In 1923, a Dakota-born writer-activist traveled through Oklahoma as a research agent of the Indian Rights Association to investigate abuses against the Choctaw, Creek, and other tribes. What she found and documented was an appalling rampage of fraud, larceny, racial intimidation, and murder.     

Bearing witness to the atrocities, Zitkála-Šá lent her name and her fury to a 39-page report under the title Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes—Legalized Robbery. This brave exposé, calling for “radical and immediate change,” deserves to be memorialized as a crucial step forward in the Native American struggle.   

The situation was historically rooted in the Dawes Act or Land Allotment Act of 1887. Under the stated goal of “civilizing” Indigenous peoples, the Dawes Act reneged on existing treaties by abolishing communal land ownership and superimposing on tribal society a capitalist framework of private property. 

Millions of acres of reservation land were broken up into individual allotments, ostensibly for the purpose of encouraging Native Americans to adopt the cultural practices of white farmer-settlers. 

The promised benefits of coercive assimilation never materialized; instead, the law became a tool for rapacious Anglo-Americans to steal Indian land. 

Among the provisions of the Dawes Act was the appointment of white “guardians” for Native American landowners. By 1923 there were 4000 professional guardians in Oklahoma, entrusted with Indian properties ranging in value from a few thousand dollars up into the millions. 

Such oversight of Native peoples by Anglo-American agents of the capitalist order clearly smacked of paternalism, but that wasn’t the worst of it. While protecting almost no one, the guardians colluded with judges, land lawyers, and local governments in a criminal program of pauperization and virtual extermination.

Zitkála-Šá’s report, compiled in November-December 1923 and co-authored with two representatives of cooperating Indian defense agencies, described “a situation that is almost unbelievable in a civilized country”: 

  • Over ninety percent of Native Americans had either been divested of their land for inadequate compensation or “shamelessly and openly robbed in a scientific and ruthless manner.” 
  • Anglo-American authorities—including judges, attorneys, guardians, bankers, and merchants—had displayed “a flagrant disregard of the Indians’ welfare highly lucrative to those empowered to protect Indian interests.” 
  • In dozens of local governments and courts, the principal enterprise and source of revenue was the corrupt handling of Indian estates. 
  • An examination of over 14,000 probate cases revealed that administrative charges levied against Indian owners were sometimes as high as seventy percent and were accompanied by “unconscionable” fees and commissions. 
  • The discovery of oil on Native land was often considered prima facie evidence of the owner’s “incompetence.” In the appointment of a white guardian for such property the landholder’s wishes were rarely considered. 
  • Indian children were dying of malnutrition due to the indifference of guardians who refused to dispense funds from Indian bank accounts to care for them.
  • Native American women had been kidnapped, raped, and robbed of their property by white blackmailers and grafters. 
  • Sick and elderly Indian landholders on their deathbeds were swarmed by grafters using coercion to obtain thumbprint signatures on fraudulent wills. 
  • “Dead or alive, the grafters manage to ‘get’ the Indian,” the report concluded.

*   *   *

a.k.a. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin

Zitkála-Šá, known also under the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was born in 1876 on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota. At the age of eight, she was taken from the reservation by missionaries and placed in a Quaker boarding school in Indiana. The rest of her childhood was painfully bi-cultural. Going back and forth between schools and the reservation, she experienced difficult readjustments in each setting. 

In 1895 she enrolled in Earlham College, excelled in her studies, and began publishing poems. The next year she participated in the Indiana State Oratorical Contest, where she won second place in the public debate category despite being subjected to barbaric race and gender-based harassment during the competition. After graduation she was hired to teach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded and run by retired army general Richard Henry Pratt, who coined an infamous rallying cry for cultural genocide: “Kill the Indian, to save the man!” 

In 1899 Zitkála-Šá left Carlisle to study music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she also wrote short stories that won immediate recognition. From 1900 to 1902, she placed a handful of semi-autobiographical stories in prestigious journals including Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly. A literary sensation, her work appeared alongside the likes of Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, and W.E.B. Du Bois. 

In 1913, her literary and musical talents were put to political use. After the U.S. Department of Interior banned the Sun Dance, a Native American religious ritual, she collaborated with the Mormon music professor William Hanson to evade censorship and celebrate Indigenous spirituality in the form of a libretto, The Sun Dance, performed in Utah to critical acclaim.    

These experiences assured that by the time she researched the plight of the “Poor Rich Indians” of Oklahoma in 1923, Zitkála-Šá was already a “red progressive” whose expressions of protest took multiple forms. 

“A situation that is almost unbelievable in a civilized country.”

“Blue-Star Woman”

Two years prior to her investigations in Oklahoma, she had published a short story that denounced the Dawes Act, not by citing cases and statistics, but by exploring the heartbreaking cultural tragedy from a personal perspective. 

“The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman” appeared in 1921 in the book-length collection, American Indian Stories. The tale is set on the western plains of the Yankton Reservation, but it applies to any area affected by Dawes-era allotment policies. Its protagonist is a solitary Sioux woman, destitute and orphaned as a child, who has reached the age of fifty-three owning nothing but a log hut. Facing starvation, she is informed that “In the eyes of the white man’s law,” she can acquire land if she will give proof of her identity and “membership in the Sioux tribe.” 

Her heart tells her that a piece of the earth is her birthright rather than a privilege. Moreover, she realizes that the formalities of property acquisition carry spiritual costs: Blue-Star recalls the Sioux teachings that “an Indian should never pronounce his or her name in answer to any inquiry” and that the names of her parents, “long gone to the spirit-land,” were especially subject to this taboo. 

Two young assimilated Indians approach her with a solicitation. These “would-be white men,” wearing celluloid collars “like shining marks of civilization,” are seen by Blue-Star as “deluded mortals” who feign concern for her. Like their white role models, (Dawes Act guardians), they promise to secure her allotment in exchange for half of her land and money when she gets them. Because “a little something to eat is better than nothing,” Blue-Star agrees, but she perceives as well that her entire people are “a slowly starving race going mad.”

The Sioux elders learn that Blue-Star Woman has been enrolled as a tribe member and approved for an allotment. Outraged, they implore their chief to write to Washington in protest that “their property was given to a strange woman.” The chief enlists his educated granddaughter as his “interpreter and scribe” to produce the letter of appeal.  The letter is never sent. The chief makes a ten-mile journey on horseback to a field within sight of the reservation post office, only to have a sudden change of heart. Like Blue-Star, he comprehends the cultural poison of the entire allotment system. Before he reaches the cluster of government buildings near the reservation border, he kindles a small fire and, “crying aloud, for his sorrow was greater than he could bear,” tosses the letter into the flames, dissociating himself from the capitalist state.

