Sunday, August 28, 2005

"American Indians and WWII" by Allison Bernstein

“American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs” by Allison R. Bernstein. (University of Oklahoma Press, Copyright 1991. ISBN 0-8061-2330-3)

When one is reading about Blackfeet tribal history or organizing time-lines, it always seems as though lots happened until about 1910 -- then there’s a big blank until 1960 or so. But now, in reading these studies of Indians in wartime, I realize that war was where it was “at” in those years and that as crucial as the battles overseas, were the battles in the US bureaucracy, much of it during the time that John Collier was the head of the BIA. Collier believed that tribes could keep their culture and still find ways to be self-sufficient -- with the support of BIA programs. There was an equal and opposite force from the US leadership that thought if Indians could succeed as and assimilate as soldiers, they could just join the melting pot with everyone else -- forget treaties. And the US needed the money to rehabilitate the enemies that had just been destroyed.

The issues were very tangled, contradictory and emotional. From the beginning citizenship and patriotism were pitched against sovereignty of Indian nations -- which would be betrayed if there was no way to find a reconciliation or at least an accommodation? Indians who were illiterate could not be allowed to join, even if they wanted to, but Indians who didn’t even speak English were a worse problem. Some said the way to handle it was to keep the Indians segregated, like blacks who were also often illiterate but rarely non-English speaking. Others felt that Indians were just as good as whites and it was a worthy goal to make them assimilate anyway. Some were afraid the soldiers would forget their heritage and not come home -- others felt that if they did come home, they would be changed beyond ever being able to stay.

Through all this the BIA tried to help, tried to figure out HOW to help, and struggled to survive with budgets constantly reduced. The worst blow as having the entire BIA moved to Chicago where they had office in the Merchandise Mart. That mammoth move is probably part of the reason so many lease records were lost or scrambled. From then on it was much harder to coordinate with Washington, D.C., which was the idea -- if you can’t get rid of them, keep them at a distance.

This book has some wonderful draft anecdotes. Drafting Indians was a ball game with no rule book. In WWI they were not citizens, but now they were and they were proven soldiers. The BIA thought they should take care of the Indian draft, but the local boards prevailed. Some men were advised to register as aliens, to preserve sovereignty. One small group of young Hopi found some idealistic lawyers who were prepared to get them declared Conscientious Objectors like Quakers, because Hopi do not believe in violence. But then Hopi elders appeared in court to say that these young men were just lazy and should serve their country!

p. 26 The landless Indians of Montana, poverty-stricken and sometimes deported to Canada, organized under the leadership of “Raymond Gray, a self-avowed Communist,” and opposed conscription for a few months. Meanwhile, some Sioux were angry that men older than 35 could not be accepted. They felt they had a lot of fight left in them after that age.
p. 27 Pia Machita, an eighty-year-old Papago, declared that he did not recognize the Gadsden Purchase so therefore he was a Mexican and could not be drafted by the US. He escaped into the desert with a couple of dozen young men. He was caught, tried and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
P. 30. The St. Regis Mohawk, who in 1918 had already declared war on the Germans over the treatment of member of a Wild West Show, claimed the US was late to the party.

This book ought to be read carefully and not “in summary” because there is so much careful explication of how Collier finally stood revealed as someone who wanted to “help” but didn’t realize himself how much he was not letting Indians make their own decisions. Also, war was one of the strong forces consolidating tribes into a Pan-Indian movement while at the same time it provided justification for gradually reducing funding and management and for simply taking big pieces of ground for internment camps, firing ranges, and so on. Collier was in favor of the Japanese internment camps being on reservations at first, partly hoping to soften troubles for the Japanese (Collier himself looks a bit Asian or Indian.) and partly hoping that the buildings and infrastructure would go to the Indians after the war. They did not.

I’m going to list specific references to Blackft:

p. 8 The Indian Reorganization Act (aka IRA or Wheeler-Howard Bill: 6/18/34) “ Among the Sioux and Blackfeet tribes, the act exacerbated the existing factionalism.” The “reorganization” imposed white corporate structures which mixed bloods welcomed but full-bloods didn’t understand. This split persists today, no longer based on blood quantum, but something like style.

p. 47 A photo of 3 Marine Corps women reservists, Camp Lejeune, NC. One is Minnie Spotted Wolf. (“Shoot, Minnie, Shoot!”)

p. 61 “Blackfeet and Assiniboine tribesmen from Montana were frequently listed among the dead or wounded.” The author says “it is not clear whether these Indians were more courageous in battle or whether their non-Indian commanders assumed that Indians had a “warrior instinct” and sent them into combat more frequently.” Or maybe it was because the less educated were more likely to be sent into combat.

p. 72 After the war “Cheyenne and Blackfeet found jobs throughout the Pacific Northwest as maintenance men for state highway systems.”

p. 124 The Second National Convention of the National Congress of American Indians (Note: Congress like US CONGRESS, not “council” like tribal council) met in Browning, MT., in October, 1945. Membership was 300, which was not much less than the population of the town. The Blackfeet tribe paid travel expenses for the executive council. Two new members were added to the leadership: Lorene Burgess, Blackfeet, and Robert Yellowtail, Crow.

The major task is STILL to convince Americans are not like any other ethnic group -- they are the ORIGINAL PEOPLE, sovereign at least to some degree, and in treaties.

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