Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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When people scream loudly enough, politicians usually listen.

For instance, President Richard Nixon, in an address to Congress on July 8, 1970, stepped away from the past policies of termination and subjugation of Indian tribes and introduced the new era of self-determination.

He said, "It is long past time that the Indian policies of the federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us.

The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions."

Within this context, Nixon's promised changes were welcome to many Indians all over the country. New hopes and dreams of escape from poverty suddenly were a reality.

The leaders of the tribe, although faced with the problems of unemployment, lack of education, excessive drinking, racial prejudice, lack of opportunity and the problem of inadequate leadership on the reservation, thought it might all change.

Despite these promises, the Potawatomi people, perhaps in sheer frustration, questioned the established tribal leadership, the inept Bureau of Indian Affairs policies, and the way they were treated by the white establishment.

Working within the system had provided no relief for the abject poverty on the reservation and the promises were viewed as yet another in a string of empty promises. Although they were considered a radical element, this new activism was an opportunity to improve the quality of life on the reservation.

Out of this general dissatisfaction emerged a Tribal Action Committee, which decided to challenge the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

According to a committee spokesman, long-term failure by the bureau to correct the problems of inadequate water, housing and education led to a challenge to its authority, along with the existing tribal body politic.

The new committee spoke to the problems the bureau had perpetrated over the years and this alleged malpractice and the manipulation of tribal leaders led to the current problems of the Potawatomi.

In addition, the bad feelings toward the Bureau of Indian Affairs became a major issue after the bureau rejected a request from the tribe to put the newly acquired St. Marys Mission into trust.

Trust status means Indian tribes lack the same property-revenue base that local government have. It also means capital that tribes already have cannot be flexibly used for investment because the status freezes tribal assets. Trust land cannot be mortgaged.

The St. Marys issue started in 1972, when the Jesuits, who had occupied the mission since the railroad treaties of the 1860s, suddenly did an about face with the land and gave it back to the tribe as "gift." This involved 1,200 acres of land along with 12 buildings, valued at $750,000.

The Rev. Charles J. Murray, in a simple ceremony, gave tribal representatives a deed to the land and the buildings and said, "This move will be recognized as an advancement of respect for the Prairie Band Potawatomi and Indians generally and will help rectify the injustices which Indians have suffered from the white man since he came to these shores."

On the surface, this was an unexpected acquisition for the tribe and a great addition to the Potawatomi land-base. By this time, the tribe only owned 489 acres and another 19,722 acres were owned by individual tribal members.

The happiness was only temporary. The Bureau promptly denied the request. Tribal leaders, in their distrust of bureau policy, had inserted a clause providing that if at any time the property wasn't used for Indian development, it would revert back to the Jesuits.

Near riot conditions ensued on the reservation and at the offices of the bureau, resulting in the suspension of the tribal constitution - the governing document of the tribe. The bureau, in its infinite wisdom, decided if the tribe didn't do it its way, then no business would be done at all.

The result of this decision was for the tribe to lose out on many federal benefits in what was supposed to be the period of self-determination. In reality, the status quo remained in place. Bureau policy stayed as it had since it was created in 1824 --"We will decide what is best for the Indians, and they have no choice in the matter."

Poverty conditions were the rule for many years after this decision.

The legacy of the 1970s was political unrest among the tribe and a valuable lesson for future generations.

If tribal members could have settled their many differences between themselves and the bureau in some type of suitable compromise, maybe the period of the 1970s wouldn't have turned out the way it did.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, August 5, 1995

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