Before the chief reaches home, white men on horseback advance upon him; they are “Indian police” wearing coats shining with brass buttons, and they arrest the “bad Indian” for “trying to set fire to the government agency.” 

In a dingy prison cell, the elderly chief, a “voiceless man of America,” struggles to retain “hope for the day of salvation” and faith in humanity. His reward comes in a vision, the image of a huge woman standing “upon the brink of the Great Waters, facing eastward.” The Statue of Liberty, her face aglow with compassion, comes alive. Formerly, “she had turned her back on the American aborigine” but now, turning majestically, she looks west: 

            Her eyes swept across the outspread continent of America, the home of the red man. At this moment her torch flamed brighter and whiter till its radiance reached into the obscure and remote places of the land. Her light of liberty penetrated the      Indian reservations. A loud shout of joy rose up from the Indians of the earth, everywhere.  

All too soon, the picture disappears and the chief awakens. When he is finally released from prison, he is greeted happily by the same swindlers who took Blue-Star Woman’s property. Using their influence with white authorities, they have secured the chief’s freedom for the identical price—half of his land.  

            The old chieftan sighed, but made no comment. Words were vain. He pressed his indelible thumb mark, his signature it was, upon the deed. 

*   *   *

Opera of the Year 

A versatile writer, Zitkála-Šá strived to both factually document and fictionally represent the Indigenous cultural ethos while sending serious and savvy political messages. Her short story about the “enigma” of Blue-Star Woman, and her muckraking investigative journalism, are different ways of stating the same conclusion: “There is no hope of any reformation of the present system, and if action is delayed for a few years there will be no Indians with property to be protected. Legislation should be enacted at once.” 

Zitkála-Šá’s work led to the formation of the Meriam Commission, whose 1928 findings addressed a range of injustices and pointed the way toward fundamental policy changes that expanded tribal civil rights.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt acknowledged Zitkála-Šá among those deserving credit for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which ended Dawes Act abuses, recognized tribal governments, and repealed the longstanding ban on the Sun Dance.

One hundred years after her Oklahoma exposé, there are reasons to remember her. Here’s one of them:  In 1938, the year of her death, her Sun Dance opera was revived on Broadway and recognized as “Opera of the Year.” William Hanson, its white co-author, was commended. Not recognized, however, was the opera’s female Native American co-creator. In the event program and in the New York Times review of The Sun Dance, there appeared neither the Anglicized Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, nor Zitkála-Šá, nor even her translated Dakota name, “Red Bird.”  

Photo: New York Times, April 28, 1938

Story written by: Patrick Chura, Ph.D, University of Akron


The Scalp Act

Image: Wikipedia

From a promising beginning based on mutual trade and potentially beneficial relations, the connection between European colonists and the Indigenous peoples of North American soon devolved into something much more sinister: Predator and prey. Few aspects of American life in the 1700s make this more clear than the Scalp Act of 1756 which had one clear objective: eradicate the so-called “Indian Problem” from the Pennsylvania frontier.

When William Penn bought lands from the Delaware, he purchased all of the rights but allowed the Delaware to stay where they were. In September 1737, Thomas Penn, William’s son, told the Delaware there was a deed for land sold to his father. He produced a forged document that included the names of Indians who had already passed on. Though no elders could remember such a deed, Penn convinced the Delaware to set up an event where they would walk together to map out land. The so-called “Walking Purchase” turned out to be a massive land swindle that essentially forced the Delaware to leave the region. After the displaced tribal citizens allied themselves with the French they began to take revenge, and by December 1755 there were so many attacks on settlers on the frontier that they appealed to the Pennsylvania legislature for help. The legislature set aside $60,000 for forts. Instead, the money was used to as a fund to remove Indians from the border. 

Photo: Wikipedia

The Scalp Act

Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head. This gruesome procedure generally occurred during warfare with the scalp being taken as a macabre trophy. Scalp-taking is considered part of the broader cultural practice of the taking and display of human body parts as trophies, a sign of dominance and a testament to the combatant’s prowess in battle. It may have developed as an alternative to the taking of whole human heads, which were more difficult to acquire, transport, and preserve for subsequent display. 

Scalping developed independently in various cultures across the world. Indeed, it was practiced by some Indigenous peoples as an award of triumph in battle. Eventually, scalping also became financially motivated with individuals receiving payment for each scalp procured. New Hampshire militiamen partook in the first recorded scalping of Indians by whites in North America as 10 sleeping Indians were scalped by whites for a bounty. Making it an official government policy – one that enabled individual citizens to be paid by the state of Pennsylvania for every scalp taken – was new. 

It’s not entirely clear where or when a bounty for scalps was first offered, but it wasn’t all that rare in New England by the early 1700s. In fact, most Americans seem to have accepted the validity of the practice at the time. In April of 1756, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris enacted the Scalp Act. Anyone who brought in a male scalp above age of 12 would be given 150 pieces of eight or the equivalent of  $150. For females above age of 12 or males under the age of 12, they would be paid $130. The scalp of an Indian woman earned a payment of $50. The military effectiveness of a scalp bounty wasn’t tabulated based on the number of actual scalps. The mere announcement of a bounty transformed the settlers from passive observers to active participants.

The bounty system in American was initiated by the Dutch and elaborated by New Englanders. It first offered payment in exchange for the heads of wolves and other predatory animals that were an undesirable obstacle to orderly settlement. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, therefore, when even greater rewards were offered for the collection of Indian scalps. Legislators made explicit the similarity they saw between these animal and human predators by using the same terms of evidence for a kill: the head or the scalp. Bounties made Indians into predatory animals whose terrifying attacks on outlying settlements reduced English families to prey. The implication – that such attacks would undermine English colonization – suggested Indians should be treated like any other predator the settlers had encountered. By equating Indian scalps with animal skins, bounties also increased settlers’ distance from their Native neighbors and dehumanized them. Indians were now objects whose body parts could be bought and sold. Reducing humans to commodities replicated the slave trade and many colonial bounty acts outlined rewards for prisoners as well as scalps. New England’s bounties encouraged indiscriminate Indian hunting (and hating). 

