Wisconsin Congressman Finds Evidence of Starvation, Needless Deaths and Criminal Mistreatment of Tribes
No facts are taken for granted by Congressman James A. Frear of Wisconsin. He has found too often that error often masquerades under the guise of truth. He declined to swallow the statements made by the Indian Bureau to the Indian Committee on which he served. He went out and investigated. He visited twenty reservations at his own expense and the conditions he found were appalling. They were the direct opposite of the bureau's report. He has reached the conclusion that a thorough congressional investigation is needed to wipe out the existing hard-shelled bureaucratic control by the Indian Bureau and to bring about real hope to 225,000 of our so-called incompetent and generally neglected American citizens. Mr. Frear tells what he found on his investigation trip in this special article for LA FOLLETTE'S.—Managing Editor
America's treatment of the American Indian furnishes a long record of national disgrace. This is no new discovery, but facts and conditions placed before Congress warrant an early investigation to be followed by constructive legislation for the protection of the Indians. Soon after my taking up Congressional duties over a dozen years ago, Senator La Follette, Sr., once said to me that a most promising field for public service by any Member lay in a study and exposure of our mistreatment of Indians.
Years previously he had called public attention to such oppression and to the exploitation of Indian tribes. With unparalleled force and persistency he pressed the matter on Congress until temporary changes were brought about, but the bureau system of unrestricted control soon reasserted itself so that today the American Indians are more helpless and oppressed than any other people in this land, if not in the entire World.
Spotlight on Indian Bureau
When the leaders of the House, wisely or unwisely, transferred the Wisconsin delegation and others bodily from positions they formerly held on Committees to less important assignments, the Representative from the Tenth District found himself unexpectedly at the foot of the Indian Affairs Committee of the House without an Indian in his District and comparatively few in Wisconsin. Other committees and districts prevented attendance on the Indian Committee until several incidents occurred which threw the spotlight of publicity upon the Indian Bureau.
FIRST. A telegram from Governor Blaine to President Coolidge, February 15, 1926, declared that an Indian youth named Moore was confined in a foul, insanitary cell 6 by 8 feet in size on the Lac du Flambeau reservation, Wisconsin, with ball and chain fastened to his ankles. He was charged with a misdemeanor.
SECOND. A bill passed Congress over strong opposition but with the active support and approval of the Indian Bureau which placed "a charge of $100,000 against the Navajo Indian tribe for a bridge across the Colorado river, Arizona. The project was declared in the Senate by Arizona and New Mexico Senators familiar with the facts and surroundings to be "highway robbery," and that the bridge was to be built entirely for the white automobile tourist trade.
THIRD. An unjust Indian oil leasing bill affecting all oil lands on 22,000,000 acres of Executive Order Indian lands was approved by the Bureau and in fact only had been prevented from passage the preceding session by a point of order This leasing bill gave 37.5% of all Indian oil royalties for taxes to cover both Indian and oil drillers' taxes. Royalties were fixed under the bill as low as 5 per cent in some cases whereas the ordinary royalty rate is 12.5%. Other objectionable features were shown to be in the bill.
FOURTH. A vicious bill drawn by the Indian Bureau was presented to the House committee that gave the Indian agents the right to appoint $10 a month Indian judges of their choice who might try without jury and sentence for six months without appeal all Indians who violate any rule adopted by the Indian Bureau under the name of the Interior Department. The Lac du Flambeau case and others were living exhibits of the Bureau's tender mercies when once given legal right to do what it now does illegally.
Bureau Controls Legislation
IT FURTHER developed that every bill introduced in the House for the benefit of Indians was first referred to the bureau for its approval, and in the first 35 bills of that session then reported, 34 had the Bureau's O. K. In other words, the Indian Bureau assumed to direct legislation and to control with or without law for its own purposes the 225,000 so-called "incompetent" Indians now under its jurisdiction.
An active campaign followed last session to block these objectionable measures and policies urged by the Bureau. No relief was had with the Lac du Flambeau agent whom the Bureau kept on the job although his prisoner was allowed to escape after the Blaine telegram and subsequent exposure occurred. The Navajo Indian "bridge" for white people was discovered to be only one of many similar charges against Indian properties or funds for projects used by white people.
The Indian oil leasing bill, vicious and unjust in its original form, was held up in the House, while the Senate sub-committee with Senator La Follette its chairman, struck out the objectionable bureau 37.5% tax rates and inserted a provision validating Indian titles on all such reservations, so that after many hearings and contests a just and fair oil leasing bill was reported, and passed by Congress, that fully protected Indian rights. Vetoed for other reasons, it again awaits passage by Congress this session.
