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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

50 years ago, Colville election ushered in new era for U.S. tribes

By Mark Trahant Indian Country Today

Fifty years ago this week, the federal government’s experiment with termination was crushed at the ballot box on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state.

Termination was a policy that was designed to end the United State government’s role in Indian affairs. It would have abrogated treaties, eliminated federal funding and “freed the Indians” from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And as a bonus, the wealth generated by millions of acres of land and the reward from rich natural resources would be up for grabs.

One side wanted to kick out the BIA and sell at least some of the reservation for a lot of money. The other side wanted to support the tribal government and to get more financial help from the federal government.

That was the debate Colville voters had to resolve on May 8, 1971.

Roots of termination

“Virtually all federal Indian policy can be analyzed in terms of the tension between assimilation and separatism,” wrote Charles Wilkinson and Eric Bigs in a 1977 Indian Law Review article.

The two legal scholars concluded that “termination was an outgrowth of 150 years of Indian policy preceding the termination movement, and was simply the farthest extension of the fundamental theory underlying Indian policy throughout most of those years.

Indeed, the termination movement’s sponsors may have been motivated by sincere concern for the welfare of the Indian people. Nevertheless, most observers have concluded that termination has failed.”

More than 100 tribes were terminated following the enactment of House Concurrent Resolution 108 on Aug. 1, 1953.

That resolution declared a congressional policy as “rapidly as possible to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, and to grant them all the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship.”

The first tribes chosen for this experiment were the Flathead Tribe of Montana, the Klamath Tribe of Oregon, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, the Potawatomi Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and those members of the Chippewa Tribe who are on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.

A law that gave states criminal and civil jurisdiction over citizens of some tribal nations, Public Law 280, was also enacted and remains in effect today. Another program recruited Native American workers to leave their reservation homes in exchange for jobs in cities, often placing these workers in seasonal jobs such as agriculture or at railroads.

The Colville Tribe had been on the termination list beginning in 1956 when legislation was enacted that put the governing body in an untenable position: To gain title to its own land, the tribe would have to submit a plan to terminate within five years.

“Though most Colvilles were reported to be against termination at that time, groups favoring a sale of the reservation and distribution of assets to members moved to take over the council in 1963,” the American Indian Press Association reported. “By 1965 they had full control of the council, and Sen. Henry M. Jackson, D-Wash., introduced legislation for them in each session of the Congress.”

And in Washington, the tide was beginning to turn.

In March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a message to Congress on Indians that proposed a national goal to end the “old debate about ‘termination’ of Indian programs and stresses self-determination; a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership self-help.”

Yet only a month later, the president signed into law a bill that terminated the Tiwa Indians of Ysleta, Texas, and the law specifically declared that the responsibility “if any” for the tribal community was now up to Texas. The United States was done.

And that was supposed to happen at Colville, too.

Considering the costs

Colville Chairman Rodney Cawston said he remembers as a child the parents arguing about termination.

“I think that was the thing that really brought my attention to it as a child and hearing their discussions back and forth … if we terminate what would happen? If we don’t terminate what would happen? … Because if we do terminate, we’re going to lose all of our reservation lands. We will no longer have a home or children will no longer have the hunting and the fishing and gathering that we are enjoying here today.”

He said the end of tribal government would mean there would have been no mechanism in place for solving community problems.

Even as a child, he said, he recalled thinking that the loss of reservation lands would be too costly. “Well, if I can’t go out hunting, and if I can’t go out fishing, why would I want any amount of money?”

“I was really happy that it was voted down,” he recalled, because Indian people have already lost so much.

But Cawston also said he understood the motivation for those that supported termination. He said people wanted greater autonomy over their own land.

“We are rich in natural resources here and so everything was being extracted off our reservation, especially the timber, which was really damaging the water and the forest itself.”

Ceremony of tears

In a lot of ways the 12 bands that make up the Colville Confederated Reservation had already gone through multiple terminations. Only 20 years after the reservation was created, Congress took away the north half of the reservation and opened it up to settlement. The government was supposed to pay for that land, but for some 14 years failed to complete its end of the bargain.

Then in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson approved a proclamation that opened more lands for settlement within the “Diminished Colville Indian Reservation.” The North Half of the reservation was never forgotten. And when the land went unused, the tribe asked for that land back. Congress said yes, but the price was the five-year termination plan.

Another practical termination was the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River that blocked salmon from reaching the tribal homelands.

“I remember a lot of our people talking about that, how devastating that was for us as a people, because we were of a salmon culture,” Cawston said. “One of the largest fishing sites in the Northwest was Kettle Falls, which is right near our reservation. And to have just all of that taken away from us by the federal government and without any consideration of us as Indian people, that that took away our culture or our religious systems, a lot of our ceremonial events.”

“I used to hear our elders talk about how people gathered at what they call the Ceremony of Tears, which was the last time the fish came up the Columbia, and they knew that life was going to change for them forever,” he said. “So this was still fairly recent … and they just couldn’t see where the federal government was making decisions in the best interest of our tribe of our people.”