Indians were now objects whose body parts could be bought and sold.

Just another government policy

Today’s use of the word ‘scalper’ has a very different meaning. We use it to describe a reseller of tickets – you know, the guys outside of the stadium who want to charge you $250 for a seat that originally sold for $50 but is now much more in demand. According to historians, the term as it relates to tickets arose during rapid settlement of the American frontier when rail travel quickly grew in popularity. Men saw an opportunity to make quick cash by purchasing unused portions of railroad tickets to resell for profit. Railways charged less per mile for longer-distance tickets, making it possible for a traveler going from New York to Chicago to buy a ticket all the way to San Francisco, step out onto the platform in the Windy City and sell it to a scalper. That entrepreneurial fellow would then sell the ticket to a different traveler for less than what the California-bound man would have paid to the railway in a normal transaction. The original ticket holder, the so-called scalper and the San Francisco-bound passenger all came out ahead. Only the railway suffered a loss. At the time these railway ticket traders were equated with the takers and brokers of scalps, and the term stuck. Eventually they expanded beyond rail tickets and today we encounter offers to buy “scalped” tickets for just about every event imaginable. What’s difficult to imagine is just how brutal the settler colonists must have been to consider the taking of scalps to be just an ordinary day-to-day transaction, as run-of-the-mill as buying a train ticket.


Smallpox Blankets

Photo: George Henry Fox, Photographic Illustrations of Skin Diseases (via Wikimedia Commons)

The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949. Thanks to the development and distribution of a successful smallpox vaccine, the deadly disease has been considered eradicated for more than 40 years. The memory of its historic use as a biological weapon employed against Native American people lives on. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), smallpox is a highly contagious infectious disease caused by the variola virus. People who had smallpox suffered immensely, and three out of 10 died as a result. Victims usually had a high fever and a distinctive skin rash that got progressively worse. Smallpox survivors often had permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their faces. Some were left blind. Historic records from the 1700s are scarce, so the nature and details of how smallpox was used against Indigenous people and to what effect aren’t entirely clear. The fact that the colonizers even considered smallpox as a viable weapon of war speaks volumes about the level of cruelty to which the settlers would sink in pursuit of their aims.

Was it germ warfare?

The most commonly shared historic account of smallpox blankets was first reported by 19th Century historian Francis Parkman. He came across correspondence in which Sir Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America in the early 1760s, had discussed its use with Col. Henry Bouquet, a subordinate on the western frontier during the French and Indian War. The account, as relayed by University of Colorado historian Elizabeth Fenn in her article in the Journal of American History, goes like this:

In the spring of 1763, warriors from the Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo tribes, attacked Fort Pitt, a military installment located on the site of what is now downtown Pittsburgh. The Fort’s commander reported in a panic-stricken message to his superior Bouquet that the situation was dire. The Fort’s hospital had patients with smallpox, and the commander feared the disease might soon spread throughout the population. Bouquet passed this news on to Amherst, who was his superior. Amherst offered a ‘solution’ for the problem. “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians,” Amherst wrote in response to the plea for assistance. “We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.” The message was clear, and Bouquet responded to Amherst with a promise to try and spread the disease through the Indigenous population by gifting the Natives with infected blankets that had been used by smallpox patients. 

“We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

Many subsequent historians have expressed doubt about these accounts, with some saying it happened but shifting the blame away from Amherst to some of his contemporaries. It isn’t possible to prove whether or not the plan even worked. Others have expanded on this recounting of events, claiming that the deadly tactic of using so-called ‘smallpox blankets’ as a biological weapon was widely used across Indian Country. That’s impossible to prove, of course. And if it did happen, it’s not the sort of thing one would want to advertise widely, is it?

The fact that the British military was willing to employ such crude tactics at all is abhorrent in and of itself. “Even for that time period it violated civilized notions of war,” wrote Paul Kelton, an historian at Stony Brook University and author of two books on the role of epidemics in the European takeover of the Americas. He noted that the disease “kills indiscriminately – it would kill women and children, not just warriors.”

Not surprisingly, tribal accounts about the smallpox blankets have been largely ignored in academic circles. After all, it is the colonizers who get to write the history. Natives share their history through storytelling, and there are plenty of retellings about these unspeakable acts. Native communities have numerous stories that were passed down through the generations about receiving or trading blankets and subsequently experiencing a deadly smallpox epidemic. The Hidatsa tell of a smallpox epidemic in 1837 that resulted after receiving blankets in trade with the colonizers. The Chippewa tell of receiving a keg of rum wrapped in a blanket and later experiencing an epidemic. The Incas in Latin America have documented history of receiving a box with nothing but scraps of paper inside and then contracting smallpox soon after. 

Kelton says the tactic, however callous and brutal, is only a small part of a larger story of brutality committed by American colonizers in the 1600s and 1700s. The burning down of houses. The cutting off of food supplies. The slaughter of the buffalo. The kidnapping of women and children as slaves. The list goes on. That they would sink to the use of germ warfare would be par for the deadly course.


Land Recovery

Photo: Indian Land Capital Company

Since the 1880s, U.S. legislation has led to Native Americans losing ownership and control of more than 90 million acres of traditional lands. The impact has been devastating. As a result of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act), tribally-held land was divided among individual tribal members and the remaining “surplus” lands were opened to white settlement. This division and alienation of Indian land and assets had destructive consequences for Indian people that endure today.

Now major steps are being taken by Native Nations to recover the land that was lost. Thanks to new sources of revenue, and the dedicated commitment of various individuals and groups, tribes are now reclaiming these lost lands through legal transfers and purchases with assistance from organizations like the non-profit Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF). The goal is return traditional lands to Indian ownership and control to ensure that Indian people have access to the financial and natural resources within their own reservations. 

Allotment caused land that had been held in common by the entire tribe to be divided into a jumbled mix of trust lands, fee lands, and lands owned by the tribe, individual Indians and non-Indians. Indian lands that were alienated by the allotment process were sold or transferred to non-Indian parties but remained within reservation boundaries. As a result, there is a checkerboard pattern. Checkerboarding seriously impairs the ability of Native Americans to use land for farming, ranching, or other economic activities that require large, contiguous sections of land. It also hampers access to lands that the tribe owns and uses in traditional ways. Jurisdictional challenges are common as different governing authorities – county, state, federal, and tribal governments, for example – claim the authority to regulate, tax, or perform various activities within reservation borders. Often these different claims to authority conflict, which can create economic uncertainty, racial tension, and community clashes within or near the reservation. To complicate matters even more, the case law relevant to jurisdiction on Indian land is highly complex, inconsistent and unsettled.

