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Read an excerpt from

Taking Indian Lands
Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press

Excerpts from the Preface and Epilogue

In the period 1889-93 the Cherokee Commission purchased fifteen million acres of land from Oklahoma tribes. Almost all of this land became available to settlers by 1900, making possible the appearance of the State of Oklahoma. To the Indians the loss of the land was devastating. Their practice of holding large areas in common had been the foundation of a distinctive and satisfying way of life. Not only would they lose the land that had shaped them, they would also be scattered among an unfriendly white population that would, very quickly, badly outnumber them.

This tragedy for the Indians of Oklahoma, which was the concluding phase of their long struggle to withstand the remorseless advance of the white population, was not peculiar to Oklahoma tribes. Elsewhere in the American West a dozen or more commissions were acquiring land from Indians on terms similar to those imposed on the Oklahoma tribes. What made the Cherokee Commission unique were the number of tribes with which it dealt and the duration of the commission. While other commissions focused on one or a few tribes and completed their assignments in a matter of weeks or at most a few months, the Cherokee Commission dealt with nearly twenty tribes and had a life of fifty-two months.

The journals of the commission's deliberations total almost two thousand pages. They provide an unparalleled record of a single commission's efforts to coerce the tribes into allotment in severalty and the sale of their remaining acreage, the so-called "surplus land." The Cherokees were a special case, as they had been exempted from allotment by the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act. They did, however, hold the Cherokee Outlet, a block of more than six million acres between the 96 th and 100 th meridians that the commission was directed to purchase.

The commission's journals also provide abundant testimony to the hopes and fears, the fundamental beliefs of the Indians involved, as well as to their strategies for opposing the designs of the United States. Their attachment to the land and their recognition that their way of life would be drastically altered are poignantly expressed by Indian spokesmen, but in vain--the picture of a powerful nation imposing its will on its wards is not a pretty one...

...All of the commissioners, even [first commissioner] Judge [Alfred M.] Wilson, rather quickly appeared to become caught up in a real effort to coerce the tribes into accepting agreements on the government's terms. Undoubtedly they did believe that the Indians could not be permitted to remain indefinitely in their current situation, for their own good as well as for the benefit of the multitude of whites who were seeking homesteads. The commissioners' willingness to use any tactic to achieve the government's ends, however, suggests that as time wore on they came to view the negotiations as some kind of competition that they must win. This possibly explains--but does not justify--their resort to unethical tactics in the struggle to prevail. Eventually the Indian Claims Commission would denounce [first Commission Chairman] Lucian Fairchild's "petulance," but certainly [second Commission Chairman David] Jerome, [Commissioner Warren] Sayre, and Wilson also revealed their annoyance and frustration and reacted with questionable practices.

If a tribe failed to be persuaded of the beneficence of the Great Father, the commissioners could quickly become heavy-handed. They routinely warned the Indians that their titles were not the equivalent of those of white landowners, although they could become so if they accepted allotment. The white men also drew confusing and disturbing distinctions between titles originating in treaties and presidential proclamations and those in fee simple acquired by purchase. Regardless of the nature of their title, however, the tribes were quickly informed that they would not be permitted to retain great undeveloped expanses while thousands of white families were desperate for land and bringing pressure to bear upon Congress and the executive branch.

Furthermore, under no circumstances could the tribes sell to anyone other than the United States, and the president could terminate any leases of reservation land at will, thus cutting off that source of tribal income. Indians still receiving rations were reminded that these were not called for by treaty and that even actual treaty provisions for schools, grist and sawmills, farm implements, and clothing all had time limits. Whether or not they were extended after expiration of the treaty, the Indians were told, could depend upon how they now responded to the government's offer to buy their land.

The tribes learned early on that they would not be permitted to determine the price at which they would sell. On a few occasions the commissioners finally paid a few cents more per acres than their original offer. Usually, however, any concessions involved altering the method of compensation, such as increasing the size of the initial payment, which did not cost the government a cent. Indeed, that could save the United States money, because it reduced the amount of the principal held in the Treasury and earning 5 percent interest. Another favorite tactic of the commissioners was to brandish the Dawes Severalty Act as the only alternative to the agreement being offered. That law authorized less land than the commissioners were offering and provided for only a 3 percent return on tribal funds held in the Treasury.

Nor should it be forgotten that the commissioners did not cavil at tactics involving attorneys who were presumably representing Indian interests. Those individuals were normally operating with contracts specifying that their fees be a percentage of what the Indians received for the land--therefore, no sale, no fee. Not surprisingly, the attorneys appeared more allies of the government that advocates of tribal interests. Equally improper was the commission's willingness to work with various unsavory characters who showed up at negotiations. Serving as unofficial advisors to the tribes, they helped to undercut Indian resistance and to collect sufficient signatures to authenticate the agreements. These documents could then include clauses that provided compensation in land and/or money for the influence peddlers. They would also receive payments under the table from attorneys trying to ensure their own compensation.

