Steve Russell

Elders Are Our Strength

Elders suffered terribly during the Great Depression. I did not live then, but I am among the last generation schooled by the people who lived it. I know my family’s stories and the statistics, but the rest is speculation. If you know an elder who lived though that dark time, it would be good to speak to them and write down their recollections while you can.

I was told that while it was bad for everybody, it was less bad in rural areas, where most Indians have always lived. “At least,” my grandmother told me, “we usually had something to eat, because we grew it. There was no market for food, so those who had it shared with neighbors. If a hunter had good luck, everybody ate.”

Men of a certain age roamed the countryside looking for work. The modes of travel were hitchhiking and catching trains. Many towns along the rail lines contain pauper’s cemeteries and the bones of men who failed to catch a train ended in unmarked burials.

The more traditional the tribe, the less suffering for elders, because of extended families. The grandparents would always have a roof over their heads while the children have a roof over their heads.

In the early 1950s, official government policy towards Indians discouraged this primitive way of living. The policy was called “termination and relocation.” Men of a certain age were offered cash and promised job placement if they would move to the cities. The Indian Health Service would even go along. Indians, mostly lacking education then as now, were to become part of the urban working class, the white part of which was thriving thanks to post-war demand, the GI Bill, and strong labor unions.

Did the tribal governments not resist the relocation of their work force? Well, that was the “termination” part. The plan was that once tribal citizens were living the assimilated life in the cities, the federal government would cease having a relationship with tribal governments. Some tribal governments, notably the Choctaw, bought this bill of goods.

It made no difference whether the tribes agreed, because the Supreme Court had long defined the relationship with Indian nations as one between guardian and ward. The good part of this is that guardians have a legal responsibility to act in the best interests of their wards. The bad part is that the courts seldom question the value judgments that underlie what is “best.”

The freedom-loving Plains Indians took the biggest hits to their cultures when hunters were forced to become farmers, without the skills, the access to sweet water, or, most importantly, the cultural support for the idea of men tilling the soil.

My people were farmers when white people showed up, but they found other reasons we needed civilizing. Cherokee land was held in common, and you could fence and use what you could keep in crops. Common land holding and allowing women a role in government were put forward as early evidence that Cherokees were in need of tutelage.

Indian reservations have not held the same meaning for white people and Indians. We tend to think of what we “reserved” to our own use after ceding most of our land to the colonists. They tend to think of reservations as a place to put the traditionals while waiting for the primitive customs to die out; sort of a kinder, gentler concentration camp.

Termination and relocation was government’s attempt to stir the melting pot, which had too many lumps in it for too long. Put a rural people with rural traditions on rural land and, while they may become poorer when the land is inadequate to their needs, they do not pine for the temptations of the big city.

The boarding school movement increased the literacy rate, but children often returned home and the Indian population still did not disperse.

Termination and relocation was a disastrous policy for the terminated tribes and relocated individuals learned the differences between rural poverty in the bosom of family and urban poverty as a despised race.

The Choctaw caught on before the termination boom lowered on them. Indian leaders like Ada Deer fought back politically, and the policy of termination and relocation took its ignominious place beside extermination and forcible conversion. No weapon availed to destroy our cultures entirely.

The government-to-government relationship is back on paper, but it will lack meaning while we remain in a condition of dependency. The colonists still desperately want to be, as one Texan legislator put it, “out of the Indian business,” while we desperately want the colonists out of our business.

The central problem for tribal governments is how to accomplish what both the colonists and we want, an end to dependence. The federal government does not, and should not, fund anything it does not control. We must educate our young, but if we then send them to the cities for work we will remain wards, dependent on our guardian, and our elders will suffer terribly.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.


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Elders Are Our Strength