For over a century, Indian families have seen valuable land resources diminish as fractionated ownership increases with each passing generation. As a result of the Dawes Act, reservation land was divvied up and allotted to individual tribal members. When an allottee died, title ownership was divided up among all of the heirs, but the land itself was not physically divided. As such, each Indian heir received an undivided interest in the land. Now, as each generation passes on, the number of owners grows exponentially, which has resulted in the highly fractionated ownership of much Indian land today.

Parcels with fractionated ownership can have hundreds or even thousands of owners. With so many owners, individual income from the land is minimal – sometimes less than what it costs the federal government to process the payment. In addition, land use is compromised because the owner of an undivided interest must gain consent from a majority of the parcel’s owners to do anything with the land. This makes it nearly impossible for any one of the owners to use the land for agriculture, business development or a home site, all uses that would improve quality of life for Indian people.

“The damage is being mitigated one land transaction at a time.”

Today, the loss of tribal lands, combined with the mixed ownership patterns within reservation boundaries, poses serious challenges for the sovereignty and self-determination of Indian nations. Loss of access to sacred and cultural sites makes it harder for each successive generation to remain rooted in Native culture. Today, the vast majority of agricultural lands on reservations are leased to non-Indian ranchers, often at less than fair-market value, and billions of dollars in income from these lands goes off the reservation instead of to the Indian landowners who often live in poverty.

Organizations like the Indian Land Tenure Foundation are helping tribes recover their ancestral homelands, including sacred sites such as Pe’ Sla, a high mountain prairie in the Black Hills that is sacred to the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Tribes. Since 2012, ILTF has been assisting the Oceti Sakowin Nations to purchase and protect more than 2,300 acres at Pe’ Sla. The Tribes continue to raise money to pay off a loan and acquire more land to protect Pe’ Sla for future generations.

Photo: ILTF

In 1961, the cultural and holy site Bear Butte (photo above) was designated as a state park, but much of the immediate surrounding area was left in private ownership. Located near Sturgis, S.D., this sacred site has been under siege in recent years by encroaching commercial development fueled by the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and other growth in the region. The Cheyenne and Lakota tribes and people have been struggling to acquire private properties in the area so that religious ceremonies held on Bear Butte can be conducted without disruption from other land uses. The Bear Butte Land Recovery Fund helps support the tribes in these acquisitions and management of the land, including the 2016 purchase at auction of 270 acres at a cost of $1.3 million. Much more land still needs to be protected.

Photo: Indian Land Capital Company

Nearly 150 years after being forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands on the Pacific Coast to an inland reservation, the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians in Sonoma County, Calif., once again have access to the Pacific Ocean. On June 15, 2016 the Tribe celebrated the recovery of nearly 700 acres north of San Francisco, land which features dense redwood forest, towering coastal bluffs and spectacular waterfalls. The Tribe has established the Kashia Coastal Reserve (photo above), a protected open space and demonstration forest to educate and engage the public about the history and practices of the Kashia people.

These are important examples of what is possible, but land recovery is a long, tedious process. It’s fraught with legal obstacles, systemic barriers and long-held anti-Indian sentiment that makes it difficult to complete transactions in way that is timely and cost-effective. It’s not uncommon at land auctions, for example, for non-Indian bidders to intentionally drive prices skyward simply to raise the barriers for Indians to repurchase the land. But the process is well underway now, and the damage of history is being mitigated one land transaction at a time.


Forced Sterilization

Photo: Library of Congress

Can you imagine a scenario in which a 15-year-old girl goes to the local doctor for routine medical care and returns home having undergone a life-altering sterilization procedure she knew nothing about and didn’t consent to. Imagine if the procedure was carried out by a medical student because he needed more practice. Or the physician wanted to make a little extra income. Or staff were being pressured to prevent poor, minority women from bearing children who might one day be a financial ‘burden’ on the nation. Unconscionable isn’t it?

Yet this scenario isn’t a fiction lifted from some cheap dystopian novel. It’s not the plot of a B-grade television series or twisted philosophy promulgated by fringe politicians. For thousands of women the scenario is all too real. It happened right here in America. In the 1970s. To thousands of American Indian women and girls, and some were as young as 9 years old. Let that sink in for a minute. Yet the majority of Americans have no knowledge of this history. Most wouldn’t believe it anyway, and many couldn’t care less.

“By any objective definition, forced sterilization is a form of genocide

By any objective definition, forced sterilization is a form of genocide. It has been used by corrupt societies the world over to rid their communities of so-called undesirables – those considered less worthy, more burdensome, and a threat to the dominant caste. The Nazis used it to prevent the birth of more Jews in Germany. It was employed extensively in the Southern U.S. to reduce the African American population. And, like the involuntary taking of Indian children that goes on to this day, forced sterilization was a means to control the American Indian population.

During the 1900s, more than 30,000 non-Indians in 29 U.S. states were sterilized unknowingly or against their will while incarcerated in prisons or housed in mental institutions, and the practice continued in California until 2010. In the five years that followed passage of the federal Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, some 25-to-50 percent of Native American women of child-bearing age were victims of sterilization without their consent or knowledge.

A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation looked into four of the 12 regions where the Indian Health Service (IHS) operated, determining that between 1973 and 1976 there were a reported 3,406 procedures that made it into official medical records. Given the shoddy paperwork practices of the day, along with a desire to conceal what was happening, it’s safe to postulate that the actual numbers were much higher. A 1977 report commissioned by the United Nations said the actual figure could be 10 times greater.

Image: Wikipedia.org

Some of the procedures took place in IHS facilities. Others were carried out in off-reservation hospitals that IHS contracted with to provide services for Native people. At times the women did sign consent forms, but it is unlikely that they understood what was happening or the long-term implications. IHS’ approach to informed consent was wholly mismanaged, and the problem wasn’t unique to sterilization procedures. It’s just how the IHS operated at the time, with constant staff turnover, unmanageable caseloads, and poorly equipped medical facilities. Besides, it was typical for IHS employees to believe that Native people were morally, socially and intellectually inferior and were incapable of managing their own reproductive health. In the end, whether the women consented or not didn’t really matter. The procedures were going to take place regardless.

