ELK V. WILKINS
If Indians have the right to due process,
do they have the right to vote?
The year after Standing Bear's case, a man named John Elk tried
to register to vote in Omaha. He was likely a Winnebago Indian
who had separated himself from the tribe and its traditions.
Registrar Charles Wilkins turned him down because Elk was an
Indian and therefore not a citizen of the United States.
Andrew Poppleton and John Webster represented
Elk in Judge Elmer Dundy's court. They argued that the 14th and
15th Amendments gave him the right to vote because he was born
in the United States and owed no allegiance to his tribe. Judge
Dundy ruled against Elk.
Elk appealed the ruling to the federal
circuit court of appeals, where again he lost. The U.S. Supreme
Court took up the case, and on November 3, 1884, handed down
an important ruling: the 14th Amendment does not bestow citizenship
on Indians. It would be another 40 years until passage of the
Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 allowed all indigenous people
Epilogue: Elk v. Wilkins has
been cited recently by those arguing that children of illegal
aliens born in this country are not citizens.
American Indians were not considered citizens and therefore could not vote.
(Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, April 21, 1871)
IN NAME ONLY
THE TRIBAL LAND BASE WAS GUTTED.
Reservation lands were first held by tribes as a group. But beginning
with the Indian Allotment Act of 1887, individual tribal members
were allotted tracts of land about the size of homesteads. After
all tribal individuals had been given allotments, the rest of
the reservation was declared surplus and opened to non-Indian
INDIVIDUAL INDIAN LANDS WERE IMPRISONED.
Individual tribal members were given allotments, but were still
treated as wards of the government. Title to the land was held
in trust by the government, so tribal members could not borrow
money against the land. Without money it was difficult to make
the kinds of improvements that other homesteaders made. Without
improvements Indians could not succeed as farmers.
PROFITS MADE BY INDIAN PEOPLE WERE NOT
When Indian farmers took their crops and animals to market, proceeds
from the sale went not to them, but to a trust account held by
the federal government. When tribal members needed money, they
would apply to the agent on the reservation, who would then send
a request to Washington, a process that could take months. Indians
who needed money often fell victim to shady lenders, and soon
tribal members found themselves hopelessly in debt.
Alice Fletcher surveying the Winnebago Reservation.
EXPERIMENT AND THE GRAND FAILURE
In 1910 the Omaha, considered the most
progressive tribe in the nation, were selected for a great economic
experiment. Tracts of land held
by individuals would be removed from federal trust and each individual
would be given title to the land.
But because the individuals on the land
were deep in debt, their lands were soon lost to land speculators.
Those who were not in debt often fell victim to deception and
fraud. Those who were able to stay on the land could not obtain
loans to purchase the machinery necessary for profitable farming,
and so were forced to lease their land to non-Indians. Soon most
of the land on the Omaha Reservation was out of Omaha control.
The Grand Experiment was a failure.
It was never applied to another tribe.
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte, an
Omaha who was the first female Native American medical doctor
in the U.S., argued before the Secretary of the Interior that
the Omaha should first be able to close out existing loans before
being given individual title to their land. She used these photographs
to show that the Omaha were capable farmers who could thrive
given a level economic playing field. Her arguments fell on deaf
AND THE INDIAN REORGANIZATION ACT OF 1934
The Indian Reorganization Act, also
known as the Indian New Deal, is a benchmark in Indian rights. Reversing the process under the Indian Allotment
Act of 1887 that privatized Indian lands, it returned local control
to tribal management. This New Deal tried to create a sound economic
base for America's tribes.
Nebraska Congressman Edgar Howard
co-sponsored the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also called
the Wheeler-Howard Act. Howard chaired the House Committee on
Nebraska became the first state in the
nation to allow the use of sweat lodges in its penitentiary system
in 1976. Judge Warren K. Urbom,
U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, ruled that
the Nebraska corrections system "shall allow inmates access
to Indian medicine men and spiritual leaders and provide facilities
for spiritual and religious services, including but not limited
to the Native American church." The first sweat lodge was
built at the Men's Reformatory unit in Lincoln that year. Two
years later Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom
Act. Its aim was to protect and preserve the traditional religious
rights and cultural practices of American Indians. It required
all governmental agencies to eliminate interference with the
free exercise of Native religion, based on their First Amendment
Headline: Sioux holy man Elmer Running dedicates prison's
2nd sweat lodge
A new federal policy begun in the mid-1940s
assumed that American Indians would fare better if they were
assimilated into the larger American population. This process would terminate recognition of tribal
governments, remove tribal lands from federal trusteeship, and
remove health and education services. This process was vigorously
pursued by the federal government until the 1960s.
The last tribe legally terminated in the
United States was the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Standing Bear's
people. The process began in 1962 with an executive order signed
by President John F. Kennedy and was completed in 1966.
The Ponca organized almost immediately
to begin a process to be restored as a federally recognized tribe.
In 1988 the Nebraska legislature granted state recognition of
the Ponca. In 1989 a bill was introduced in Congress to restore
the Ponca and passed in 1990. President George H. W. Bush signed
it into law. The Ponca were officially restored in June 1994.
On August 12-14, 1994, the Northern Ponca
held their First Reunion Powwow on their tribal grounds south
of Niobrara, Nebraska. That powwow featured a special ceremony
symbolically reuniting the Northern and Southern Ponca (who still
live in Oklahoma).
Lincoln Star September 6, 1962, p.2 Headline: "President
OKs Plan to Divide Poncas' Assets"