More than 1,000 people traveled to Kettle Falls in June 1940 for the three-day Ceremony of Tears.

Competing campaigns

But a lot of the election in 1971 was focused more on the routine. Then-Chairman Narcisse Nicolson Jr. supported termination because he said it was time for the Colville people to end their relationship with Washington. He said the case was clear because “with only a relatively few exceptions, the tribal families of today are self-supporting.”

He added, “Lack of employment, to the degree that it exists, is largely due to character faults which cannot be cured by paternalism.”

But Lucy Covington, Frank George, Paschal Sherman, and the anti-termination candidates had a different message. They campaigned saying sovereignty was the ultimate solution to any tribal problem.

Covington worked with author Vine Deloria and Chuck Trimble to produce a newspaper called “Our Heritage,” that made the case against termination.

Covington said it was critical to quiet what she called the “present fever and fervor for termination.”

Deloria would later go on to write about termination in “Custer Died for Your Sins.”

“The Congressional policy of termination … was not conceived as a policy of murder,” he wrote. “Rather it was thought that it would provide that elusive ‘answer’ to the Indian problem. And when it proved to be no answer at all, Congress continued its policy, having found a new weapon in the ancient battle for Indian land.”

Deloria attacked the morality of the termination legislation. He wrote: “Can you imagine Henry Jackson, sponsor of the bill, walking into the offices of white businessmen in Everett, Washington, and asking them to sell him their property, with values to be determined six months after the sale?” Or what happens if the land owners under the law are declared incompetent. “They would then be judged too incompetent to handle their own money, but competent enough to vote to sell their reservation. Is it any wonder that Indians distrust white men?”

A new era

The vote on May 8 was not close.

“Terminationist Chairman Narcisse Nicholson was rejected by the local Omak district voters who gave him 109 votes against his anti-terminationist opponents Charles Quintasket, who received 228 local votes and Barbara Marchand who received 220,” reported the American Indian Press Association. The election sweep, the wire service said, meant the new tribal council was “poised to develop new programs to take advantage of all available federal projects for the reservation which had previously been turned down by the terminationists.”

No other tribe anywhere in the United States had to deal with the termination policy again. The battle was over.

In July when the new council took office, Mel Tonasket, then 30 years old, was elected as chairman. The council swiftly passed a resolution condemning termination. Other resolutions called for more federal support, closed a reservation lake to outsiders, and voted to take back law enforcement powers that had been ceded to the state of Washington under Public Law 280.

The new council claimed the inherent power of a government through an affirmation of tribal sovereignty.

The shift of policy, while debated in Washington, D.C., took root in the communities of Nespelem, Omak and even Seattle.

Sen. Jackson, a longtime supporter of termination, removed one of the policy’s architects, Senate staffer James Gamble, and replaced him with Forrest Gerard, Blackfeet. The era of self-determination was now the policy in Washington and in tribal communities across the country.

Lasting legacy

There are also stories to tell.

The Colville Tribe did so when it named its business center for Lucy Covington in 2015. The tribe tells that story in a resolution that honors her. This is extraordinary because the council is honoring dissent from within.

The resolution said the council would not support her trips to Washington to lobby against termination so “Covington & George Friedlander sold their own livestock; cattle, and precious bloodline horses descending from Chief Moses to fund her travels to Washington, D.C., in efforts to protect ancestral lands. Covington’s passion to utilize every effort to save the Colville Indian Reservation landed National recognition for her devotion to protect all tribal lands and rights.”

Eastern Washington University awarded Covington an honorary doctorate in 2015 on what would have been her 105th birthday. Her niece, Barb Aripa, accepted the award on behalf of Covington’s family and the tribal community. “I accept this on behalf of the people of the Colville Tribes, the tribes she fought for all her life until the day she died,” she said at the ceremony. “She fought so hard for everything, for the people. Not only for our tribe, but all the tribes of the United States.”

Another story comes from Laurie Arnold, an associate professor at Gonzaga University, and a Colville citizen. She’s the author of “Bartering with the Bones of Their Dead: The Colville Confederated Tribes and Termination.” She said the topic was so divisive that people really don’t talk about it. The “feelings persisted, and I think that’s part of the reason that I never heard people talk about this when I was growing up.”

The Colville termination story is important to tell because “no community is a monolith.” Yet “one unifying theme for people who sought termination was ironically the restoration of a lost land base,” she said, because “one of the legacies of termination” is that 818,000 acres of the North Half of the reservation were restored to tribal access.

Another legacy might be the story itself. Arnold’s book tells her tribe’s story. This she sees as a turn toward “community centered and informed narratives about termination.”

“When I was in graduate school and I told people, ‘I was writing about policy,’ they said, ‘Oh, why would you? It’s just white guys do that. Why would you do that?’ And I said, ’Well, who better to tell these stories?”

Outsiders might write about how a commission created policies. But they are not “writing about the experiences of it,” she said. “If I had a final word, it would be a plug for more Native students, writing about their communities, more Native scholars, Native people writing about their communities. It’s the best way to create these, you know, these infinities of stories that we have.”