The two most common procedures were hysterectomies – removal of the uterus through the woman’s abdomen or vagina – and tubal ligations, in which the fallopian tubes are tied, blocked, or cut. Some medical schools at the time did unnecessary hysterectomies on black and brown women as a way for medical students to gain experience. It is believed that a third of these procedures were done on girls under the age of 18 with many under the age of 10.

Ending the ‘Indian problem’

The conduct is clearly reprehensible. The numbers are hard to fathom. But the bigger question that needs to be answered is the ‘why.’ Why did this happen? What was the motivation behind these practices? For the doctors. For the Indian Health Service. For the federal government as a whole. When you consider the totality of U.S. policies and actions taken against the American Indian people over the past 500 years, it’s pretty clear: Forced sterilization was one more way to reduce the number of Indian people, diminish their ability to reproduce, and consequently thwart their political power.

The goal was to eliminate the so-called “Indian problem” long-term. This was also the era that spawned the American Indian Movement (AIM), a ‘radical’ political force that was causing havoc across the country in its efforts to assert ‘Red Power.’ This clearly made white men, along with the government that maintained the social order on their behalf, very uncomfortable. Thus many physicians felt they were doing their patriotic duty by limiting the ability of the ‘radical minorities’ to procreate. Others genuinely believed they were helping the country by reducing the cost of Medicaid, food assistance and social welfare programs.

There were financial incentives for physicians, too. The cost of federal assistance to the poor could eventually lead to increased taxes on higher-income people. There were shorter-term benefits, too, since doctors were often paid for specific procedures carried out. More sterilizations meant a bigger paycheck. Given how poorly paid most IHS personnel were, these were legitimate incentives. Then there was their punishing workload. At the time, there were approximately 1,700 residents for every physician in Indian communities. Fewer babies born meant fewer patients to tend to.

Image: PBS

A trail of destruction

Forced sterilization left a lengthy trail of devastation in Indian communities. The numbers of American Indian babies was already small. Now the birth rate was cut in half. Marriages dissolved because women could not have children. Physical violence against Indian women increased. Rates of mental health conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide among women of child-bearing age have risen exponentially over time. The matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women is only now entering the consciousness of American people, 50 years after it became an epidemic, and Native women and girls are still being sex-trafficked at an alarming rate.

Today,  Indian women have less access to proper reproductive health services than any other women in the country. Since the 1970s, passage of the Hyde Amendment has prohibited federal funding for abortion services with very few exceptions. It is extremely hard for low-income women to get a pregnancy test or terminate a pregnancy, even more so if they live on a reservation and are reliant on a poorly run, vastly underfunded Indian healthcare system. Then, as now, Indian women were easy targets. Relatively small in numbers and largely invisible, it was not difficult for IHS to do the sterilizations without anyone really noticing. It took years of hearings, news reports, investigations, and interviews with victims and those around them to bring these harsh realities to light… for those who actually care to notice.


Native Horse Culture

Photo: Alamy

Even at first glance the dramatic Indian relay races staged across the American west are a fantastic and awe-inducing sight. Mounted riders thunder across the track on painted horses. The riders stay close and connected to their horses through every stride, and the distinct shadows they cast are indiscernible as they race by at breakneck speed. Aunties, grandmas, and children cheer heartily from the grandstands and happily chat amongst each other, and when the races are done for the day they share laughter and good humor and tell tales until long after the sun goes down. It’s an amazing spectacle, but its beauty only grows stronger when you realize that horses introduced by settlers to this continent were intended to destroy the Indigenous people.

Having imported horses as weapons of war, the Spanish conquistadors had reaped great rewards with their strong cavalry in previous conquests. After all, horseback riders could quickly decimate their opponents on the ground using encirclement tactics. What the Spanish and subsequent European military powers didn’t anticipate was how rapidly Native Americans would adopt horse culture as their own. The spread of horse culture can be attributed to the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When the Natives rebelled against Spanish control and ultimately decimated the invaders, the people weren’t sure what to do with the horses as they were an agrarian society with no need for such animals. So the horses were released and a new era had begun.

I-ah-to-tonah, or Little Woman Mountain, and son A-last-Sauked, or Looking-away-off, Nez Perce, ca. 1909 | Photo: Library of Congress

A tool of destruction

Horses fulfilled a need for nomadic tribes, enabling them to move and trade and provide food for their people while also dramatically increasing their warring capabilities. Before long the U.S. military came to fear the mounted Indian warriors, who could steer the animals with just their knees and shoot arrows and bullets with fierce accuracy. Horse nations quickly grew in power and influence across their regions. In 1854, the United States suffered a devastating military defeat after attempting to exact vengeance upon a Lakota man who had unknowingly seized a settler’s stray cow. The U.S. government quickly realized that it would be impossible to enforce American laws and norms around private property with the power of the nomadic Lakota people in the Plains. This was true in the South, as well, with the Comanche and their vast trading and raiding horse network.

Since using the horse as a military aid was no longer successful, the United States changed tactics by instead utilizing the horse to exacerbate intertribal conflicts and create a scarcity of resources. Horses increased the power of nomadic nations which, in turn, altered their relationships with more agrarian and sedentary societies. In the south, the Apache and Comanche began having small intertribal conflicts, and in the North, the Lakota’s ability to traverse the plains like never before put them into increasing contact with further nations. The conflicts didn’t really escalate until competition grew for increasingly scarce resources.

Realizing that the most efficient way to destroy a people is to destroy their food supply, the United States paid buffalo hunters to slaughter the animals to near extinction. Initially, nomadic societies were not overly burdened by the reduction in buffalo numbers because horses enabled them to travel further than before in pursuit of sustenance. However, they found themselves increasingly in conflict with surrounding nations as they entered new territory in search of food. The Lakota were fighting on multiple fronts with the Crows over the Powder River area in Wyoming and the Pawnees to the east. Once they were involved in multiple military engagements at the same time the Lakota became more vulnerable. The U.S. military took full advantage of the situation, launching the Great Sioux War against the Lakota. Following long, exhausting winter military campaigns, the conflict officially ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, forcing the Natives to accept a life confined to reservations. 