The nature of negotiations varied greatly among the tribes, which is not surprising given the pronounced differences among them. At one extreme was the 25,000 member Cherokee Nation, with a constitution-based government led by men as educated and articulate as the commissioners. At the other extreme were the tiny bands of less than a hundred Iowas and Tonkawas, led by chiefs and headmen unable to speak English and regarded by the commissioners as primitive. Despite the great variations among the tribes, some arguments they employed resonated throughout the negotiations. Indian speakers made references to the Great Spirit's having given the tribes the portion of Mother Earth that the United States was trying to acquire, and they alluded movingly to their attachment to Mother Earth. As people who lived close to nature, their physical environments had shaped all aspects of their lives, from their modes of subsistence and housing to their religious and worldviews. For them to give up access to large tracts that they had owned in common and abandon village or band encampment life for isolated farms was to suffer traumatic disruption of their lives.

These tribes had already been forced to relocate at least once and to give up substantial areas of land. Now they were threatened with the loss of their burial sites and their last common land. These were the tracts open to the livestock of all tribal members, to the hunters, the berry pickers, the nut gatherers, and those seeking therapeutic roots and herbs. Particularly unnerving was the knowledge that sale of the land left after allotment would deny to all succeeding generations a guaranteed access to their share of Mother Earth. Speaker after speaker raised the issue of land for the children yet to be born.

Among the plains tribes there was, in addition, a justified fear that 160-acre tracts that far west were insufficient to support a family, particularly if at least 80 acres of that had to be grazing land as the government insisted. Commissioners might point to Indians such as Quanah Parker as examples of self-sufficiency, but he--like entrepreneurs in other tribes--had managed to monopolize thousands of acres of tribal land for his own use besides being in the pay of cattlemen who wanted access to tribal pasture. Other concerns were repeatedly expressed by the Indians. Fear that allotment would be accompanied by taxes on personal property was one deterrent to their accepting homesteads. Ample reason for alarm existed, and the commissioners could not allay those fears. Nor did the white men effectively counter the argument--of Cherokees in particular--that the tracts neighboring Indian land were selling for substantially more than the $1.25 or less per acre that the government was offering the Indians.

During the actual negotiations conducted by the Cherokee Commission, Indians had loudly criticized the way the white men conducted the councils, determining the agendas and controlling access to the floor. The tribesmen frequently complained of being denied opportunities to talk about issues they wanted to raise and being threatened with expulsion if they did so. Another objection often raised by farming Indians was that since the commissioners tried to avoid camping in the severe winter and summer weather, the negotiations tended to come during the spring and the fall when the Indians needed to be working in their fields. That led tribesmen to make sarcastic remarks about the commissioners' continuing to enjoy their generous stipends while the Indians were being asked to neglect the crops upon which their families depended.

Only the Cherokees, the best equipped for genuine negotiations, raised the issue of the ward-guardian relationship. It is sad that the commissioners, as agents of the government that the Supreme Court in the early 1830s had declared to be the guardian of its Indian wards, should have completely ignored this obligation in the face of unrelenting pressure from white land seekers and businessmen. Warren Sayre even denied that such a guardian-ward relationship existed.

Probably it is too much to expect that, however well intentioned, any government responsive to its constituents could have long ensured tribal control of so much--by the white man's standards--undeveloped land. Certainly, throughout history, their better utilization of the land has been a rationalization used by the strong to justify their eviction of the weak. That the tribes, given the relative strength of the contestants, would be forced into allotment and the sale of their remaining land was inevitable; it is difficult to envision any other logical outcome. Nevertheless, at the very least the government should have offered market value for land essentially being taken by the condemnation process. That would have increased the payments for the land, some of them so inadequate as later to be labeled "unconscionable" or "very gross"--terms that the Indian Claims Commission employed to describe payments "so much less than the actual value of the property sold that the disparity shocks the conscience."*

In time, the Indian Claims Commission rendered judgments totaling about forty-one million dollars on behalf of tribes that had suffered at the hands of the Cherokee Commission. The records of the Indian Claims Commission, together with the journals recording the negotiations of the Cherokee Commission document the cavalier manner--unbecoming to a great nation--by which the United States acquired fifteen million acres from its wards in Oklahoma between 1889 and 1893.

*United States Indian Claims Commission Final Report

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