Lastly, the bureau's Indian judge bill was so bad in character it was not reported out by the House committee.
Visits Twenty Reservations
IN SEVERAL speeches the writer pointed out to the house these and many other matters that should be investigated by Congress, but due to other important measures occupying the attention of Congress last session no effort was made to press an investigation in either House.
The Indian Bureau, smarting under criticism, charged that I had no Indians in my district and knew nothing personally of Indian matters. Both charges were true, so last fall, while paying my own personal expenses, I visited about 20 Indian reservations in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and California. On my return to Congress this session the charges against the Indian Bureau were reiterated and others added based on facts ascertained on the 4,500-mile trip taken through the reservations.
Briefly the facts areas follows:
After 70 years of Indian Bureau control, 225,000 Indians, or more than two-thirds of all American Indians now living, are controlled and governed by the bureau under a fictitious plea that they are "incompetent." The only agency that finally determines an Indian's competency is the Indian Bureau, without any right of the Indian to any court review under the law. Its authority is supreme and an actual increase in "incompetent" Indians reported during the past seven years indicates a purpose to hold Indians incompetent wherever and whenever possessed of property, These 225,000 Indians the bureau reports now own $1,600,000,000 in property, of which $90,000,000 is in money or securities. No court examination or review is permitted under existing law to learn how this property or these funds are being handled.
Parade Oil Well Indians
OF THAT imposing statement of Indian property, over one-third was reported by the bureau to come from a few Indian oil wells increase in one year. In other words, while thousands of Indians, from Fort Peck on the Canadian border to the Pimas, 2,000 miles south in Arizona, are in many cases reported to be on the verge of starvation, sick and neglected, a handful of Indians in Oklahoma who own oil wells are paraded by the Indian Bureau in the press to show the "per capita wealth" of American Indians.
To those familiar with the facts and methods pursued, this deception is found to be characteristic of many other statements furnished by the bureau.
Indian reservations, as a rule, are lands where no white man could make a living. Mountainous or desert lands that nobody wanted have been set apart for the Indians and there they are huddled together and told to work out their own salvation or starve. Exceptions occur, but this situation is quite general with a hide-bound control exercised by the Bureau under the law that is unbelievable.
All Indian allotted lands can be leased by the Indian Bureau without the consent of their owners, secretly, and without consideration excepting for some supposed improvements by the white lessee.
Bureau Destroys Indian's Rights
THE LAND of the dead Indian allottee is generally sold by the Indian Bureau with or without the consent of the legal heirs, and then "reimbursement" charges like the Navajo white tourist bridge "highway robbery" become a first lien on payment to the heirs, often absorbing the estate.
The will of an allotted Indian has no validity until approved by the Indian Bureau, and in fact the Bureau can destroy the will with out court review or any redress. The Indian Bureau determines the heirs and there is no court review. No contracts can be made without the Indian Agent's approval and no court review can be had under existing law. Many other enslaving handicaps exist because none of the 25,000 Indians now held "incompetent" by the bureau can ever have use of their property except under conditions imposed by the Bureau, which is now the court of last resort.
This control of property with control of the person under the far-fetched rule of "incompetency" places the Indian in the absolute power of the local Indian agent, who may be good, bad or indifferent, In the case of the Lac du Flambeau Wisconsin agent who seized young Moore 70 miles away, and threw him into a foul, ill-smelling cell with ball and chain for ornaments, no trial ever occurred nor is any provided under existing law for Indian judges who are lawless.
Browbeaten and Threatened
THE AGENT who appoints this judge is a small despot, feared by those placed under him because of the power he assumes, without any court review of his acts permitted under the law. For illustration, Indians can be and are arrested without any warrant, thrown in jail, "heard" by a $10 a month "judge" who is appointed by the agent and without any legal procedure or any infringement of law by the Indian, without attorney, without any court record, without bail and without right of appeal to any court. The American Indian is as helpless and defenseless when so arrested as any black slave who was lashed with the rawhide of a Simon Legree. Cowed, browbeaten and threatened, held in subjection by the absolute control of his person and property and by the bureau's rule of incompetency, it is only when assured of protection, which is hard to give, that Indians are willing to state the facts because of the Bureau's threat against those who it terms "fight the Bureau."