Apaches. Before the storm- Four Apache on horseback on horseback under storm clouds. photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1906 | Photo: Shutterstock

In the South, the Comanche/Apache conflict intensified because the scarcity of buffalo was exacerbated by the decreased forage available due to overgrazing of the land by horses. Indeed, the Southern Plains lost about two-thirds of its available forage. The fundamentally different needs of the Comanche and Apache eventually made their survival strategies ecologically incompatible, and the two societies were pitted against one another in an epic struggle.  

In 1867, the Comanche and Apache, as well as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho, signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge and agreed to reservation life in exchange for the government calling off the buffalo hunters. The presence of horses had ultimately led to the destruction of a way of life, but horse culture survived and remains strong today. In fact, horses have served as a positive force that is helping to restore tribal relations and reverse the course of ecological devastation that began 500 years ago. The Indian Relays are a big part of that.

While the introduction of horses was intended to destroy American Indians in the past, it serves today as a positive reminder of their resilience and ability to persevere against all odds. The horsemen may have brought fear and trauma in previous generations but today they symbolize the strength of Native communities. The laughter of the aunties, and the excitement that surrounds the Indian relays, remind us that the deep connection between Native people and their horses is a testament to the power and strength of indigenous people who are still here, living in harmony with the very tool that was meant to destroy them. 

“The horsemen… symbolize the strength of Native communities.”


Oil, Money, Murder.

Photo: Public domain via slcc.edu.

Throughout history, settler rampage across the American West has largely been driven by one thing – money. Or in the case of Oklahoma, oil. In a series of particularly egregious cases, about two dozen violent and suspicious deaths among Osage Indians occurred in the 1920s, most of which were never investigated nor solved. Scholars and others who have investigated these cases more recently believe the actual number may be in the hundreds.

The Osage reservation was soaked in blood because it was awash in oil. Driven from their lands in Kansas, the Osage had acquired a swath of northeast Oklahoma in the early 1870s. The rocky, barren reservation promised to yield little until the discovery below the surface of one of the largest oil deposits in the United States. The Osage had retained the rights to any mineral discoveries, and oil barons paid large sums for leases at auction. Each member of the Tribe received large royalty payments.

The federal government stepped in to assign so-called ‘guardians,’ who were supposed to help the Osage manage their money. Instead, they transformed the arrangement into a widespread fraud scheme designed to steal the royalties. For some, this ill-gotten gain was not enough, and some hatched a cold-blooded plot to swindle the inheritance rights by marrying individual Indians before killing them. No such case was more chilling than that of William K. Hale, the self-proclaimed ‘King of the Osage Hills.’

Image: New York Times

The FBI’s first big case

An affluent rancher with banking and business interests, Hale was perhaps Osage County’s most powerful figure. He was also the mastermind of a plot to acquire Osage wealth through murder. Hale encouraged his nephew Ernest Burkhart to marry Mollie Kyle, a full-blood Osage. Her mother, Lizzie, resided with Mollie and Ernest. Lizzie died of a suspected poisoning in July 1921, two months after her daughter Anna Brown was shot to death. Henry Roan, Lizzie’s nephew, met a similar fate in January 1923. On March 10, 1923, Lizzie’s daughter Rita Smith, Rita’s husband William E. “Bill” Smith, and their housekeeper Nettie Brookshire died when their home was destroyed by an explosion. With Rita’s death, Mollie and Ernest Burkhart inherited a fortune from her mother and sister. 

It wasn’t just Mollie’s family that was being methodically killed on the Osage Reservation in the early 1920s. More than two dozen members of the Tribe had been shot, stabbed, beaten and bombed in one of the bloodiest crime sprees in American history. Investigators who probed the case too deeply also turned up dead. One attorney with information on the case was thrown off a speeding train, while the body of Barney McBride, a wealthy white oilman who agreed to go to Washington, D.C., to ask federal authorities to investigate the murders, was found in a culvert, having been stripped, beaten and stabbed more than 20 times.

“The Osage Nation was soaked in blood because it was awash in oil.”

As the body count rose, the Osage saw no action from local and state law enforcement personnel. The Tribe appealed to the new Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation), for help. Newly appointed director J. Edgar Hoover sent investigators to Oklahoma. Their focus was on the Roan murder, which had occurred on restricted Indian land, giving federal authorities jurisdiction in the case. The officers met regularly to compare observations and noted the reoccurring names of William K. Hale, Ernest Burkhart, and John Ramsey. Under interrogation Ernest Burkhart tied Ramsey to the Roan murder, and Ramsey, a local farmer-cowboy, admitted that Hale had hired him to kill Roan. Ramsey also confessed his involvement in the Smith murders and implicated Hale as the ringleader in that crime, too. Federal agents, assisted by state officers, took Hale, Burkhart, and Ramsey into custody in January 1926 and soon charged others, as well. 

Between 1926 and 1929 the defendants were tried in state and federal courts. The trials, with their deadlocked juries, appeals, and overturned verdicts, drew national attention. Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty and received a life sentence in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for the murder of William E. Smith. Turning state’s evidence, Burkhart testified against Hale and Ramsey, who were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, for the murder of Henry Roan. A petty criminal, Kelsie Morrison admitted he had killed Anna Brown at Hale’s request. 

In perhaps the cruelest irony of all, when the case was concluded Hoover’s Bureau sent the Osage a bill for $20,000 for its services! Despite Osage protests Hale, Ramsey, and Ernest Burkhart, were eventually paroled, and Burkhart received a full pardon in 1965 from Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon.


The Sioux War of 1862

Image: Minnesota Historical Society

The tension had been building for decades, and the outcome was largely inevitable. The result was the largest mass execution in United States history, yet few Americans are even aware of the Sioux War of 1862.

At 10 a.m. on the 26th day of December in 1862, some 38 Sioux prisoners were led to a scaffold in Mankato, Minnesota, that had been specially constructed for their execution. An estimated 4,000 spectators crammed the streets and surrounding land to extract a grim measure of revenge. Colonel Stephen Miller, who was charged with keeping the peace in the days leading up to the public hangings, had declared martial law in the region and banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within a 10-mile radius of the town.

As they took their assigned places on the scaffold, and white cloth coverings were pulled over their heads, the men sang a Sioux song. Drumbeats signaled the start of the execution, and the prisoners grasped each other’s hands. With a single blow from an ax, the rope that held the platform was cut. After dangling from the scaffold for half an hour, the bodies were cut down and hauled to a shallow mass grave on a sandbar between Mankato’s main street and the Minnesota River. Before morning, most had been dug up and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.

