribe, and their functioning was a handicap rather than an asset.

One of the most profound and persistent differences between Indian ways of governing and European-American forms is that non-Indians have tended to write down and record all the principles and procedures which they believe are essential to the formation and operation of a government. Indians benefiting from a religious, cultural, social, and economic homogeneity in their tribal societies, haven't found it necessary to formalize their political institutions by describing them in documents.

Customs, rituals, and traditions are a natural part of life, and individuals grow to accept them. This eliminated the need for formal articulation of the rules of Indian tribal society.

Violation of these customs did involve action by the community to enforce its rules. Meeting in council, the tribe discussed a violation and called upon its knowledge of precedents in community history. Great discussions ensued as the community tried to decide whether the current incident was sufficiently similar to warrant the same solution, but great flexibility was used in punishment. Because of this flexibility, there was no need to formulate a rigid set of laws and there was little inclination to make precedents absolute in the same way that the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition found necessary.

As stated in an earlier article of this series, the principle of independence was absolute for each tribal member, but in some matters they recognized the authority of a chief. Persuasion and the power of oratory were the primary sources of getting the rest of the tribe to go along with a certain agenda or plan.

Another stumbling block for tribal members was that the IRA wasn't designed to recognize native sovereignty, nor did its operation encourage it.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal Thursday, June 15, 1995.
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