In, the Lac Du Flambeau agent's case, for illustration, because it is one in my own state, a letter was placed in the Record dated as late as November 15, 1926, signed by an Indian father who states he was jailed recently without any trial and confined for 15 days because his three children ran away from the Indian school and he preferred to have them in the white public school at his home town outside the reservation. This was not in Nicaragua or Mexico, but in Wisconsin.
Good Agents Are Controlled
BAD AGENTS and good agents are found on reservations, but as one agent gave me to understand during my trip through the West, attempts to protect or care for the Indians or give them humane treatment are interpreted to be opposition to the Bureau's policy and are punished by transfer of agents with great expense to themselves and families, or by many other impositions offered by an autocratic Bureau which is without court review of any kind and is vested with supreme power.
Several felony cases are held triable in Federal court under existing law, but every attempt to enlarge Federal or State control or jurisdiction of the person or property of the Indian meets with the Bureau's certain opposition. Bills to that end offered by Senator La Follette, Congressman Cooper and myself have all been blocked in Senate or House Committees.
Due to the splendid patriotism and bravery of thousands of American Indians during the World War, who enlisted in the American army and fought at the side of their white brothers under the same flag, Congress gave to all American Indians without reservation, full rights of citizenship. Many of these Indians are of a high order of intelligence and education. From hundreds of Indians whom I met last summer and from the opinions of many white people; including doctors, nurses and others, I can say no difference exists between the honesty or moral standards of Indians and standards of their white brothers excepting where contaminated by bad white or half-blood associates. I do not attempt to pass judgment on comparative moral standards, but where 225,000 Indians are now held by the Indian Bureau to be "incompetents," with $1,600,000,000 of their property, including $90,000,000 in money, under the bureau's exclusive control without right of court review, I submit that anyone defending this exclusive power over person and property of full-fledged American citizens is without any prop for his argument.
Cruel Bureau Practices
THAT IS the legal effect of the Indian case under existing law. One of the most cruel of all Bureau practices is that wherein the Bureau with or without authority of law seizes children from six years of age and upwards and takes them hundreds of miles away to non-reservation Indian boarding schools, where the Indian parent far out on the reservation does not see his or her child for three years or more at a time. Instead of fostering day schools in the Indian villages or reservation boarding schools where children can be seen by their parents, the policy now is to take them from their parents, literally by thousands and then send them theoretically to the ether end of the earth, because equally physically removed, there to forget their parents and Indian customs. Improvement of Indians does not require such inhuman or un-American practices, particularly when the parents thus punished are now entitled under the constitution to the same rights as other American citizens.
Sickness, starvation, needless neglect and inexcusable mortality conditions I have set forth in the Record, where the Indian Bureau must be held accountable for conditions. Many witnesses can be called but under the present autocratic and despotic powers possessed by the Bureau, only Indians blessed with unusual courage are going to brook the wrath of the local Indian agent by testifying as to facts far out on the reservation. That was better understood when visiting reservations where we once sat in a council, numbering about 75 intelligent Indian delegates representing 8,000 Indians belonging to 20 Pueblo tribes. Other smaller councils were attended and talks had with white officials, all to the same general effect.
After a fairly long trip, meeting with many Indians and hundreds of white people who have lived with or know the Indians and their customs, I am more strongly impressed than ever before with the gross injustice existing under the present Indian Bureau system and almost as deeply concerned over the lack of interest shown by Congress. Many great problems are with us, but when we very properly become exercised over injustice, sickness and starvation in China, Armenia, Russia, and elsewhere, it is hard to understand why the Indian problem at our own doors is left to a selfish, autocratic Bureau to handle and why Indians who are now American citizens are not given the same protection at least that we accord the helpless unfortunates of other lands.
Need Constructive Legislation
AN INVESTIGATION and constructive legislation is urged that can only be recommended and pressed through Congress by a responsible Congressional committee. It seems impossible to secure action in the House, but many real interested friends of the Indians are in the Senate. There the practice of conducting investigations is more common and it is hoped that during the summer recess a group of men sufficiently interested and able to do so will visit Western reservations and then conclude short hearings in Washington, where bureau officials and bureau records could be examined. Hundreds of interested friends of the Indians would aid in any such probe, and help furnish facts and aid in any constructive program that may be offered.
As one who has willingly spent much time in investigating the facts and placing them before Congress, I believe this course is the only practicable means of materially improving the condition of the American Indians.