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When the Bureau of Indian Affairs suspended the constitution of the Prairie Band in the 1970s, it was another glaring example of paternalism.
Suspension of the constitution meant the Potawatomi couldn't conduct daily business and the governing body wasn't recognized by the government. In other words, the tribe was in a political and economic paralysis with little hope for improvement.
The official reason for this decision was factionalism within the tribe, but the entire blame didn't lie with the tribe.
Throughout the history of the tribe, the bureau or some other arm of the federal government always made the final decision in all matters, so this action shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.
In theory, the bureau was set up to protect the interests of the tribes, but in actual practice, this concept never worked and the bureau has grown into a monstrous bureaucracy. It became the tail that wagged the dog.
Past efforts at reforming the bureau to do a better job of serving the Indian people have always been stopped. Instead, it has been the Indian people who have become the servants of the former servants.
Before the 1970s, the tribe had survived removal, blatant land theft, a traumatic Depression, two world wars and a termination period, only to discover the real enemy was right next door in the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There was no escaping the oppressive policies of this agency.
The suspension served as a mechanism for keeping the tribe in line, an economic carrot if you will, and it worked. In addition, it served as a valuable lesson for the other tribes who had thought about questioning the authority of the bureau.
By this suspension the bureau didn't have to give out any of the new federal dollars promised by the Richard Nixon administration. The tribe was in virtual Third World conditions, and this decision ensured continued poverty on the reservation for many years to come.
There was no leader in the mold of Minnie Evans to lobby against these unfair policies or no operating budget to formulate a plan to combat the issues.
The suspension resembled a ultimatum: "Do it our way or no way at all."
The bureau has enjoyed a long, unchecked history of abusing tribal interests and the Potawatomi situation in the 1970s was no exception.
In cruel reality, federal programs are so top-heavy, with some estimates showing only $1 of every $10 government spends on Indian programs actually reaches the Indian people.
The remaining 90 cents on the dollar goes to the bureaucracy. The congressional answer has been simply to continue shoveling money at the bureaucrats, regardless of their chronic substandard performance.
"They want the Indian money without the Indians, and they haven't found a way yet," said Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only Indian in Congress.
Campbell, who is half Cheyenne, compared some BIA officials to oppressive landlords in New York's Harlem District. His astute analysis wasn't far from describing the people that the Potawatomi had to deal with in the 1970s.
In a time of economic distress for the Potawatomi, even the concept of the dime-on-the- dollar bureau formula for appropriations would certainly have helped, but instead the Potawatomi never saw any advances, economically or politically.
Yet all the while, the bureau continued to operate in plush offices, had secure checks and enjoyed top benefit packages, and more importantly, had few concerns about the future.
The tribal members, in contrast, could only live for the present and didn't have the luxury of planning for a nice retirement.
Very little money or benefits reach the average tribal member, but yet in the surrounding communities a general perception exists that Indians have tons of money coming in from the federal government to tend to their every need. In reality, only the bureaucracy thrives, while very little changes on the reservation.
Back in the 1970s, it was much easier to disband the political structure of the Potawatomi tribe than to find a solution to the existing problems. And because of this, the bureau shares equally in the failures of the 1970s.
Nonetheless, the tribe continued on, with or without federal assistance, and once again did what they had to do in order to survive.
It was a historical habit born out of necessity.