It was a dark moment in American history

Photo: Blue Earth County Historical Society

Conflict fueled by starvation

The origins of the Sioux Uprising could be traced to a series of treaties the Sioux had signed in the 1850, collectively ceding nearly 24 million acres of prime agricultural land, which was legally opened to white settlers three years later. The treaties left the 7,000 Sioux confined to two reservations hugging the Minnesota River, each 20 miles wide and 70 miles long. As was customary, the federal government established administrative agencies on each reservation and white merchants opened stores where the Natives could spend their annuity money or trade furs for food and other goods.

By 1857, white settlers began pressuring the government to open the Sioux Territory for settlement. In the spring of 1858, a Sioux delegation led by Sioux Chief Little Crow and Sioux agent Joseph R. Brown traveled to Washington to negotiate a new series of treaties. The treaties of 1858 further reduced the Sioux reservations, ceding the strip that was north of the Minnesota River for an amount to be determined by the U.S. Senate. It would take two more years for the senators to decide on payment of just 30 cents per acre, a laughable figure that was well below the going rate at the time for such prime real estate. With the stroke of a pen, the Sioux had lost almost a million more acres of their homeland. 

Over the next few years the conflict between white traders and Natives escalated as unscrupulous traders received the annuity payments directly from the government and devised ways to pocket the money while forcing the Natives into debt. When wild game became scarce, the Sioux in the north became increasingly dependent on white men for food and other necessities. The traders’ greed was doubly resented, since virtually all of them had married Sioux women. 

A delay in annuity payments, caused by the worsening war between the Union and the Confederacy, sparked the Sioux War of 1862. Hungry Sioux men, desperate for food, broke into a government storehouse at Upper Agency to take flour and other items. Little Crow asked that the Sioux be given the food that was rightfully theirs. They were starving, he warned, adding, “When men are hungry, they help themselves.” Andrew J. Myrick, one of the leading traders, discounted the warning.

“So far as I am concerned if they are hungry they can eat grass.”

That same day, four young Sioux men were returning from an unsuccessful hunt when they stole some eggs from a white settlement. The youths soon found themselves in a confrontation with the hen’s owner, and the encounter turned tragic as the Sioux killed five members of the settler family. Sensing that they would be attacked, Sioux leaders determined that war was at hand and seized the initiative. 

An unimaginable tragedy

Led by Little Crow, the Sioux attacked the Redwood Agency, killing more than 40 civilians and soldiers. Among the dead was Myrick, whose body was found with grass stuffed in its mouth.

Throughout the next two weeks, bands of Sioux swept through the countryside, burning farmsteads, slaying men and seizing scores of women and children. An estimated 650 Sioux attacked the village of New Ulm. Although most of the town’s buildings were destroyed, the Sioux were driven back. By month’s end, much of the white population of Southern Minnesota had fled.

Image: Minnesota Historical Society

After making a plea to President Abraham Lincoln for help, Minnesota’s Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley to raise a volunteer force to defend the settlers. Sibley’s ill-armed and ill-equipped 1,400-man army advanced up the Minnesota River valley, eventually meeting Little Crow’s warriors at Wood Lake on September 23. The engagement amounted to a standoff, but it also ended the uprising. 

While Little Crow and other Sioux fled west, the soldiers herded about 2,000 Natives into custody. Sibley established a military commission to hold trials as the white community exercised its thirst for revenge. The trials of the 393 accused Sioux warriors made a mockery of justice with many lasting five minutes or less. 321 men were convicted, with 307 sentenced to death. Upon reviewing records of the proceedings, President Lincoln listened to pleas of clemency and eventually approved the executions of 38 Sioux who had been convicted of either rape or murder. 

Although casualty figures conflict, it appears that 71 Sioux (including those who were executed) lost their lives as a result of the uprising, along with 77 soldiers and more than 800 civilians. It was a tragedy with unimaginable consequences. Soon after, the federal government nullified the treaties, ordered the Sioux’s banishment from Minnesota, increased the bounty on their scalps, and conducted military campaigns against the Natives for three more years. 

Writing years later in a journal, one white survivor of the Sioux Uprising stated this:

“For had the Indians been treated as agreed, honest and upright, this bloody day in Minnesota’s history would have been avoided.”


Destroying families

Image: Wikipedia.org

Some say the Dawes Act of 1887 – also known as the General Allotment Act – was forged out of greed and avarice. Others claim the federal government legislation was motivated by humanitarianism and the belief that it was best for Native people to assimilate into European-American society. One thing we know for certain is this: Allotment stole vast quantities of valuable land from Native people, left them the least desirable ground available, and destroyed Indian families and communities for generations to come.

The stated purpose of the Dawes Act was to assimilate Indigenous people into white society. Natives who agreed to leave reservations and take up farming of their allotted lands were to be granted U.S. citizenship. Even though most tribes had no concept of private land ownership – for centuries land had been communally owned and its bounty shared with everyone – individual ownership of land for European-style subsistence farming was seen as the key to resolving the “Indian problem.” Supporters of the Act believed that by becoming U.S. citizens, Natives would abandon their “uncivilized” ways and become self-supporting members of American society who would no longer need government supervision and assistance. It’s not as though the Natives had a choice. They were going to be settler-style capitalists come what may.

In the end, allotment undermined virtually every aspect of Indian life and culture. The social bonds of life in tribal communities were shattered. Families were torn apart as they struggled for survival amidst the new economic realities. Many Natives lost their allotted land to unscrupulous settlers who grabbed it for themselves through whatever means necessary. Indians who stayed on the reservation endured generational poverty and ill health. The societal toll was immeasurable and it continues to this day.

Image: Wikipedia.org

Upending traditional family structures

When looking at allotment, most have focused on the loss of land which was devastating. What often gets neglected is the impact on families. Allotment forced families to operate in unfamiliar ways favored by Anglo-American settlers. Men were to earn wages outside the home; women were expected to tend to domestic matters and raise their biological children. This ran counter to traditional Indian family and kinship norms which provided gendered and spiritual significance to specific duties, namely that women farm, gather, and produce necessities of life while men fished and hunted for subsistence. This is where the stereotype originated of the lazy Indian man and the drudging Indian woman, a racist trope that proliferated widely across Anglo-American communities. 

