Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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Until 1977 then, the tribe remained in a political limbo. It slowly regained lost governing power when the Bureau of Indian Affairs reinstated and approved a new tribal constitution.

Evidently, someone in the bureaucratic power structure had decided the tribe had learned its lesson and now was ready to toe the line.

It was true, to a certain degree, because much of the factionalism had, for at least the time being, disappeared.

The fear of the bureau putting an end to the very existence was a reality and the time had come to cooperate and compromise with the system and each other.

As the 1970s neared a conclusion, the newly elected tribal council found some relief from the continuing despair on the reservation. It came in the form of different pieces of legislation, including the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 and the Indian Religious Act of 1978.

Reform had finally made it to the Potawatomi reservation.

The Indian Self-Determination Act reaffirmed the rights of Indian people to choose their own form of government and destiny, but of course they still had the Bureau of Indian Affairs looking over their shoulders, watching every move.

From this start, the tribe slowly started to rebuild its political structure.

Elections were held, people were elected and federal dollars started to slowly come in to help provide services for the people and monetary allowances for the councils to properly govern. The new budgets represented a first for the tribe, which had little to operate on in the past.

With change came a new problem. The combination of the Self-Determination Act and increased funding resulted in the growth of tribal bureaucracies. Despite the intent of the act, the government maintained its abiding suspicion of Indian competency and imposed reviews of and restraints on tribal decision-making which only duplicated administrative efforts by tribes and the funding agency.

Over the years, federal investments in Indian programs have been relatively unproductive because they have emphasized temporary employment, bureaucracy, paperwork and poorly chosen economic development strategies.

Every new funding program has been used to justify administrative expansion at both the federal and tribal levels, reducing the net dollars available for program activities and services.

From the reservation perspective, government got bigger and government benefits got smaller. In modern reform initiatives, arguments are for downsizing government and those are valid concerns. If the layers of bureaucracy from the top to the bottom are thinned out, then maybe the badly needed services will reach the people it will help the most.

Where the average tribal member benefited the most was the new housing that came to the reservation in the late 1970s.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development authorized the building of 36 homes in a housing site. A few were built on scattered home sites. In time, a total of over 90 homes were built on the reservation. Housing was desperately needed for the growing population. Yet there was opposition to this concept.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, many tribal members looked upon the new housing as another ploy to get the land.

It was a fear that tribal members would be evicted for non-payment of rent (based on income) and non-Indians would then move in and own the tribal land. It was a justifiable fear, but something that to date has not transpired.

Federal housing programs on many reservations have been resented because the houses are planned on the basis of Western values ---geometric lots, houses close together and no place for animals.

While the Indian people strongly prefer their own traditional housing patterns: houses scattered over the land just within hailing distance or houses designed for small clusters of related families. This pattern was rooted deeply in the history of the tribe.

On the positive side, the new houses meant coming home to the reservation and no longer having to live in surrounding communities where discrimination was an accepted fact.

Now the people had the opportunity to live among their families and friends. Yet, it was close to a self-imposed segregation.

Nonetheless, when the federal dollars did finally come through the maze of bureaucracy, it was a welcome relief to a situation where improvements were long overdue. Richard Nixon's promise of letting the Indians govern themselves slowly developed.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, August 17, 1995

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