Because Indigenous peoples organized their societies according to kinship, with an emphasis on relationships within the extended family, academics, federal officials, and others seeking to reform the Indian family believed these social systems were inherently dysfunctional. These reformers believed that fracturing extended kinship relationships into nuclear families by subdividing communally-held Indian land would increase the likelihood of assimilation. When allotment became official federal policy in 1887, it came along with forced restructuring of Indian community with the men now in charge of farming and working the land while the women managed the household and children.

Daily Globe | St. Paul MN, Thursday morning, February 20,1890

The impact was significant. In annual reports produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1911 to 1934, data on direct measures of assimilation were routinely published. In addition to school attendance, data on the number of “church-going Indians” and those “wearing civilized dress” were published. As the pace of allotment hastened, the number of Natives falling into the aforementioned categories increased in lock-step with the changes in land ownership.

Because adult males were now considered to be the rightful head of the household, a wife who had spent her entire adult life with her husband on a particular allotment no longer had any rights to that land. Her allotted land might be located a long distance away, but once the husband died the rights to the use the land where the family had made their home for the better part of 30 years would belong to his male descendants, and the wife would be forced to leave.

In the end, allotment undermined virtually every aspect of Indian life and culture.

In the end, the primary goal of allotment for European settlers was achieved. Millions of acres of land on Indian reservations were handed over to white settlers. Over a 50-year period, nearly two-thirds of the 150 million acres of land that Indian tribes owned in 1887 were transferred to non-Indians. The secondary purpose – assimilation of Indian people into European-American society – was an abject failure for which we are still paying a very steep price. Rather than lifting Natives out of poverty, the General Allotment Act made their conditions even worse. Most Indian land was of poor quality, and without access to funds for the purchase of equipment, animals or seed, success in agriculture for Native people was highly unlikely. The notion that Indian people could be forced into an agrarian society in this way was naive at best, but more likely driven by paternalistic racism and extreme greed. Either way the outcome has been disastrous.


Incompetent Indians

Photo: Library of Congress

Most American Indians do not “own” their land, at least not in the way others traditionally think of land ownership. Rather, the land is held ‘in trust’ by the U.S. government in a strange, patriarchal relationship that requires tribes to get permission from the Department of the Interior (DOI) to utilize their own property in any meaningful way. In this relationship – one in which the U.S. government is the guardian and the Indian is basically a ward-of-the-state – individual Natives who want jurisdiction over their land are required to do something even more demeaning – declare themselves ‘incompetent’ to manage their own affairs. 

The notion of the “incompetent Indian” is a painful relic of the past, a requirement developed in the 1800s as a way to prevent Indian people from controlling their own destiny. Unbelievably, that requirement remains in place today. The legal status of the “incompetent Indian” was solidified through Competency Commissions established by the Burke Act of 1906. At that time, Indians would see three white men in business suits arrive on the reservation. One of them was familiar: the local Indian agent. His job was to serve as the U.S. government’s arm into reservations, monitoring Indians and either approving or disapproving everything that took place at his agency. The other two men may have been successful in business, or could have been owed political favors by elected officials in Washington, D.C. 

The men would enter the houses of Indian people and take a look around, observing how the Natives kept their homes and hazarding a guess as to how the residents might be managing their personal affairs. The agents would write notes about what they saw and then pose a series of questions. Some were logistical in nature –  “Do you farm your land or lease it?” for example – but most of the queries from these so-called “Competency Commissioners” were intended to determine something entirely different: Were the Indians who lived there competent to manage their own lands?

Image: Wikipedia.org

The intruders wielded official government forms that required American Indians to specifically identify reputable white businessmen in the community who could vouch for their character. The men probed into the personal habits and history of individuals, and there was room at the bottom of the form for the commissioners to express their opinions about the subjects being interrogated. Indians who still practiced their traditional ways were considered incompetent. Those who simply “looked Indian” would also fail the test. Although such arrangements were uncommon among white settlers, Indian families often had multiple generations living together and caring for each other. This was frowned upon by the commissioners. So, too, was the decision Indian parents often made to keep their children from being taken away to attend residential schools where they would be stripped of their traditional culture and indoctrinated into the ways of the white man. This, and a reluctance to speak English, were also painted in a bad light. Anything that could be used against the Indians most certainly was.

“Those who simply looked Indian would fail the test.

The outcomes were devastating

The consequences were severe. Control over lands the Indians previously owned now reverted to the U.S. government and were held “in trust.” This meant that any future action taken regarding this land now required permission from the government. 

For Native women, the one way to be deemed competent was to marry a white man. For the Osage in Oklahoma, this played out disastrously as countless Native women were murdered so that the settlers could gain control over the oil rights on Indian land. This form of theft was made possible because individuals with more than 50 percent Indian blood were required to have a guardian appointed by the courts. This overseer managed all of the ward’s assets and affairs until the Indian person could prove their own competency. This led to the transfer of thousands of acres and millions of dollars to the control of husbands and guardians. More than $8 million – over $125 million in inflation-adjusted dollars – was stolen from the Osage in this way in a pattern that repeated itself across Indian Country.

For those who were deemed competent, the outcome wasn’t much better. Individual Indians who “acted like a white man” or “looked white” were definitely on the fast track to competency, although their new status did not provide any of the benefits of being an American citizen. Though the Burke Act guaranteed the right to vote once an Indian was deemed competent, most states did not acknowledge this right. At the same time state and local governments immediately began taxing the Indians which led to a massive wave of tax forfeitures in short order. More than 80 percent of Indians deemed competent were forced to sell their land to avoid starvation and bankruptcy.

Circumstances became dire on isolated Indian reservations where a serious lack of infrastructure, economic opportunity, and access to adequate healthcare had produced drastic consequences. Food was in short supply, and the people became trapped in a system that bred intense poverty. Indians soon begged the competency commissioners to not be deemed competent as they had seen what happened to their brothers and sisters who had lost their lands and what few assets they had. Some commissioners greeted these pleas with cold indifference. Others felt they were giving Indian people the ‘gift’ of competency and failed to grasp what the outcome might be for the individuals involved.

The competency commissions officially ended in 1920 but the issuing of competency certificates continued into the 1930s. By that time, Indian people had been stripped of more than 3.5 million acres of land and their families destined for a life of poverty and deprivation. The effects of these misguided policies remain, and so does the requirement that Indians seeking to put their land into trust must declare themselves incompetent.